In the six month period since Better Place put its first 100 Renault Fluence electric cars on Israeli roads in January, 2012; the company headed by entrepreneur Shai Agassi has already put around 300 cars on Israeli streets and highways. Many of them have been spotted in the country’s central region, including the suburban city of Ramat Hasharon, just north of Tel Aviv, and in the coastal city of Netanya. Owners of some of these cars live in much different locations, including the northern Galilee and Ramat Beit Shemesh, not far from Jerusalem. I wanted to try one.
Engine compartment view of Renault Fluence ZE
As an avid follower of this project, which included a visit to the Better Place electric car education and test center at Pi Glilot in April, 2010 I decided it was time to revisit Better Place’s main car showroom and take an even longer test drive – this time on the highway. Following one of my previous articles about spotting these cars on the road, I was able to arrange the test drive, and also speak with one of their top international marketing persons, Julie Mullins, who originates from California and has been a member of the company’s international team since 2008.
Julie has been involved in Better Place electric car network projects in the U.S., Australia, Denmark, and now here in Israel. Julie told Green Prophet that: “The idea from the beginning was to establish the charging and battery exchange network before the cars go out on the road. If we were to explain what we are doing in one simple sentence, I can say that we at Better Place buy electricity and batteries for these cars, and then provide the infrastructure that goes with driving them.”
Julie added that it was important to make the price of these cars as competitive as possible by owning the lithium ion battery pack, which powers the car and costs $12,000. “This battery and car separation idea has enabled a reduction in price for the car and also is better for the car purchaser,”she said.
Taking the Renault Fluence ZE out on the highway was a much better experience than the short ten minute drive on the Center’s test track. The car has amazing acceleration and is very quiet on the road with the only sounds coming from the car’s AC unit and tires turning on the road.
There is no gear changing sequence like in a gasoline driven car, enabling the car to reach highway cruising speeds from an intersection in a relatively short period of time. “With an electric motor there is no wasted fuel, and no need for gear changing like in an ordinary car,” says Mullins who came along for the drive. The cars feature an in-board computer that “talks” to the driver and can calculate how much energy is needed to reach a planned destination.
“If a battery switch is needed, the computer will advise the location of the nearest battery switching station,” says Mullins. She added that the entire process of switching a used up battery for a fully charged one takes less than five minutes, of about the same time it takes to run a car through an automatic car wash.
Back at the showroom center, we popped the hood of one of the cars to see what the electric motor and other mechanical features lookj like. At first glance, the motor almost resembles an ordinary engine, and radiator (for the heater and AC Unit). The car also has a normal 12 volt “wet cell” battery that provides power for the electronic accessories and components, and is recharged by an alternator like in a normal car.
“Special fluid is needed to keep the engine cool as well as for the radiator,” says Mullins. She added that all certified Renault garages have been trained to service and repair the car. Mullins also pointed to a demo “cut open” model that shows the rectangular shaped 250 kg battery pack, that is different form the flat “pancake” design of the original prototypes. “The flat design is being used now in Australia, but we found that the rectangular shaped one is better suited for Israel, she says.
Since my last test drive, on June 12, more battery exchange stations have been added to the Israel network, and at present 8 of them are now online. “We hope to have several stations in place in the south by summer’s end, enabling car owners to be able to drive all the way to Eilat,” says Mullins.
If so, it can be safe to say that the Better Place network of charging and battery exchange stations that began with only a dream less than six years ago is now a definite reality.
Read more on Better Place and Renault Fluence ZE car spotting: