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Have charge, will travel -- Toronto's Better Place helps drivers understand electric cars

Drivers may be warming up to the idea of electric cars, but they're still jittery about the details.

As major automobile manufacturers introduce a new generation of plug-in Electric Vehicles (EVs) to the North American market over the next two years, consumers are still concerned about price and how to go about charging the vehicles. A U.S. study released in March suggests that while 64 percent of those surveyed "might consider" or "would definitely consider" buying an EV, only 33 percent of those who were interested would pay a premium. An Accenture study of participants in EV pilot projects suggests that those with EVs prefer to charge at home, leaving many existing charging stations in the U.S. underused (PDF). Since the charging stations are not paying for themselves, there's little incentive for companies to provide them and the perceived lack of charging stations is one of the factors that make consumers reluctant to buy EVs. Chicken, meet egg. Egg, meet chicken.

Into this EV commitment-phobia comes Better Place, the California-based company that opened Ontario's first EV education centre in March, as part of a $1-million deal with the Ontario government. Founded in 2007 by Israeli businessman Shai Agassi, Better Place aims to convince consumers that EVs are as easy and as affordable to use as gasoline-powered vehicles -- and aims to be the company drivers rely on to make it easy for them. With a variety of projects in at least a half dozen countries, including Israel, Denmark, Japan, China and Australia, the company is hoping that being the first EV service company on the ground will pay off. Their key approach? Treat EVs less like conventional cars, more like cell phones.

"We have to make sure that when someone buys an e-car in Ontario, they will be able to go everywhere they want to go without worrying about anything," says Martin Rovers, the Nova Scotia-raised director of Better Place Canada. His office and the education centre are located at the Center for Green Cities, 550 Bayview Ave., at Evergreen Brick Works. Since the centre opened in early March, he's had as many as 30 or 40 people a day drop by to ask questions about EVs. His job is to convince them that not only are EVs better for the environment, they will also provide a better consumer experience than conventional vehicles.

The first company to work directly with the Ontario government to provide EV infrastructure, Better Place has its own particular strategy. Not only do they plan to install card-operated charging stations around the province -- solving the dilemma of where to charge when drivers are away from home and how to pay for the charge -- the company wants to take their services one step further. Like with a cell phone plan, drivers would buy their own car, but rely on Better Place for making it go.

Since the batteries are what makes EVs more expensive than conventional gas vehicles, Better Place customers won't pay for their car's battery -- voila, the sticker price should be on par with other vehicles, especially after the rebate from Ontario's Electric Vehicle Incentive Program. Instead, Rovers says drivers would pay a monthly membership fee, which includes battery usage, installation of a home charging outlet, swipe-card access to Better Place's charging stations and -- its most unique proposition -- access to battery-switching stations.

Most manufacturers do not yet offer switchable EV batteries -- Renault has the first one on the market -- but if the concept takes off, drivers who go long distances (usually considered to be more than 160 kilometres) could pull into a station and switch batteries in less than five minutes, rather than waiting hours for a full recharge. Better Place's first nine battery-switching stations are currently under construction in Israel.

"By taking an electric vehicle and making it better than a gas vehicle, we take it from something that two percent of the population is interested in to something for everyone," says Rovers.

The "when" and "how much" still have big question marks. The eight existing Better Place charging stations in Ontario are not yet available for public use; the companies working on the project have been trying them out. Rovers says it's still too early in the planning stages to negotiate deals with property owners to build battery-switching stations and install charging stations. While the switching stations could be compared to conventional service stations, charging stations, not much bigger than a tire air compressor, can fit into a conventional parking spot.

Better Place memberships are expected to go on offer in Israel, Denmark and Australia in the next 10 months; Rovers expects the Ontario timeline will be closer to two to three years. "As they say, this is Canada. Things come here 12 months after everyone else," he laughs.

The monthly fee is not set, either, but the Better Place philosophy is that the fuel and maintenance costs of an EV should be less than those of a conventional gas vehicle. The electricity, Rovers says, is actually a small part of the cost of EVs. The infrastructure is more expensive. Especially in these early days, though, it's the infrastructure that will give consumers the confidence they can drive wherever they want without sputtering to a halt.

Paul Gallant is a Toronto-based freelance writer who lives in the emerging Brockton Triangle neighbourhood.
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