Where Better Place failed, Israeli engineers seek to help China succeed
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Where Better Place failed, Israeli engineers seek to help China succeed

Battery-swapping for electric cars never took off, but a Chinese city is looking to the technology for its electric bus fleet

Dr. Amir Ziv Av and Ziva Patir (center) with Butil officials at the Nanjing signing ceremony (Photo credit:Courtesy)
Dr. Amir Ziv Av and Ziva Patir (center) with Butil officials at the Nanjing signing ceremony (Photo credit:Courtesy)

It never took off the way CEO Shai Agassi – and the many Israeli government and business officials who supported it – thought it would, but the technology designed for now-defunct Better Place’s battery swapping program for electric cars will finally have its day in the sun.

Ziv Av Engineering (ZAE), one of Israel’s largest high-tech products development firms, will design and supply battery switching stations for electrically powered vehicles in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu Province in Eastern China. ZAE has signed a cooperation agreement with Chinese company Bustil, which holds the franchise for charging and switching batteries on electric vehicles in the city.

While electric vehicle use is being promoted by countries around the world, the battery-switching system – in which drivers would “refuel” their vehicles at a service station by swapping a spent battery for a fresh one, instead of plugging vehicles into a wall to recharge batteries – was tried in only a few places, most prominently in Israel and Denmark, with Israeli firm Better Place the main proponent of the technology.

Better Place declared bankruptcy at the end of May 2013, about a year and a half after it began selling cars. The reasons for the bankruptcy surrounded the company’s failure to sell enough cars to make further roll-outs of the battery-switching stations economically viable; as a start-up, Better Place had a voracious capital appetite, burning through nearly a billion dollars but selling barely 1,500 vehicles. As the rosy predictions of the company failed to materialize – CEO Shai Agassi said that half the cars sold in Israel would be electric-powered by 2016 – investors backed off, and the company was struck a fatal blow about a month before declaring bankruptcy when its vehicle manufacturing partner, Renault, sad that it was pulling out of the deal to supply electric vehicles powered by battery-switching technology, and instead moving toward the standard home plug-in technology.

What failed to catch on in Israel – or anywhere else – could have a second life in China. Thousands of electric buses operate in Nanjing, a city of eight million, and the city has been seeking ways to cut down on the time and effort needed to recharge the vehicles.

Enter Better Place’s battery swapping tech – originally designed by ZAE for Better Place, and now to be adapted by the company for the Chinese market. Under the agreement, ZAE and Bustil will jointly develop and supply the battery switching stations, with ZAE being responsible for designing and supplying the battery switching system interfacing with the bus (each bus has 7-9 batteries) and transporting the batteries to and from the charging station. According to ZAE, the process is fast and easy, requiring no more time than it would take to fill the tank of a standard gasoline-engine bus.

ZAE and Nanjing officials signed a deal at a special ceremony in the Chinese city earlier this week, attended by ZAE CEO Dr. Amir Ziv Av and the Nanjing vice mayor, senior municipal administration officials, and top Chinese transportation industry officials. The agreement is part of the framework of a bilateral R&D program by Israel and Jiangsu Province being promoted in Israel by the Economy Ministry Chief Scientist and Matimop (Israel Industry Center for R&D). Also attending the signing was Ziva Patir, former Better Place VP International Standardization and Standards Institute of Israel Director General.

ZAE is no stranger to complicated engineering projects; one of the oldest and biggest engineering firms in Israel, the company has designed, among many other things, medical equipment, plotters and scanners, improvements for armored Hummer vehicles, plastic chairs that won’t break, car parts, a complete automated airport baggage handling system, and numerous top-secret security systems. Companies that have worked with ZAE on design projects include Motorola, HP, Israel Aerospace Industries, Kodak, Indigo, Tadiran, and Israel Military Industries. Ziv Av was also instrumental in helping industry giant Stef Wertheimer establish his Iscar machine parts factory, which was eventually bought out by Warren Buffett for about $7 billion.

“We’re glad and proud to be partners in such an important venture of electric vehicle infrastructure for a city of eight million people,” said Ziv Av. “The electric car is the future of the transportation industry, especially in an urban environment requiring green friendly solutions and the reduction of air pollution. I hope that the insights derived from the project in Nanjing are also used in other projects in China, Israel and all over the world.”

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