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Shai Agassi talks electric cars at TED

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 6, 2009


Just over a year ago, BusinessWeek ran a great piece by my colleague Steve Hamm about Shai Agassi and his audacious plans to produce a mass market electric vehicle and thereby revolutionize the auto industry. So it was great to get an update from the former software entrepreneur turned zero emission transport guru on the main TED stage earlier today.

Much of what Agassi had to say was familiar, but it was fascinating to hear how the Better Place project is scaling to places such as Australia and Hawaii (it started life in Israel, with the support of politician Shimon Peres.) The emergence of Car 2.0, as Agassi described it, entails an entirely new business model for car ownership, whereby drivers will pay for miles as they currently pay for minutes on a phone. And Agassi, who cut an imposing and definitive figure on stage, professed to be interested in only two figures: Zero, as in zero emissions; and infinity, as in this model should be available for every driver, worldwide.

It was a good reminder that half measures won’t cut it. And Agassi compared the current situation to the situation in which England found itself when contemplating the end of slavery. Abolition was not only the right moral decision, but it led to the industrial revolution and a surge in creativity and employment. It’s an interesting point of contrast, and Agassi made it clear that as far as he’s concerned, the decision we’re making now is no less critical. His 18 minute talk earned him a standing ovation.

Image courtesy TED/James Duncan Davidson

Reader Comments

Tom Nocera

February 6, 2009 12:35 AM

Shai Agassi is right - his Car 2.0 concept will work perfectly in Hawaii. It will also work in urban areas. It would be smart if the politicians in Washington would include in their new stimulus bill some funding, perhaps a loan like all the banks are getting, that can Mr. Agassi make this novel, but workable concept a reality. But, back to reality, can anyone remember when was the last time Congress did anything really smart?


February 6, 2009 11:54 AM

Passion and enthusiasm should complement not replace engineering and economics.

This is such a ridiculous concept. What is the denisty of EV's per square mile that make this work? What is the forecast for EV's in Hawaii? If I pay by mile and still drive 15,000 miles per year, what is my transportation cost versus traditional? How come no one investigates this? Only reason I am being negative is that I don't want my tax dollars funding this scheme.

J.A. Ginsburg

February 6, 2009 3:39 PM

This is all very inspiring, but wouldn't increased investment in better public transportation, especially in urban areas, be a more productive use of the technology? Rather than a gazillion cars stuck in traffic, making sprawl possible, we could have better, safer, cheaper public transit options. We're not going to get rid of cars, but needing to drive *less* would reduce GHG emissions as well. With a new car (or car 2.0) you still have to worry about disposing of the old car.

Also, how electricity for Car 2.0 is generated makes a difference. If the plant on the other end of the recharger plug is coal-fired, that's just pushing the GHG problem upstream. It's not zero emission, but emission out-of-sight. I understand in Israel they're looking at Car 2.0 batteries as a way to store excess solar power, and in Denmark excess wind, which is brilliant. But grids are less green elsewhere. And that still doesn't address traffic jams, sprawl and the environmental costs of building all those cars.

A digression: I live in Chicago where parking has gone from merely silly to a deal-breaker. The City leased the one cheap-ish downtown garage ($20/day) and all its parking meters. Rates are going up, with downtown meters expected to break $6 per hour in a few years. The pubic transportation options are not great, especially at night. There is a direct effect on the local economy, made even more extreme in a recession. I would rather spend money on goods & services than parking, so don't go downtown nearly as often as I used to.

Car 2.0 is a wonderful idea, but it needs to be part of a larger plan about Transportation. It's a piece of the puzzle, but not the answer.

Tim Boyle

February 7, 2009 11:18 AM

When Wired revealed Shai's plan to the world, I was as excited as anyone. He seemed to have it all figured out; I must have read the story 2-3 times. But now I wonder as gas prices drop whether people will still be willing to change their behavior just to change the environment. It was one thing when the cars were cheaper as well as green. But now? I'm not so sure.

Jim French

February 7, 2009 7:14 PM

It's natural to have doubts about a concept so foreign to business as usual. Questions should be asked. Shai has been everywhere (it seems) explaining and promoting Better Place. He has lots of information out there on what he plans on doing.

One thing is to buy renewable energy to power the network. Hawaii's mandate to themselves is for 70% of their power to come from renewable energy by 2020 or 25. The wind farms on the outer islands will provide the power to charge the EVs at night. No new coal plants or propane purchases needed.

The tax payers just gave a banking system 350 billion dollars to lend and get the economy going. It appears that they are sitting on it, except to hand out big bonuses.

The tax payers just gave 2 of the big 3 auto makers 14 or 17 billion dollars so those companies could stay afloat for a couple more months. Remember, that money was supposed to go to building more efficient vehicles. Instead, it went to paying off suppliers.

Better Place and companies that will follow it's business model certainly aren't the complete answer, but what a great Place to start.

Leif Knutsen

February 7, 2009 7:44 PM

The obvious solution would be to raise the cost of fuel. Why should big buisness be allowed to dump CO@ for free. I pay $120/ ton to use my local transfer station for trash. If you use less fuel it is money in your pocket that YOU get to spend somewhare else. Not put into the banking industery to maybe pay you a dividend if you are lucky enough to own stock. With higher fuel costs going to government there might be some money to retire displaced coal miners,etc instead of 413 billion a month going over seas plus interest to the already rich.

Gonzalo Jimenez-Orci

February 7, 2009 11:00 PM

I think for the United States is the best opportunity to move the economy in a new industrial revolution, not only it will create the jobs it needs it will lead the path to energy independence, reduce Carbon emitions for the planet,improve battery technology and it would lead again in a Democratic Capitalist free world.
Israel, Denmark, Canada, California, Hawaii, Australia get it. Does Congress get it?.

Sven Karlsen

February 8, 2009 5:59 PM

well, - as for the price of riding an EV, the current calculations says about 8 cent/mile, but if oyuwant to get the whole story (as Agassi prsents it), I suggest you take a look at tke speech he gave at MIT in dec 2008 ( ... drop the 8 or 10 minutes introduction, and go straight to the Agassi presentation (appx. 30 minutes) followed by a Q&A-session.

For what it's worth, I think it sounds feasible, and even has somme streaks of genius (e.g. incorporating the individual car-accumulator in the common storage capacity of the spupply grid by using intelligent charge management). But I also get a hint of "used-car-salesman" when I hear mister Agassi, so I do hope that a lot of the "RE-friendly" sceptics with business insight will keep an eye on him ;-)

Peter Oppewall

February 9, 2009 9:42 PM

There are many companies entering the electric vehicle infrastructure and recharging business. This is a good thing. We need an open source, across the board kind of system that can accept any manufacturer's electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle for charging. The costs for building a battery swapping system that only works for a very few manufacturers cars seems less practical. For a comprehensive directory of information and products in electric vehicle recharging see

Thanks, but no thanks.

February 10, 2009 3:29 PM

This guy is a scam, his entire business is based on something that everybody and their mothers in the west already know how to do...yeah the power company knows how to hook up charging stations to its grid, and the car companies already know how to make battery powered cars as they are really old albeit unused technology, and as far as the batteries themselves are concerned -- well, the energizer rabbit could take care of that too. It's not the how, it's whether it makes sense for us (U.S.A) to do this in lieu of other technologies + cost + miles that cars cover in our big country, and if it does American companies can do it better than anyone else. I get a laugh out of his Zero emissions argument...yeah the car won't use the fossil fuel, but the power plant does and it will need to use ALOT more to charge everyone's cars with increased demand on the grid, unless they move to nuclear which produces nuclear waste which is another issue. Yes, we can overcome the challenges, but is he actually bringing anything new to the table that we don't already know? He just wants our tax money.


February 10, 2009 7:21 PM

he guys, don´t forget the fossil fuel cars are extremely inefficient and dirty and the electric cars are efficient (and no motor oil is dumping the eviroment). If the battery change system is efficient and the batteries are charged with excess renewable energy (solar, wind), then this system will save billions of dollar in the long run you americans (I am german) so urgently need, because you don´t have them. Better change it more quickly, oil price will go up sharply already this or next year, you have no time to discuss, you have to be better quicker in becoming independing from foreign fossil ugly expensive dirty unjustice oil suppliers...


February 11, 2009 12:03 AM

While I appreciate Agassi idea, I think simpler ideas like the GM volt will work better.
With regard to the convenience for the US to push Electric Vehicle, you have to consider not only the cost per mile of the Electric Vehicle but also the savings from lower cost of oil for all other vehicles.
If EV become 20% of all cars, oil consumption will go down by 10-15%. We have seen in 2008 as few % point variations in consumption make the price of oil go up and down incredibly.
By taking out 4 - 8 million barrels of consumption per day worldwide the price of oil would more than halve bringing savings to all other drivers in the order of 100BN dollars.
OPEC would become very weak, and so will Russia and Venezuela (imagine oil at 10).
So the funding the government gives to EV comes back multiplied to everybody, especially SUV lovers.

do it now

February 11, 2009 5:28 AM

Detroit is the scam that wants our tax $$$. We should have been implementing this 5 years ago. Electric cars combined with smart grid (google just joined the smart grid revolution) can be used to store wind and solar while saving billions by removing need for extra coal fired plants. even if these electric cars did use all coal fired plants to charge, the "well to wheel" efficiency of electric motors compared to gas/ internal combustion cars is significant. Add to that the ability to charge cars at night with the excess capacity that is currently wasted by coal plants kept online only in case of peak loads that are rare and we have a huge savings over the current grid and combustion engines. Government can make this happen sooner than private industry.

Philip Scott

February 13, 2009 6:15 PM

It's obvious to me that many commentators here haven't bothered to read up on the details before posting.
1)Better Place is committed to purchasing most if not all of the electricity from renewable sources.
2) True per mile costs under this plan will average about 4cents/mile.
Read up on the plan for the other aspects of why this will work.
The main point that drove the idea for Better Place is
3)In order to reduce CO2 levels fast enough and far enough to avert REAL CLIMATE CATASTROPHE we have to stop using internal combustion engines. End of story!

Fred Howard

February 15, 2009 9:04 AM

What if there were a way to provide perpetual renewable energy, pollution free, in every community around the world, for a fraction of current projected cost, to provide continuous recharging of EV batteries day or night, wind or no wind? Each of these plants, private or Municipal, could become each area's battery recharge center with as many satellite stations as desired for distribution and service.

What now is a cost to our society and environment becomes profitable and Environmentally friendly. We propose one Plant per half million population base. There's also a very feasible way to fund this with little or no Government money. I've only presented the energy component of what we have to offer. There's more, so stay tuned. Fred

Jason Quick

February 16, 2009 4:16 PM

I agree with Philip, many of the previous comments have been made before understanding the business model and vision of Better Place. It is easy to look at the founder of a transportation company and throw him in with the likes of those asking for a bailout and call him a "scam", but this is a grave mistake.
Better Place's goal is to END OIL. Currently the US spends billions of dollars a month to import oil. This money is leaving the US. Better Place is proposing a massive infrastructure project to stop the unnecessary loss of these billions of dollars. It will take a lot of upfront cost to install the network of charging/switching stations as well as the renewable energy plants. But all this cost goes into creating Jobs for Americans and putting a stop to the bleeding of US dollars to fund our Oil imports.
Incentives for the consumer to buy electric vehicles will come from Tax policy not the price of gasoline. For instance in Israel, the government will put a purchase tax on gas cars at 70% while EVs will be taxed at 10%. It will cost you twice as much to buy a new gas car where as you will spend the same amount per mile. You'd be stupid to buy a gas car at that point. And the reason Governments put these policies into place is because it’s a strategic advantage to be independent of oil.

Make sure you know the whole story before you call somebody a scam.

gaetano marano

February 20, 2009 9:03 AM

== The cellphone-like electric car ISN'T an Agassi idea! ==

the Electric Cars' "Battery Swap" was MY idea and NOT an Agassi/BetterPlace's one, since I've ALREADY suggested it in MY July 23, 2007 "cellphoneCAR" article:

and I've posted MY idea FOR THE FIRST TIME in July 24, 2007 in a comment in this Technology Review article:

then, I've posted it again and again in other Technology Review comments and on several other forums and blogs around the world!

it's a GREAT idea to solve the MAIN electric cars' problem: the (4+ hours) too long recharge time but it's NOT a "BetterPlace project" (a company born months LATER my article!)

''"sell electric cars without batteries and just swap them"'' was/is/will be an ("open source" and public domain) idea of MINE, while, the BetterPlace's peoples have (probably) just READ MY ARTICLE or one of my comments on Technology Review or one of my posts written on several other forums and blogs around the world!

please note that I DID NOT WANT A CENT from those who want to develop, use, apply, rent and sell electric cars and batteries based on MY idea (and on MY brand new "no home-recharge strategy") but ONLY that Agassi, BetterPlace and ALL other users/manufacturers of MY idea will (always, everywhere and forever!) acknowledge ME as the AUTHOR of this NEW and WINNING "strategy": sell electric cars WITHOUT batteries but just RENT their "energy" at new "electric-gas" stations

unfortunately, thanks to MY idea, Agassi has bacome a Gates/Jobs/Kamen-like "Green-Tech Genius/Star" with LOTS of FLATTERING articles on several prestigious scientific and technological websites and magazines (like Technology Review or Wired) so, it's VERY HARD to believe that he will (someday) ADMIT to have just READ this idea on MY website (or on another forum or blog) and that he is NOT the REAL inventor of the "cellphoneCAR" but just the [[Milli Vanilli]] of the electric cars industry... :(


March 24, 2009 4:30 PM

Cmon, stop whining, the car battery swap idea is quite old. Google it and you'll see. Its not the idea, but the innovation to implement it that is required. Plus a huge pile of cash. Time will tell.....

Jack Marchand

March 27, 2009 8:34 PM


August 2, 2009 7:42 AM

Lol to Gaetano. Ideas count for nothing if you don't do something with them.

Anyway, it looks like Agassi was already developing this long before the "idea" was even forming in your head.

Professor Johnson

September 23, 2009 12:39 AM

Shai just want some of dat bling

Helen Walters

December 31, 2009 9:26 AM

Thanks for all the comments. The thread recently got picked up by some dubious sources that have inundated the comments box with spam, so I've turned off the comment stream. If there's something you want to add, email me: helen_walters at and I'll add to the discussion. Apologies for the inconvenience and thanks for understanding, Helen

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