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San Francisco enters Agassi's electric car dream

'Just do what Shai tells us to do'

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The San Francisco Bay Area has embraced Shai Agassi's Better Place vision, announcing a "sweeping plan" to drive public and private investments in electric cars and the infrastructure needed to run them.

Today, at a press conference inside San Francisco City Hall, Mayor Gavin Newsom joined the mayors of nearby Oakland and San Jose in telling the world that their commitment to a "sustainable mobility model" would serve as a blueprint for America as a whole.

"What's happening in San Francisco and Oakland and San Jose will result in what happens in California," said Jared Blumenfeld, bossman for San Francisco's department of the environment. "And what happens in California affects what happens in the rest of the country." California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was not on hand, but he trumpeted the plan in a press release - and Bobby Kennedy Jr. turned up to represent the fam.

Kennedy - JFK's nephew and Schwarzenegger's "cousin" - is now a venture capitalist. His VantagePoint Venture Partners backs Better Place - the startup intent on treating electric cars like mobile phones.

With his City Hall speech, Kennedy said that Better Place CEO Shai Agassi would single-handedly deliver America from ruin. "[Oil] is the principal drag on American capitalism. We're buying a million dollars of oil a day from countries that don't share our values," he announced. "We can fix this. Just do what Shai tells us to do."

Shai Agassi and Better Place are already toiling to launch their mobile phone-inspired 'leccy car biz in Australia, Denmark, and Israel. And now the company has touched down in the San Francisco area, seeking local cash to fund the charging spots and battery swap stations that will juice its cars. "We've started raising capital in the Bay Area, much as we've done in other markets," Agassi told The Reg during a chat in the mayor's office.

The former SAP wunderkind said Better Place typically raises its capital from a mix of large corporations, venture firms, and private individuals. In Denmark, the big investor is the local utility. In Israel, it's the country's largest holding company - which also happens to be in the oil refinery biz.

Agassi describes his company as "Vodacar." And he plans on launching "Vodacar Bay Area" in 2011. In Israel, Better Place is already building its electrified parking spots - "think of them as parking meters that charge your car" - and Agassi expects that about 1,000 will be in place by the spring. For those people who can't spare charging time, the company will also install battery swap stations across its various markets.

The idea is that Better Place will supply your car with juice in much the same way that operators supply mobile phones with network access. Agassi says he will even go so far as to subsidize the cars - in a way. Better Place will, in essence, buy your battery. And you can save bucks by committing to more juice.

"You pay for miles from us just like you pay for minutes on your cell phone," he says. "If you sign up for a long enough period of time, you start to get a rebate. If you sign up for a four-year plan, 20,000 miles a year, you're going to get a rebate. If you sign up for 30,000 miles, you get a bigger rebate.

"Depending on the amount of time and the size of the contract, your electric car becomes cheaper and cheaper."

In other words, Agassi's free car utopia is not on the horizon.

What San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose have done is agree to facilitate Agassi's plan - though they haven't quite figured out how. "The three cities have to come up with a set of common policies, the same permitting processes and the same incentives for people to adopt these cars," Agassi says. "Once they put the policies in place, we come into play."

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom was converted to Better Place on a recent trip to Israel and set about convincing Oakland and San Jose. But it so happens that Better Place is headquartered within, well, driving distance of all three cities. ®

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