Here's an example. Last fall the September 2008 issue of Wired magazine featured a cover story called The Future of the Electric Car, subtitled One man's audacious plan to change the way the world drives. The feature story was about an Israeli fellow named Shai Agassi whose idea is essentially an all-inclusive system of battery powered cars, re-charge systems and infrastructure that integrates computers, cars and GPS. It's a total system.
1. Key fob tells how charged the battery is...
2. Driver unplugs and drives off...
3. During commute car locates three open parking spots to plug into during work day...
4. The car and energy control center connect and communicate...
5. While on the road, if re-charge needed, car OS locates best place for battery swap site...
Evidently it's this last item which is a central piece of Agassi's brainchild, I think. He envisions all these buildings around the country which operate like our car washes, where you drive in at one end and the equipment swaps the batteries so you can hit the road again quickly, efficiently, re-juiced.
But to be honest, I just can't picture it. First off, people hate waiting in lines. When I was growing up in New Jersey you had to go through annual vehicle inspections and if you weren't there a half hour before it opened, you could be in line for more than an hour, a line which sometimes stretched a block or more. Can you imagine having to wait in line to re-charge or swap out your battery every couple hundred miles?
The infrastructure issue alone for this system would be a nightmare. Converting enough parking meters and parking slots in cities like New York to accommodate a gazillion electric cars in need of re-charging would not be cheap or fast to implement. But this is not, as I see it, the biggest hurdle.
When I was at the New York Auto Show last year I saw a whole range of ideas for dealing with this issue, from hybrids to electric transmissions to hydrogen cells and the like. Before we see a technology become truly dominant, won't we have to see buy-in across the board to establish the infrastructure to implement it? Right now we have gas stations everywhere. There are so many gas stations that I almost never have to wait in line to fill 'er up. When we start a ramp up to one of these alternative technologies, how long will it take to put this infrastructure in place? Or more importantly, which infrastructure? Who is going to pay that kind of money to set up a system that may not become the dominant system of the future?
Video movies are a good example. VHS and Beta went head to head. Beta was better, I've been told, but VHS won out. In the automobile power game, a car wash costs about a million dollars. It takes time to recoup that investment. How much will these electric battery swapping stations cost to build or buy and own? Who is going to spend a million dollars on a technology that has a high possibility of not becoming the adopted system for tomorrow? The total rollout can be hundreds of billions... with no certainty of success either in implementation or adoption.
Well, Shai Agassi, on the force of his personal charisma alone, appears to have garnered $300 million seed money for the company he's called Better Place. But will Better Place become the better place he aims it to be? Some are already suggesting that the bloom is off the rose.
My prediction is that this guy Shai will be just another Mary Tolan.
In 2003, the mag Business 2.0 produced a laudatory article by Ralph King about a woman exec from Accenture named Mary Tolan who was pushing the notion that the U.S. could wean itself from big oil by 2015 by switching to hydrogen cell power. The article boldly stated, “Her ideas could help catalyze needed change.” (Mary Tolan’s Modest Proposal, Business 2.0, June 2003.)
Six years later, and where is Mary Tolan? Yes, she is still a connected exec with Accenture, but a zealous advocate for hydrogen cell batteries? Do your own research and you’ll see an impressive 2003 campaign that is just another blip in the history of the automobile.
This is not to suggest that I am opposed to electric cars or efforts to move toward green. If we're serious about being greener, there are certainly things we can be doing now if we wished. I just think there are too many unanswered questions with regard to going electric, straight up. How long will it take to get the power grid up to a level where it can juice all these cars? And when the power grid goes down, is it a paid vacation day or are we simply stuck?
Well, enough of that. Tomorrow's another day.