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Better Place, which raised some $850 million to build a charging infrastructure for electric cars, said this week it will liquidate its assets after failing to find more financing. It’s the end to a bold effort to wean the world from oil by innovating with software and business models, rather than with electric vehicle technology itself.

Better Place owns the batteries in its customers’ electric cars, which were made by Renault. For a monthly fee, customers replenish batteries at home from Better Place–installed chargers and access public stations to automatically swap in fresh batteries for depleted ones in a few minutes. An in-car telematics system guides drivers to the closest battery-changing and charge spots.

At least, that was the big idea. It showed fresh thinking about how to overcome the limited range of electric vehicle batteries. (The Renault Fluence ZE sedan sold by Better Place has a range between 80 kilometers 200 kilometers.) But drivers had to go to battery-swapping stations to drive longer distances, and they needed to purchase a monthly mileage plan, which founder CEO Shai Agassi compared to buying a cell-phone plan.

Compounding Better Place’s problems was a bet that automakers would agree to make electric car batteries in standardized shapes and sizes. This would have enabled Better Place to serve a broad range of customers with its battery-swapping stations. But even within a single auto company, engineers consider multiple battery designs, so it was a tough sell to try to get competing carmakers to converge on a single battery pack.

“There’s too much innovation and too much uncertainty because battery configurations and chemistries are still changing,” says Jay Baron, the CEO of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Despite five years of business development and a charismatic CEO, Better Place managed to convince only Renault to make cars with the ability to work with its battery-switching system. Consumer interest was tepid, too: Better Place earned less than $7 million in sales last year, according to PrivCo.

The concept of battery swapping was hatched in 2005 when Israel-born Agassi, then an executive at business software company SAP, attended a meeting of young leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. After Agassi delivered a speech on how this idea could jumpstart electric vehicle adoption, Israeli president Shimon Peres urged him to pursue it. Agassi, who had been passed over for the CEO job at SAP, resigned to start Better Place. He quickly raised $200 million, which was followed by money from blue-chip investors, including General Electric, Israel Corp., HSBC, and Morgan Stanley. “Agassi’s ability to fire people’s imaginations was the company’s greatest asset. It goes an incredibly long way,” says Matthew Nordan, a venture investor at Venrock.

From its base in Silicon Valley, Better Place signed agreements to install charging infrastructure in Israel, Denmark, the Netherlands, China, Australia, Hawaii, San Francisco, and Japan. The deals required a massive outlay of capital in the hopes that consumers would sign up to use the infrastructure. Earlier this year, the company chose to focus on Israel and Denmark, but it didn’t garner enough customers to become a going concern.

Had Better Place succeeded, its founders would be seen as visionaries able to shake up a capital-intensive industry dominated by powerful incumbent companies. With minimal market share, its failure won’t significantly slow the development of the electric vehicle industry. But it does highlight the limits of current battery technology and the challenge of introducing innovative products and services in the auto industry.

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Tagged: Energy, batteries, electric vehicles, Israel, Better Place

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