Better Place goes bankrupt: What it means for electric cars

Israeli firm Better Place had some lofty ambitions when it was founded in 2007. The electric car infrastructure company hoped to flip the EV charging model on its head by offering customers swappable batteries that could be exchanged at charging stations.

The company's last official missive was in February when a press release announced that Better Place would refocus its attention on Israel and Denmark. Israel was the site of the company's first pilot program and the country boasted 21 charging stations by 2012 that were open to the public. Regrettably, the company's model simply did not catch on, even in its home country. On Monday, Better Place filed for bankruptcy in Israel, citing insufficient revenues to cover operating costs.

"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. While he was able with partners and investors to overcome multiple challenges to demonstrate that it was possible to deliver a technological solution that would fulfil [sic] that vision," the company said in a canned statement.

"Unfortunately, the path to realizing that vision was difficult, complex and littered with obstacles, not all of which we were able to overcome. The technical challenges we overcame successfully, but the other obstacles we were not able to overcome, despite the massive effort and resources that were deployed to that end."

"Obstacles" is probably an understatement. Aside from the massive capital investment that was required to build Better Place charging stations (reportedly $500,000 a pop) before any paying customers could even be signed up, the company's greatest challenge was the fact that most automakers had no interest in adopting the technology. Better Place was able to strike an agreement with Renault to put a swappable battery in the Fluence ZE, which became the only vehicle compatible with the Better Place network. All together, the company signed up 750 drivers for the whole of Israel.

The company's fate looked more or less sealed as early as October 2012, when Shai Agassi stepped down from his role as CEO and resigned his board seat a week later. Better Place immediately began soliciting backers for emergency funding, but by the end of October, it was reported that the company planned to lay off about half of its 400 workers in Israel.  

While the demise of yet another high-profile EV company is troubling, it should not be taken as a reflection on the health of the electric car market in general. Renault's own CEO recently called the notion of swappable batteries a technological dead end.

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