• Strategy
  • CFO.com | US

Charging Toward an Electric-car Future

Better Place CFO Charles Stonehill describes the grand plan of his venture-backed company to be a major factor in the move to battery-powered vehicles.

We will begin to install 100,000 charge spots in Israel in 2009. Our auto partner is Renault-Nissan, which will be helping us get cars to market in the next couple of years. The idea is that in each of our markets the infrastructure will be in place before electric vehicles come to market. It’s the same model as the cable, cell-phone, and other industries where you had to build the infrastructure before you could switch the lights on.

From the number of incoming inquiries, I would say the investor interest is very, very large. But we are not actually in the process of going out to investors in the United States. The $200 million we raised included financing from U.S.-based investors Morgan Stanley and VantagePoint Venture Partners, as well as overseas investors, such as Israel Corp.

Do you have any competitors?

No one else is doing exactly what we’re doing. Certainly, we would welcome competition, because we believe that the more competition there is, then the faster the adoption of the electric vehicle will occur.

Today our competition is other forms of electric vehicles — for example, ones that don’t have removable batteries, which are limited by their range. But the real competition today is the gasoline-burning car that most people drive. Electric vehicles, which we are absolutely certain will be a mega-trend in personal transportation in the next 10 to 15 years, are in their infancy. The car manufacturers are preparing electric models, such as what we saw at the Detroit auto show earlier this year. Also, governments are aggressively seeking to incentivize consumers to buy electric cars and support their car industry as it makes the shift from gasoline-burning, carbon-emitting cars to zero carbon cars. This is a mega-trend that is in its early stages.

An important point of our business model is that when we establish our Better Place charge points we will seek to allow any electric vehicles to charge themselves throughout our infrastructure.

Kind of like how gas stations operate?

Yes, but the difference is that a Better Place customer will have prepaid, and will be enjoying the benefits of the contract term, whereas another customer will be a roaming customer.

How do President Obama’s stimulus package provisions supporting energy efficient technology, and his overall goals to expand green projects, affect Better Place?

We understand that there are significant funds being allocated for energy-efficient technologies and battery technologies, although that is still yet to be deployed and given out for the most part. But we also expect to see the States become actively involved in the sponsorship of environmentally friendly businesses and in what we call carbon-free transportation in their regions as well.

Almost the entire auto industry is on the ropes right now. How does that affect Better Place’s efforts and the need for auto companies to manufacture electric cars?
Clearly, most of the carmakers in the world are being forced to redraw their business plans and figure out survival strategies or make significant cutbacks in their expenditures. It’s also clear that every car manufacturer sees the prospect of consumers wanting to make the switch to electric vehicles. Within the constraints of their available capital, we see a very high degree of focus on the reconfiguration of production lines to new technology. But these constraints are very real in these economic times, and whether it’s with government support or not, each of these car companies does have to make hard decisions.

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