Tell me if you saw this one coming; after getting off to a slower-than-expected start, shareholders in Project Better Place have outed Shai Agassi as CEO of the electric car infrastructure company. While Agassi remains a major shareholder, his replacement does not bode well for the company’s future prospects.
Project Better Place wants to be an all-encompassing electric car company, selling EVs as well as charging stations and battery swapping stations. Co-based on California and Israel, Agassi hoped to pare down the price of electric vehicles by charging customers a subscription-based fee for access to the battery swapping and charging infrastructure.
This would allow EVs to be sold at a lower cost, and Agassi partnered with French carmaker Renault in developing a battery swapping version of the Fluence EV. So far, Better Place has installed a total of 36 swapping stations; 24 in Israel and 12 in Denmark, with more being added every week, though they’ve reportedly sold only 140 vehicles, most of those to Better Place employees.
Alas, the concept doesn’t seem to be working. Project Better Place has reportedly recorded losses of $437 million since its founding five years ago. Yet after five years the company has just 750 customers, despite raising $750 million in venture capital and being valued at $2.2 billion. I’m no business major, but those figures don’t seem exactly sustainable. No wonder shareholders want a new CEO, even though Agassi gave what is widely considered an impressive speech at the 2009 TED event.
Agassi will be replaced by Evan Thornley, CEO of the Australian branch of Better Place, another target market. Thornley was in part responsible for working with GM in developing an electric version of the Holden Commodore sedan. This Commodore EV recently set a record for most electric miles driven in a day, going nearly 1,200 miles in just 24 hours. This certainly displays the potential of battery swapping technology, at least on a small scale.
There is still hope for Project Better Place, and perhaps replacing Shai Agassi as CEO will be a good thing in the long run. Then again, Agassi was reportedly quite the personality, and the biggest believer in Better Place. Can Thornley step up to the plate and take Better Place to the next level? Or is the idea of battery swapping just not a good one?