Between 2005–2014, Shai Agassi promised that Better Place electric vehicles and the battery swapping stations he would build around the world would revolutionize the auto industry. In 2009, he taunted the incumbent auto companies, suggesting he would disrupt their $60k luxury car segment by building $20k electric vehicles that would pull up to battery swapping stations around the world. Shai Agassi graced the cover of every tech magazine worth its salt (including Wired with the article written by @Daniel Roth). Agassi spoke at Davos, TED and was a guest on late night TV shows. He was a hot shot founder who’d sold his previous startup to SAP for $400M and had no problems raising $900M for Better Place. Just as quickly as it had risen, Better Place was dead.
But did Better Place just die? I say no. What we got from Better Place was Tesla’s idea to secure $5000 and $1500 reservations for EVs that were yet to be built. What we got from Better Place was economically designed, both on the hardware and cost, charging stations by utilities and Tesla. Some of the auto companies that Better Place had taunted would go on to develop battery charging technology that factored in the technical difficulty and complexity of battery swapping. Instead companies focused on wireless (inductive) charging technologies, rolled out just last month, to avoid swapping out batteries even if you chose not to use the plug-in charging facilities that were being made available across the world. Better Place didn’t die. Better Place moved the industry forward. The company might have stopped existing but we all benefit from the mistakes the company made.
Can we compare Better Place to Tesla? Especially as Tesla celebrates what seems like a breakthrough of 5000 Model 3’s manufactured in 1 week? Leaving aside the comparisons/suggestions of hubris that can be laid at the feet of both Agassi and Elon Musk, I’d say we are at a much different time in the evolution of electric vehicles. The technology is much further along (especially battery technology) and consumer perceptions have shifted away from worries of range anxiety to 69% of businesses even considering electric vehicles as energy saving/cleaner alternatives to their internal combustion fleet of vehicles. It’s a different time for the adoption of electric vehicles and, I dare suggest, that we might be crossing the chasm of adoption on the electric vehicle front. Many of the companies, especially utilities, that have done business in this ‘energy space’ will fail to see what is happening for what it truly is; the utility business model is too dependent on how it used to be for the industry to understand this.
It might not be Tesla that gets us across the chasm from early adopters to the mass market, there is a lot of money shorting the stock due to the many issues I’ve written about here. The traditional auto makers, who’ve also jumped on this bandwagon (see BMW above), might actually get us there. What Tesla is absolutely doing though is getting the average consumer more interested in a beautifully designed vehicle that happens to be electric. Just a few steps forward.. Similar to how Better Place got Tesla to where it is today. Elon Musk should send Shai Agassi a Tesla. Or at least get him a drink or two.
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