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Electric cars stall in USA, Australia

Better Place between a rock and a hard place

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Better Place, the electric car outfit founded by spurned SAP CEO aspirant Shai Agassi, has walked away from projects in the USA and Australia, to “focus on delivering on its strategy in Denmark and Israel, where the complete infrastructure is in place and commercial operations are fully underway,”

Better Place's electric car plan revolves around replacable batteries. The company's designs realised with the help of Renault, see batteries placed beneath cars. When batteries deplete, drivers visit a switching station where robots remove the old battery and replace it with a fully-charged unit, all in less time than it is said to take to fill a car with petrol.

Punters buy the car, then sign up for a fixed price batteries-as-a-service subscription. The company also planned to set up charging stations, but the battery replacement plan was the main game as a decent network of such facilities would make it possible to drive electric cars over longer distances and at greater speeds than is possible if one needs to recharge.

Agassi's software expertise infused the company, as he saw the problem of managing battery subscriptions as the kind of thing he understood well from his time at SAP.

But Agassi was booted from the CEO's seat late in 2012. His replacement, Australian Evan Thornley (who cashed in when he sold search company LookSmart) lasted just three months before resigning, citing deep disagreements with the company's board.

New CEO Dan Cohen has since decided the company's Australian and American operations have to go. Sales of electric cars are picking up in Israel and Denmark, but the road has been bumpier in the other two territories.

“We believe in the long term potential of both Australia and North America and are enormously encouraged by the enthusiastic response we get from all our customers,” Cohen said. “Therefore we will keep exploring solutions which will enable us to keep our long term options with regard to those markets open.”

One upside for the company is that sustainable electricity prices are falling. On the downside, massive investment in “tight oil” from shale and other sources has seen new discoveries that have the USA thinking it can greatly reduce its dependence on foreign energy sources. Such sources of oil are more expensive to extract, but with the liquid fuel supply chain extraordinarily well established it's hard to see how Better Place can get to a better place. ®

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