Shai Agassi is famously persuasive. With just an idea, he was able to raise $300 million to launch Better Place, a venture that plans to build electric car charging spots and battery switching stations in Israel, Denmark, San Francisco, and many other places.
He was able to convince Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Renault-Nissan to build electric sedans with a battery pack that can be swapped out at Better Place's robot-assisted stations.
People in the auto industry seemed intrigued with Better Place's business model, where the company owns the batteries and the consumer buys a monthly contract to charge their cars.
But apart from Renault Nissan, no other automakers have signed on with Better Place. And industry executives have voiced skepticism on various aspects of Better Place's ambitious plan: Can one company build an electric vehicle charging infrastructure and operate it profitably? On a technical level, can battery packs be standardized in size for automated battery changing?
Said another way, nobody doubts that Agassi is a visionary with good intentions--to reduce the world's dependence on oil to help preserve the planet. People just wonder if he can make a business of it.
Next month, Better Place will show off a key piece of its technology in Yokohama, Japan: an automated system to switch out batteries. Cars drive up a ramp and a robot quickly removes a battery pack and puts a fresh one in.
During a talk at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference on Tuesday, Agassi said that the company plans to test its technology components this year, test its charging networks next year, and then have "mass market" roll-out in 2011.
After his presentation, I sat down with Agassi, an Israel-born former SAP software executive, to get a better idea of where Better Place is going.
Question: This is a hugely ambitious project. Do you ever doubt that you're taking on too much? Agassi: Not at all. Look, engineering is a very interesting discipline. You get into a room, you design, design, design. You write a bunch of white papers and you build a prototype. If you've built a prototype, the next question is can you build at scale and will it last?
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