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Shai Agassi: One man's mission to turn all cars electric

By Anouk Lorie for CNN
  • An Israeli businessman is on a mission to turn everyone into electric car drivers
  • Shai Agassi is developing a global infrastructure of charging spots
  • He is also launching "battery switch stations" to replace empty batteries
  • Australia, Denmark and California are also adopting his electric car networks

London, England (CNN) -- Shai Agassi is a man on a mission -- an ambitious one to wean the world off its oil addiction and turn everyone into electric car drivers.

The Israeli businessman is developing a global network of charging spots and "battery switch stations," which will effectively work as gas stations for electric cars.

With his California-based company, Better Place, Agassi has partnered with car maker Renault-Nissan to produce the first generation of emission-free electric cars, known as the "Fluence," which Agassi says "will not be more expensive than your average Sedan."

Australia, Denmark, Hawaii, Ontario and California have announced plans to adopt the Better Place electric car networks.

And on April 26, Better Place is preparing to unveil the first electric taxis with switchable batteries in Tokyo.

Agassi, 42, who was named one of the 100 most influential people of 2009 by Time magazine, is planning to install hundreds of thousands of charge spots at workplaces, public parking lots and along urban streets, in addition to at-home charge spots worldwide.

Agassi has his sights set firmly on turning his homeland into the first country in the world to run solely on electric cars.

"Israel will be the first country in the world to have the infrastructure in place to support the mass adoption of electric cars," Agassi told CNN.

Israel's first functional charging station opened in December 2008 at Cinema City in Pi-Glilot, Tel Aviv. There are also plans to introduce 100,000 of the "Fluence" cars into the country by January 2011.

By 2020, I expect you will see more new electric cars being produced by the global automakers than gasoline cars
--Shai Agassi

The country's president, Shimon Peres is an enthusiastic supporter of the project, Agassi said.

"I would not be doing this today were it not for [Peres.] He told me, 'If you raise the money and find a car maker to build the electric cars, you can use Israel as your first market," he told CNN.

The electric car's lithium-ion batteries are rated to last about 160 kilometers on a full charge. But the most audacious of Agassi's plans is the battery-swapping stations.

At an estimated cost of $500,000 to build, the station has a robot that slips under the electric car and replaces the flat battery for a fully charged one, clicking it in and out of place in minutes.

Watch a video of how it will work

Agassi believes these stations will be key in changing the public perception of electric cars as being "a hassle."

Agassi told CNN that the goal is "to make the electric car more affordable than its gasoline counterpart."

To ensure a low cost per mile, Agassi's company Better Place says it has introduced a subscription model that will include a "mileage plan," similar to a cell phone plan.

With the plan, drivers buy the car and then sign up for a separate mileage plan that will give them access to the batteries, the network of battery switch stations and the charge spots.

"By 2015, electric miles will only cost four cents (U.S.) per mile, far cheaper than the price of gasoline," Agassi said.

The entrepreneur is convinced this is the model that will create worldwide mass adoption of the electric car in favor of the internal combustion engine.

But can the ambitious plan to turn the world oil-free really work?

A 2008 report by Deutsche Bank analysts concluded that the company's approach could be a "paradigm shift" that causes "massive disruption" to the auto industry, and which has "the potential to eliminate the gasoline engine altogether."

Agassi has also managed to convince high-profile investors such as HSBC of the validity of his concept. So far he says he has raised more than $700 million in investment for the project.

However, critics have been quick to point out potential flaws in Agassi's plan.

Jillian Anable of Aberdeen University, Scotland, an expert in transport and environment, told CNN: "The ambitious vision is exactly what we need at the moment to create change, but at the same time, there are still huge chunks of that vision missing. For example, where are we going to generate all that electricity from?

"Also, the battery-swapping idea is interesting on the face of it, but for that to become mainstream a lot will have to happen on the car-manufacturing side to standardize batteries. And I can't imagine car manufacturers changing their car designs to accommodate this so quickly."

CNN's Stephanie Busari contributed to this report.