Better Place were at the EV Festival last year, and they have been floating round as an entity in Australia for several years now. They have no shortage of promotional material, and a quick googling produces a flurry of media releases, photos of Better Place execs shaking hands with Chief Ministers etc.
What exactly is their business model ? How are Better Place going to produce a paradigm shift in vehicle usage in the Australian market which will lead to a more sustainable car ? Is it a viable business model ?
I will let the reader trawl through the Better Place propaganda, but my take on their business model is this:
1. Electric cars are limited due to battery capacity affecting range.
2. Quick replacement batteries can limit this problem.
3. Design cars that accept a standard quick changeover battery pack.
4. Build a network of stations where these battery packs can be swapped over in minutes.
5. Charge a fee for this service (i'm not sure how they calculate this fee).
Engine bay of Mitsubishi i-MiEV
Now I think as business models go, thats a fairly simple one. I do see a few flaws though. Despite plenty of press announcements, I don't see any Better Place battery changeover stations. The car they bought to the EV Festival is an electric car with a proprietary battery pack. It does not have a replacement battery pack that Better Place can quickly swap over.
When I asked the Better Place people about charging stations/battery swap over sites, I was told they were coming soon. I also asked why the car didn't use the Better Place battery swap technology and was advised it didn't conform with ADR's. I think Better Place need to work the political connections a bit more. Their idea sounds good, and could remove that nagging range problem people feel they need.
Lets look at the Mitsubishi i-MiEV that Better Place brought along. The Mitsubishi website is annoyingly Flash driven, so I wont link to it, but Google it yourself. As a commercially available electric car it is different to the Prius mainly due to it being electric only and not a hybrid. The car has been on the Japanese market since June 2010. It costs around $70,000. It can travel on a charge for 160 kilometers. Its top speed is 130 km/h. It has a single 47kw electric engine, that goes through a reduction gear into a differential driving the rear wheels. It looks like a Kei car, but thats sensible as its a market that electric cars can comfortably compete in, playing to those Kei car requirements.
Battery pack. There are 22 modules carrying 4 batteries each. Mitsubishi have signed a deal with Lithium Australia regarding battery supply.
Japanese manufacturers have standardised on a single EV plug design.
The Toyota display - Hybrid Camry, Hybrid Prius and Hybrid Lexus
The Toyota approach is different. They haven't jumped straight to an electric car, they have looked at the limitations and advantages of electric cars and designed a hybrid combustion engine/electric engine driven passenger vehicle. No battery swap over required on the highway for a Toyota hybrid. The Prius is on it 4th generation, slowly improving battery life and efficiency of its electric engine.
The Australian built Hybrid Camry
Toyota had three cars on their display all hybrid petrol/electric cars. They were a Hybrid Camry, Hybrid Prius and Hybrid Lexus.
Producing the Camry as a hybrid is a clever tactic of Toyotas. The car looks just like that safe Camry that everybody drives. It uses 4th generation technology that wont suddenly fail, which only early adopters would tolerate. It is a larger car than the Prius, so a family could comfortably fit in it.
It is for all intents and purposes a Camry, that costs 20 grand more and uses less petrol, with better acceleration.
More in Part Three - Blade Electron (coming soon)
See also - Electric vehicle Festival 2010 Part One - Homebuilt EV Cars, Motorbikes and electric bicycles
Last years EV Festival 2009