With almost $1 billion in funding and ambitions to replace petroleum-based cars with a network of cheap electrics, Shai Agassi’s Better Place was remarkable even by the standards of world-changing startups. So was its epic failure. A 21st-century cautionary tale.
“So this is the car.” I’m standing outside a shopping mall somewhere in Tel Aviv, Israel, as Guy Pross shows me his ride.
The silver Renault sedan has four doors, five seats, and a body design that makes it look a bit like a fat Honda Civic. Under the hood, though, the normal 1.6-liter internal-combustion engine has been replaced with a compact 70-kilowatt electric motor, a conversion overseen by Renault and a local company named Better Place. Instead of a gas tank, an enormous lithium-ion battery pack lives between the trunk and the back seat. Inside the vehicle, Pross directs my attention to the coup de grace: the center console, where, in addition to all the familiar interior features of a mid-range car–the ugly radio, the climate-control dials–there’s a little joystick with some strange-looking buttons. “This is where the cup holder used to be,” he says, referring to the standard version of the Renault. In its place, Pross twirls a dial that Better Place installed to control a futuristic navigation system called Oscar (OS plus car–get it?), which was designed to help drivers find charge spots and predict whether or not they had enough energy to complete their journey. “It’s really slick,” he says.
He hands me the keys, I stick them in the ignition, and twist. There’s a beep, the air-conditioning fans start to hum, and then… nothing.