A Better Way?

Columns From: 6/30/2009 Automotive Design & Production, , Editor-in-Chief from Gardner Business Media, Inc.

Things change, even if we don't think about it.

When we get used to something, say a technological development, we get to the point where we think that it is normal, just the way things are. Depending where individuals are on the experience curve, it may be that the time to normalcy is profoundly abbreviated. Consider the cell phone. In my lifetime, I've been familiar with desktop (and kitchen-wall) phones with rotary dials. I remember when the pushbutton phone appeared. Back in the late 1960s I had the opportunity to meet a guy who had a portable telephone (he owned Detroit's Grande Ballroom, our version of the original Fillmore, and had an FM radio show; he is the guy who was responsible for the "Paul is dead" phenomenon), which was packaged in a briefcase. And let's not forget the once-ubiquitous payphone. How many people under 20 even have the concept of a payphone? Nowadays, carrying a phone around is something that none of us give a second thought to. We become annoyed if the signal is bad or the call is dropped—even though we may be calling from Europe.

Consider this: "Motorists arrived in American city streets as intruders, and had to fight to win a rightful place there. They and their allies fought their battles in legislatures, courtrooms, and the streets themselves. Motorists who ventured into city streets in the first quarter of the twentieth century were expected to conform to the street as it was: a place chiefly for pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicles, and streetcars." That's from a fascinating work, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City by Peter D. Norton (The MIT Press). Who among us can even imagine that it was once the state of affairs that the streets belonged to pedestrians and horses, that cars were perceived to be intruders? In some cities, pedestrians seem to be risking their lives even when crossing streets with the light. Streets belong to cars. How could it be otherwise? Yet as Norton points out, "before 1920 American pedestrians crossed the streets whenever they wished, walked in them, and let their children play in them."
This situation occurred to me when I talked with Sidney Goodman, vice president of Automotive Alliances, Better Place (www.betterplace.com). Better Place was founded in October, 2007, in Palo Alto by Shai Agassi, former president of the Products & Technology Group of SAP. Agassi came up with an idea regarding reducing the need for petroleum-powered cars: switch to electric vehicles (EVs), but in a way that some of the infrastructure issues would be addressed. Goodman explained that there are really two things that need to be addressed in a transition to EVs: the consumer and the technology. Among the consumer issues are, he said, "range anxiety," which he described as, "If I go in an electric vehicle, will I be able to get to where I'm going and back without having to perform scientific calculations?" There is price: "As much as I love the world, there is only so much that I will do to be green. If it works within our budget, OK. Otherwise, tough." And the expected characteristics of cars: performance, comfort, the ability to take five people, etc.
But there is, to borrow an appropriate metaphor from another mode of transportation: a third rail, which is the car companies. Goodman said that in the past, the OEMs thought they had to be the providers of everything, in effect, except gasoline. "They thought that they needed to provide the solution." And by and large, that's still the case. But Better Place thinks that there is a Better Way, and so it has established itself as an Electric-Car Grid Operator. No, it is not a vehicle manufacturer. It will work with OEMs; it has established, for example, an alliance with Renault-Nissan. Simply put, it is working to build an electrical charging infrastructure that can address the range anxiety. "What if I need to go from Palo Alto to San Francisco to Sausalito and back?" Goodman asks. "What if I am going beyond the charge of the battery?" The OEM solution, he says, is either a big battery (which would lead to reduced range due to mass) or putting a generator in the car, which still requires fuel. Instead, a Better Place not only is establishing charge stations where people can plug in, but places where there would be battery switch stations, capable of swapping out a battery in five minutes. Better Place, not the car owner, would own the batteries. It would be a subscription service not unlike the setup with cell phones. They are working in Israel, Denmark, Australia, Canada (Ontario), and the U.S. (California and Hawaii) right now. It is developmental, but actual.
Goodman said, in effect, that the transportation monoculture must end, and that there must be participation by OEMs, governments, utility companies, and other interested parties. In effect, similar to the coalitions that had to exist to get cars on the road in the first place.