The Man Who Resuscitated the Electric Car

For those of you who wept openly during Who Killed the Electric Car? , you might find your salvation from an unlikely source. Shai Agassi and his new company, Better Place, are looking to completely reinvent the way the car industry works.

You may not know that during the late 1800s and very early 1900s, the Electric Vehicle Company sold more cars than any one else in the U.S. It was supplanted by gasoline-powered vehicles, mainly because batteries are a tricky thing. Even today, after 100 more years of research, batteries hold back electric cars from becoming more commonplace due to long charging times and limited range . Who Killed the Electric Car? showcases the GM EV1, which, depending on whom you ask, was plagued by general disinterest by the public or GM’s kowtowing to oil companies and lobbyists. Current electric car offerings are scarce. There’s probably a mad scientist located in your hometown, taking a Dr. Frankenstein approach to his old Geo Prism, but major car companies are only just coming around to electrics.

Tesla Motors is currently working on their Roadster, which will get 244 miles per charge . Of course, the asking price is $109,000, meaning that we regular folks are not the target market. Chevy is in development on the Volt . This vehicle only gets about 40 miles per charge and would have a gas tank as backup. Initial cost is likely to be approximately $40,000 when the car premiers in 2010. This is certainly cheaper than the Tesla Roadster but is more of a plug-in hybrid than a truly viable electric car. You can buy a car from ZENN Motor Company for only $16,000 (if you don’t like radios, floor mats, or air conditioning). Of course, it only goes 25 mph, making it impractical for all but a select lucky few who live and work on the same residential street.

Needless to say, our options are limited. However Agassi, profiled in the September issue of Wired, wants cars to be more like cell phones. An extensive infrastructure would allow for charging away from home, and–should plans during the day require a unexpected trip with no time for a power up–quick, free drive-through battery replacements. Car dealers would be willing to sell the cars inexpensively (or for free) in order to hook the customer on a service plan. Customers could get an unlimited plan or pay for a certain number of miles each month (either of which would cost less than a comparable amount of gasoline). All in all, it does sound exactly like the business manifesto of Verizon or AT&T.

As Agassi admits, the difficult part is selling people on developing the infrastructure. In order to test Better Place’s software, cars, and everything else involved, it’s currently attempting to establish a few test countries to see how well the details work out in the real world. With an amazingly talented staff behind him, I’m pulling for Agassi. Anyone who is able to provide a less expensive alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles could have more ability than the next president to truly change the world.