Better Place founder Shai Agassi is ready to show off his software industry experience to improve electric vehicles. At the Frankfurt Motor Show, the electric car service company will show off in-car software designed to ensure that electric car drivers have enough charge to keep driving.
Codenamed AutOS, Better Place's software alerts drivers to a car battery's charge status and points them to battery charging spots and swapping stations in the company's network.
In conjunction with the launch, partner Renault is also expected to debut a concept car called Fluence ZE, a five-seat all-electric passenger car that will be able to operate at Better Place's battery-swapping stations. The two companies have committed to producing 100,000 of the sedans, which have a 160km driving range, for Better Place customers in both Israel and Denmark, by 2016.
One of the biggest challenges to introducing plug-in electric vehicles to consumers is "range anxiety", or the fear of not being able to replenish a car battery.
Better Place's solution to the shorter range that battery electric cars offer is to build a network of charge spots at people's homes and offices, as well as in public places. In addition, the company has developed automated battery swapping stations, where a driver rolls up to a spot and a machine slips in a fresh battery. The company demonstrated the concept in Yokohama, Japan, earlier this year.
How far can I go?
(Credit: Better Place)
The business model mimics the mobile phone business; in this case consumers purchase a plan that covers a certain number of kilometres for a monthly fee and includes free access to charge spots and swapping stations. Under this scheme drivers own their cars, but Better Place owns the batteries.
The software, too, is a key piece of easing range anxiety because it will inform consumers of their options, said Sidney Goodman, the vice president of auto alliances at Better Place. "It's an energy-management system for ensuring that you never get stuck," he explained. "We relieve you from having to start guessing and dealing with that."
Goodman said that the software "learns" from a person's driving habits. For example, the system can tell a driver that there's a battery swapping spot nearby. If the driver ignores the alert, it will adjust and offer other options, such as a charge spot or other swapping stations, and tell the driver how far they can go with the current charge.
The more information that a person provides, such as a trip's destination and starting point, the more accurate the information and driver profile is, Goodman said. "Based on how you react, the software will adjust," he said.
Built using Windows Embedded and running on Intel Atom processors, AutoOS's in-car portion taps into a car's existing diagnostic messaging system.
Behind the scenes
Another part of the AutOS system is designed to ensure that Better Place can operate its recharging network without causing crippling spikes in electricity demand.
The arrival of hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of plug-in electric vehicles into the electricity grid complicates life for utilities and grid operators. If vehicle charging en masse causes big spikes in demand, utilities will need to add additional capacity by building more power plants.
To prevent spikes, the charging rate of plug-in electric vehicle batteries can be adjusted, which the company calls smart charging. Topping off a battery overnight, for example, could be done over several hours and not impact the driver.
In Better Place's case, its back-end software was written to ensure that it will not exceed the amount of electricity it has contracted from utilities. In the first two countries it will operate — Israel and Denmark — it plans to make bulk power purchases from utilities and use its software to stay within its budgeted amount, Goodman said.
Your car is ready, my liege.
(Credit: Better Place)
Energy management is expected to be an important component to a coming wave of plug-in electric vehicles built for everyday use. Nissan's battery-electric Leaf has software to monitor and manage battery charge. Among its energy-saving features, the Leaf allows drivers to turn on the air conditioner via a mobile phone while the car is still plugged in, allowing it to conserve battery power when on the road.
Better Place is in the process of building out the charging and battery-swapping infrastructure in Israel and Denmark, which are projected to be operating by 2011, with early pilots this year and next, Goodman said.
Although the company has garnered a lot of attention for its novel business model, Better Place has so far only signed on Nissan-Renault as a partner willing to produce electric vehicles with switchable batteries. Some executives from other auto makers have said that the swapping system is not practical because battery sizes are not standardised.