Sunday, December 19, 2010

"my next car is going to be an electric car"

Or so reads the bumper sticker from "Better Place" the exhibition center for Shai Agassi's grand scheme to bring all-electric cars onto the world market, starting, over the next few years with Israel and Denmark (plus taxi fleets in Tokyo and San Francisco). But what's striking about Agassi's business model is not the purchase of the car itself (think mid-sized sedan run on a battery instead of gasoline) but your ongoing relationship with the company. Better Place plugs you into a network that provides you with services to recharge or change your battery, maintain or repair your vehicle and all the digital entertainment, information and communication you'd expect in the car of tomorrow.

How? Through the smart card that starts your car's systems and let's you plug in to the recharging or battery changing stations. The car's computer and GPS keep you in constant contact with the Better Place network and can, for example, guide you to the nearest charging or battery changing station with the shortest line. Unlike existing car companies who sell you a car and then leave you on your own to get gasoline or digital communication services, Better Place sells you a car with an all-inclusive monthly service plan. Your bank account gets debited monthly. In other words, your relationship with your vehicle will be pretty much the same as with your cell phone.

Agassi figures, and I think he's right, that Israelis will love this. The market consists of several million tech savvy, upwardly mobile people who are perpetually plugged into their digital devices, pay over $6 a gallon for gasoline and would love to breath cleaner air while simultaneously f*****g the Arabs. Agassi's pitch is clear and to the point: Want to live better and stop funding terrorists? Get yourself an electric car. And, just in case you slept through the slick multi-media presentation, the symbolism of building the exhibition hall and test track on the ruins of the Pi Glilot complex, just north of Tel Aviv, is not lost on any of the locals. Pi Glilot? Oh yeah, that's where all the oil and chemical tanks used to be.

The New York World's Fair of 1964-65 featured such futuristic wonders as fiber optic cable from DuPont and video phones from AT&T. It took a few decades but that future really has arrived. What neither the World's Fair nor Better Place mentioned is what happens if the system crashes. I got a personal lesson in how the digital age can also taketh away when we first arrived for this winter's sojourn in Israel. On the day we arrived in Israel, our cell phones would not work. Cellcom, the largest cellular communications company in Israel, suffered a total network crash for reasons that have yet to be made public (probably to spare them the embarrassment of admitting to having been hacked by a couple of 16-year-olds who got tired of playing beer pong).

But, on the giveth side, Liz and I have installed webcams on our laptops and use both Skype and Gmail video chat to see and speak with the children. Shades of the World's Fair. It being Chanukah, I moved my computer to put the candles between the webcam and the parents, enabling us to light candles and sing songs with children in Chicago and in Hoboken, NJ. We could see the smiles on everyone's faces. Just like the families in the GE House of Tomorrow.

No comments: