According to The New York Times, Israel is about to start a venture with an American-Israeli entrepreneur and Renault car company. Tres exciting. Maybe the cars will look like the one pictured here.
JERUSALEM â€” Israel, tiny and bereft of oil, has decided to embrace the electric car.
On Monday, the Israeli government will announce its support for a broad effort to promote the use of electric cars, embracing a joint venture between an American-Israeli entrepreneur and Renault and its partner, Nissan Motor Company.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, with the active support of President Shimon Peres, intends to make Israel a laboratory to test the practicality of an environmentally clean electric car. The state will offer tax incentives to purchasers, and the new company, with a $200 million investment to start, will begin construction of facilities to recharge the cars and replace empty batteries quickly.
The idea, said Shai Agassi, 39, the software entrepreneur behind the new company, is to sell electric car transportation on the model of the cellphone. Purchasers get subsidized hardware â€” the car â€” and pay a monthly fee for expected mileage, like minutes on a cellphone plan, eliminating concerns about the fluctuating price of gasoline.
Mr. Agassi and his investors are convinced that the cost of running such a car will be significantly cheaper than a model using gasoline (currently $6.28 a gallon here.)
â€œWith $100 a barrel oil, we’ve crossed a historic threshold where electricity and batteries provide a cheaper alternative for consumers,â€ Mr. Agassi said. â€œYou buy a car to go an infinite distance, and we need to create the same feeling for an electric car â€” that you can fill it up when you stop or sleep and go an infinite distance.â€
Mr. Agassi’s company, Project Better Place of Palo Alto, Calif., will provide the lithium-ion batteries, which will be able to go 124 miles per charge, and the infrastructure necessary to keep the cars going â€” whether parking meter-like plugs on city streets or service stations along highways, where, in a structure like a car wash, exhausted batteries will be removed and fresh ones inserted.
Renault and Nissan will provide the cars. The chairman of both companies, Carlos Ghosn, is scheduled to attend the announcements on Monday. Other companies are developing electric cars, like the Tesla and Chevrolet Volt, but the project here is a major step for Renault, which clearly believes that there is a commercial future in electric cars.
Israel, where the round-trip commute between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is only 75 miles, is considered a good place to test the idea, which Mr. Agassi, Renault and Nissan hope to copy in small countries like Denmark and crowded cities like London, Paris, Singapore and New York. London, which has a congestion area tax for cars, lets electric cars enter downtown and park free.
Project Better Place’s major investor, Idan Ofer, 52, has put up $100 million for the project and is its board chairman. He will remain chairman of Israel Corporation Ltd., a major owner and operator of shipping companies and refineries. â€œWhat’s driving me is a much wider outlook than Israel,â€ Mr. Ofer said. â€œIf it were just Israel, I’d be cannibalizing my refinery business. I’m not so concerned about the refineries, but building a world-class company. If Israel will ever produce a Nokia, it will be this.â€
Mr. Ofer has his eye on China, with its increasing car penetration, oil consumption and environmental pollution, where he has interest from a Chinese car company, Chery, for a similar joint venture.
Renault will offer a small number of electric models of existing vehicles, like the Megane sedan, at prices roughly comparable to gasoline models. The batteries will come from Mr. Agassi. The tax breaks for â€œcleanâ€ electric vehicles, which Israel promises to keep until at least 2015, will make the cars cheaper to consumers than gasoline-engine cars. â€œYou’ll be able to get a nice, high-end car at a price roughly half that of the gasoline model today,â€ Mr. Agassi said.
He contends that operating expenses will be half of those for gasoline-driven vehicles, especially in Europe and Israel, where gasoline taxes are high. The company, and the consumers who use it, will normally recharge their batteries at night, when the electricity is cheapest, and they expect the batteries to have a life of 7,000 charges, though Mr. Agassi says he is counting on only 1,500 charges, which is roughly 150,000 miles, the life of the average car.
â€œBecause the price of gasoline fluctuates so much during the life of a car, it’s hard to predict the cost basis for driving,â€ Mr. Agassi said. â€œBut electricity fluctuates less, and you can buy it in advance, so I can give you a guaranteed price per mile, cheaper than the price of gas today.â€
Mr. Agassi predicts that a few thousand electric cars will be on Israeli roads in 2009 and 100,000 by the end of 2010; Israel has two million cars on the road, and about 10 percent are replaced each year.
Mr. Agassi suggested this model for the electric car â€” concentrating on infrastructure rather than on car production â€” at a 2006 meeting of the Saban Forum of the Brookings Institution, which Mr. Peres attended. He was enthralled by the idea.
Mr. Peres, who is sometimes dismissed as a dreamer by more cynical Israelis, has in the past embraced and helped to develop some successful notions â€” like Israel’s nuclear weapons program. He is a strong believer in Israel’s mission to better the world, he says, and not simply sell arms to it. Israel is the 11th-largest arms exporter, as measured by dollar sales, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Mr. Peres, who knew Mr. Agassi’s father, said in an interview that after hearing Shai Agassi speak: â€œI called him in and said, â€˜Shai, now what?’ I said that now is the time for him to implement his idea, and I spoke to our prime minister and other officials and convinced them that this is a great opportunity.â€
â€œOil is becoming the greatest problem of our time,â€ Mr. Peres said in an interview in his office. Not only does it pollute, but â€œit also supports terror and violence from Venezuela to Iran.â€
â€œIsrael can’t become a major industrial country, but it can become a daring world laboratory and a pilot plant for new ideas, like the electric car,â€ he said.
Mr. Peres sees this project as part of his â€œgreen visionâ€ for Israel, arguing that what the nation may lose in tax revenue it will save in oil. He also supports a larger investment in solar power, saying that â€œthe Saudis don’t control the sun.â€
Mr. Ofer wants profits, but also thinks the project will help the environment, especially in developing countries. â€œChina is on a very dangerous march from bicycles to cars without any notion of what they’re doing to this planet in terms of air,â€ he said.
And in Mumbai, he said, â€œyou can’t even see the sky.â€
James D. Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president, is a modest investor in the project.
â€œIsrael is a perfect test tubeâ€ for the electric car, he said. â€œThe beauty of this is that you have a real place where you can get real human reactions. In Israel they can control the externalities and give it a chance to flourish or fail. It needs to be tested, and Agassi is to be commended for testing it and the Israeli government for trying it.â€