Electric Car Company Pulls Plug

YERUSHALAYIM (AP) -
Israeli-American entrepreneur Shai Agassi, founder and CEO of Better Place, a project to develop electric vehicles and a network of charging points, stands at an electric charging station in Kiryat Ekron, central Israel.(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Israeli-American entrepreneur Shai Agassi, founder and CEO of Better Place, a project to develop electric vehicles and a network of charging points, stands at an electric charging station in Kiryat Ekron, central Israel.(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Israel’s trailblazing electric car company Better Place announced Sunday that it is shutting down, less than six years after unveiling an ambitious plan that promised to revolutionize the auto industry by reducing the world’s dependency on oil.

Better Place was perhaps Israel’s best-known clean-tech company and a leading symbol of its “start-up” nation status. Israel, along with Denmark, was the company’s test market for developing nationwide networks of charging and battery-swapping stations that it hoped would eventually spread globally.

But the company experienced repeated delays in getting off the ground and weak demand for its cars after burning through millions of dollars.

The announcement that the company was filing for liquidation comes less than eight months after founder Shai Agassi was forced out. The project won the support of Israeli President Shimon Peres, received generous financial incentives from the Israeli government, and made Agassi a dynamic celebrity CEO.

The company’s vision of drastically reducing oil dependence, cutting carbon emissions, and blazing a trail for more environmentally friendly means of transportation won it worldwide praise and high-profile endorsements from people such as former president Bill Clinton. But it also faced skepticism from industry insiders who warned of technical pitfalls, such as limited battery range.

In a written statement, the company’s board of directors said the venture’s intentions were still valid but the execution had faults along the way.

“This is a very sad day for all of us. We stand by the original vision, as formulated by Shai Agassi, of creating a green alternative that would lessen our dependence on highly polluting transportation technologies,” the company said. “Unfortunately, the path to realizing that vision was difficult, complex and littered with obstacles, not all of which we were able to overcome.”

When reached by The Associated Press, Agassi refused comment Sunday.

In Israel and Denmark, the networks are almost complete, and the company also has operations in Australia, Hawaii, the Netherlands, China, and Japan.

Israel was a particularly ideal laboratory, thanks to high fuel prices, a supportive government and its dense population centers. In Israel, 90 percent of car owners drive less than 45 miles per day and all major urban centers are less than 100 miles apart, making the use of battery-operated cars more feasible than in countries with longer average commutes.

For people making longer trips, the country was dotted with several dozen mechanized battery-swapping stations, where a new battery could be placed in the vehicle in just a few minutes. Green cars were also particularly attractive to Israel, which hopes to weaken the political clout of its oil-rich enemies.

But fewer than 1,000 cars made it onto the road, and the company’s distinctive charging stations remained largely empty. French automaker Renault has sold a sedan, the Fluence, which was customized to use the stations and was priced in Israel at roughly $32,000, on par with other sedans. The fate of the fueling stations is now unclear.