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Israel electric car project aims to wipe out oil

Sell them like mobile phones, kill oil by 2020

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DLD08 Israel today announced backing for Project Better Place, intended to switch motor transportation from oil to electric, and by a massive coincidence one of the project's prime movers, Shai Agassi of Better PLC, was evangelising at the DLD (Digital Life, Design) show in Munich. His objective, he says, is to "take one country off oil in a way that is repeatable." Israel is that country.

And the model is the mobile phone. Really. The point of choosing Israel, says Agassi, is that doing it in a chaotic country is important, and he claims Israel is the most chaotic nation he knows. Plus there are helpful limits to how far you can drive in Israel - the endurance of a electric car on one 'fill up' is about 200km, and that easily covers the furthest you can go within Israel.

He takes a pretty rational view of how far people are prepared to go to save the planet, and when it comes to cars that's not very far. It's got to be your car, no shares, with performance and size at least equivalent to today's models. It's got to be affordable (which includes image and cred, so lose points for non 'green' Hummers), and it's got to be fairly easy to 'fill up'. That last one's one of the gotchas of electric, and it's Agassi's primary point of attack. So you've got a vehicle that allows people to be green without it actually costing them anything to do so, and you've got the 'filling stations'.

Which work this way. Israel will be blanketed with a network of battery exchange stations and roadside charge points which allow the cars to be charged whenever they're parked. Agassi suggests there will be about 500,000 of these, and points out that it's doable, because they've got them in Sweden, Norway and parts of Canada, where if you don't plug in when you stop your engine freezes. Charge points and swap stations mean there's no need for lengthy charge periods, so 'filling up' should take no more time than it does currently at a petrol station.

Israel's helping with the economics. It currently taxes electric vehicles at 10 per cent and petrol at 72 per cent, and the government has promised to keep the electric car tax at that level until at least 2015. The switchover to electric vehicles is where the mobile phone model comes in.

Say the motorist pays the equivalent of their current annual petrol bill for a mileage plan, they could be given the car to use, and it would become theirs after four years. Other mobile plans could operate - all you can eat unlimited mileage, pay as you go, and so on. The plan is to have the first of the cars on the road in 2009, 100,000 in 2010 and Israel off oil within ten years.

Vehicles are being produced by Nissan and Renault, and significantly Agassi suggests France as another possible target, helped by French government policies. London, which already operates a world-famous congestion charge, he mentions as a possible single city target market. But he possibly underestimates the London Livingstone regime, which takes a somewhat more hair-shirted and autophobic view of green issues. Something that perpetuates these instruments of death and undermines the bendy bus programme surely won't fit the picture. Project Better Place is also backed by Israel Corp, the major local refinery operator. As Israel has no oil, flexibility probably makes sense to the outfit.

Gotchas? The mobile phone model requires a pretty high hardware refresh rate, and if the auto makers are to be kept in the game they're going to want people to be moving up every few years. Cheaper cars, which the electric ones could effectively be, would also tend to induce people to refresh more often, so there are recycling issues to be addressed, and the carbon costs of manufacturing to be factored in. It's green without pain, but maybe when the maths is done it'll turn out less green than you might think, and maybe you end up with even more cars on the roads.

And where does the electricity come from? How green is that? That's not Agassi's department, but it could be a big boost for Professor David Faiman of Ben-Gurion University, who has a cunning plan involving the Negev desert, huge mirrors and solar energy. He was also at DLD, so more on this later in the week. ®

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