Researcher changes tune on Better Place

Alex Taylor III, senior editor at large

FORTUNE -- Earlier this month, Fortune's MotorWorld reported on a new study by the British consultancy Trend Tracker that throws cold water on the enthusiasm for electric vehicles by arguing that they are unacceptably expensive and impractical. The report singled out Better Place, the high-profile startup by venture capitalist Shai Agassi, as a case study in questionable EV economics. [See "Better Place gets slammed in new report."]

Within a few days after our column appeared, Trend Tracker withdrew its critical comments on Better Place and replaced them with a neutral description of the company's activities. Toby Procter, one of Trend Tracker's founding directors explained that Better Place had provided it with further information in response to coverage in Fortune as well as the Detroit News.

A big chunk of the new information came when Better Place announced the pricing structure for its battery-swapping venture in Denmark. Consumers will be able to buy a Renault Fluence Z.E. , the only car that has been designed for battery-swapping, for $38,480, including VAT. A home charging station for the electric car will cost $1,876, and monthly usage charges will range between $280 and $562, depending on mileage driven. While that seems high to Americans used to $2.50 gas, the revised report quotes Better Place's assertion that consumers will save 10% to 20% in total cost of ownership due to Denmark's favorable EV policy and the high price of gasoline.

The original Trend Tracker report contained a scathing analysis of the risks of a Better Place investment that has been dropped from the new version. Better Place argues that the analysis is wrong and cites as evidence "nearly twelve months of due diligence on our business model" conducted by HSBC before it decided to invest $125 million in Better Place last year. The revised report also cites battery-swapping projects under evaluation in China Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Australia as evidence of Better Place's growth potential.

While providing an uncritical view of Better Place in the new version, Trend Tracker does not change its overall conclusion that EVs are likely to remain very much more expensive and far less useful than their present-day conventional counterparts in the medium term. It estimates EV production would need to increase by an average of two million units per year over 23 years to effectively electrify the global car market by 2050. Even if cumulative EV sales reached 30 million units by 2050, 99% of the world's car park would still be dependent on fossil fuels.

Not surprisingly, Better Place disagrees. Its spokesman tells Fortune: "It's certainly your prerogative to use their forecast although given how fundamentally flawed their two-page analysis of Better Place was, I can only imagine the accuracy of the rest of the 240 page report. There are more credible and well informed reports out there, sizing the market."

Looks like the debate over the future of EVs -- and exactly where Better Place fits in it -- is just heating up. To top of page