Is Shai Agassi Right? Is the Electric Car the Solution to the Oil Problem?


Perhaps this is going to go down in history as the biggest wasted opportunity of my journalistic career.

One of the meetings Act for Israel arranged for us was with Shai Agassi at A Better Place.

Unfortunately for Ricochet, I had no idea who Shai Agassi was, and because they packed our schedule with so many meetings with people whose significance I did appreciate–like the prime minister’s spokesman–I didn’t do any research before meeting him.

I didn’t even look him up on Google. In fact, I walked in there furious, because the meeting took place during Ricochet’s time–my editorial hours. I’d demanded free time and Internet access so that I could keep vigil over Ricochet and immediately stamp out any hint of an affront to the Code of Conduct–my sacred duty! Instead they stuck me in a conference room with some lunatic Israeli motormouth who was gibbering on about electric cars. So I was fit to be tied. 

Anyway, I didn’t realize that an audience with Shai Agassi is a very big deal and an astonishing thing to have arranged. I only understood this afterwards when people said, “You met Shai Agassi? How?”

I walked in late–having been endeavoring without success to hack on to A Better Place’s wireless network in the ladies’ room–and looking sour. I sat down in the back and said to our guide, “Who’s that?” figuring he was just some PR flack. And even when she said, in a hushed, reverential way, “It’s him,” I had no idea I was in the presence of a man revered in Israel as a demi-god. 

Now, here’s the thing: I still haven’t had time to really study this. He gave us the whole spiel about his electric cars, and definitely it was a smooth, compelling pitch. But I didn’t know enough about it to ask the right follow-up questions, and I still haven’t had time to do enough research to know whether this is as big a deal as he thinks it is.

I have this gut instinct that there’s a catch here, and that somehow it involves getting the government much more involved in re-engineering the economy, or trying to re-engineer it, than can ever be a good idea. But I may be completely wrong about this.

I don’t want to be the journalist who looked at the prototype iPhone and sniffed, “It will never work.” (My father tells the story of touring Xerox Park some many years ago and seeing the world’s first mouse. “Yeah,” they said to him, “We’re not sure what it will be good for, but it’s kind of cool.”) 

I asked Shai if I could film him. He said no, it’s all on the Internet anyway, and he’d be more relaxed if I didn’t. He’s right, it’s all on the Internet.

So you tell me: Have a look at the videos I’m posting. Is this the solution to the West’s oil dependency problem? Could it work?

If it doesn’t seem bogus to you, maybe I’ll try to reach him again and get a better sense of what he’s doing. Or maybe I’ll just kick myself forever for not having understood what I was looking at.

Oh, and I didn’t get to drive it. Why not? Because I didn’t bring my driver’s license. It just didn’t occur to me that I’d end up in a situation where I’d need it. But everyone else who drove it said it was a great ride. Here’s Tim Mak’s report.

So what’s the catch, if any?

There are 73 comments.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  1. Cas Balicki Inactive

    Claire, you are typing two hyphens as in “–” when you want to type the long dash as in “—”. The result is that when the software inserts a line break it splits the two hyphens as ‘-

    -“. This occurs on the home page in the first paragraph of this article. Its no big deal, but to type a long dash hold down the “Alt” key and then type the number “0151” (excluding quotation marks) on the number pad of the keyboard. What you get is “—” instead of “–” and no split on line breaks. But you must type the “0151” on the number pad, not on the numbers on above the “QWERTY” keys.

    • #1
    • March 21, 2011, at 1:26 AM PDT
    • Like
  2. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    Thanks! I’ll improve.

    • #2
    • March 21, 2011, at 1:36 AM PDT
    • Like
  3. Cas Balicki Inactive

    I almost forgot, to get an ellipses do not type three periods as in ‘.

    .. ‘ because you end up with an ellipses broken by a line break as in the preceding example. Instead hold down the “Alt” key and type “0133”. What you get is … when you let up the alt key. If you try to move the cursor into the ellipses so created, you cannot make the cursor stop within the ellipses so it will break either before or after, but not in the middle, of the ellipses. Again not big deal, but it does make for a neater looking post. Oh, personally, I don’t care whether or not you follow these suggestions, I only posted this to help should you care.

    • #3
    • March 21, 2011, at 1:42 AM PDT
    • Like
  4. CoolHand Inactive

    At 2:20 into the second video, he tells me pretty much everything I need to know about the technology.

    “In Denmark they have the Ultimate Tax plan. If you buy the electric, no tax. If you buy the petrol car, 180% tax.”

    Translation, we cannot compete on the merits, therefore we need the government to mandate that all other cars cost twice as much.

    Brilliant marketing plan, if you can buy enough politicians.

    Basically, they’re selling it as the next revolution in transportation (as though the electric automobile wasn’t invented circa 1910).

    Interspersed in the last feel good video, they talk about infrastructure that they’re going to build, including automated battery swap stations and charging spots, which is all well and good.

    However, the part that really struck me, was the “EV Network”, which “manages energy access”.

    See, to me, that sounds an awful lot like monitored energy usage (AKA energy rationing, AKA you drive if, when, and how your betters allow you to).

    Continued . . .

    • #4
    • March 21, 2011, at 2:33 AM PDT
    • Like
  5. CoolHand Inactive

    But none of those glossy words (AKA male bovine excrement) give us any hints of:

    1) Where the money to build this extensive network of complex and maintenance intensive infrastructure is going to come from. (I’m pretty sure he’s assuming that government is going to pay for it, or do like LA and Chicago are wanting to, mandate that land owners, both residential and commercial, install charging stations for public use, at their own expense.)

    2) Where the generating capacity to provide all this new electrical power is going to come from. They talk about renewable energy sources for charging, but you could pave the whole country with solar panels and cover the coastlines with wind turbines (both, assuming an endless supply of money), and still not provide the amount of energy necessary to transition the entire existing vehicle fleet to electric. That power has to come from somewhere.

    3) Where the money to provide all the “incentives” necessary to create a market for these cars is going to come from. Electric cars are not a new idea. If they were cheaper/easier/better than IC engine cars, the market would have transitioned to them decades ago. The electric car has been around for over a hundred years. If there was much merit to the idea, it would have made it’s big splash by now.

    Continued . . .

    • #5
    • March 21, 2011, at 2:41 AM PDT
    • Like
  6. CoolHand Inactive

    It is obvious from listening to the man, that he’s a central planner. He and his young smart global thinkers got together and decided that what mankind really needed was to be forced to drive wind turbine charged EV cars.

    Then they started to lobby the government into mandating that idea into reality.

    When an engineer sets down and really figures out how (if it’s even possible) to build an electric car that makes sense from an economic standpoint, and presents the data in a straightforward manner, using methods of implementation that don’t rely on taxes (or tax type schemes), government mandates or coercion of any kind, incentives, refunds, vouchers, or any other code word for subsidies, I might be persuaded to get on the EV bandwagon.

    Until that time, however, I shall continue to simply say, “Horsefeathers!”, and continue with my life.

    This EV scam is the same as the last three EV scams, but with slightly slicker marketing. I especially like the robot hot swap battery station idea. The only way that works, is if every single EV car ever produced uses the same battery, that mounts in the same location in every car, and which is secured in said car in exactly the same robot manipulation friendly manner. Nevermind how they’re gonna deal with leaving an industrial robot unattended to interact with the public (Pro tTip: Industrial robots can and will smush you flat if you get in their way. In a society that needs warning labels on coffee cups, how’s that gonna work?)

    As I said before, Horsefeathers!

    • #6
    • March 21, 2011, at 2:50 AM PDT
    • Like
  7. CoolHand Inactive

    I hate to be such a meanie, pointing out reality and all, but I didn’t actually detect a single piece of actual data about why their idea is good. Not a single bullet point about their plans, not one verifiable fact, nada.

    They say it’s good, and we’re supposed to just take their word for it, I guess.

    God save us from the idea people.

    It’s easy to have ideas.

    Like, wouldn’t it be great if we could just bottle the energy from the sun for later use?

    See!?! I just saved humanity right there. The sun shines all the time, even at night, if you get up in the air far enough. We’ll just bottle it and be saved.

    My idea has the exact same amount of planning and realism built into it as theirs does.

    Now I all I need to do is get the government to force people to do what I say, and we’ll be golden. . .

    • #7
    • March 21, 2011, at 3:06 AM PDT
    • Like
  8. Del Mar Dave Member

    Let’s start a sub-thread about which character in Atlas Shrugged is closest to Shai Agassi.

    Don Luskin might make such an addition for the paperback edition of I Am John Galt, which will debut April 15, the same day as the movie version of Atlas.

    • #8
    • March 21, 2011, at 3:17 AM PDT
    • Like
  9. Chris Johnson Inactive

    As Coolhand points out, the primary flaw is the source for the electricity. In France, that’s %70 plus nuclear; in the U.S. @ %22. Nearly all of the rest is fossil fuel, plus a bit less than %2 “renewables”. Electric cars are not running on renewables.

    Second, our electric transmission grids are already strained, as are our electric generators (regardless of energy source). Transitioning transportation to electric will add hugely to the demand for electric generation and transmission. We have a hard enough time building generating stations, as it is. Building transmission lines to move the electricity from source to customer is very close to impossible.

    Third, I like their concept of essentially leasing the batteries, but the batteries themselves are a big issue. They are very expensive to make and use rare and costly resources in their manufacture. I have seen studies that analyzed the economics of using those rare materials for transportation and they look pretty bad. The economics work out well for small devices, such as phones and laptops, but poorly for transportation.

    In short, we need a revolution in batteries, made from common and inexpensive materials, plus we need to solve generation and transmssion issues.

    • #9
    • March 21, 2011, at 3:32 AM PDT
    • Like
  10. Jimmy Carter Member

    In that second video, He consistently says “wrong car.”

    Well, His message of social engineering through taxation has got Marxism written all over Him.

    Also, We don’t have an “oil dependency problem,” We have a problem with people keeping Us from drilling.

    • #10
    • March 21, 2011, at 3:37 AM PDT
    • Like
  11. Profile Photo Member

    For me, an electric would be a plausible option for a third vehicle. Since I can afford one vehicle, which must necessarily be a pick-up truck, what I’m talking about is conspicuous consumption. I haven’t seen the affordable electric that can get me to and from the nearest grocery store (100 miles.) What we are talking about, then, is subsidizing the vanities of urban liberals. But hey, that’s what we do through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

    • #11
    • March 21, 2011, at 4:09 AM PDT
    • Like
  12. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    I love Ricochet. I wish I’d mentioned this before the meeting; I would have had exactly the questions in hand I now wish I’d asked.

    • #12
    • March 21, 2011, at 4:10 AM PDT
    • Like
  13. David Foster Member

    Source of the electricity: All fossil fuels are not equal. Electricity can be (and is) generate from natural gas and coal, two fuels which are in considerably greater supply in the US than is oil. The first is possible but cumbersome to use for vehicles; the second isn’t really feasible at all. So in principle, electric cars would be “omniverous” in that the electricity to power them could come from any of multiple sources.

    BUT….The big problem is battery technology. People have been working on improving the storage battery for over a century, and there have been strong financial incentives to do so. But the amount of energy that can be stored in a battery per unit of weight & size is still vastly inferior to the amount that can be stored in a comparable tank of gasoline or diesel fuel. Plus, the things are expensive, have very finite life, and do have environmental problems associated with their manufacture, and their performance is very sensitive to temperature.

    Pure-electric vehicles probably make sense for certain local delivery vehicles and maybe for people with very short commutes, but for general automotive use, I think not.

    • #13
    • March 21, 2011, at 4:42 AM PDT
    • Like
  14. Scott R Member

    For small densely populated countries like Israel and some European countries, maybe. Maybe. But not here.

    Also, nuclear power would have to be used on a much grander scale to accommodate the greater demand for electricity, which is now unlikely due to the hyperventilation (unjustified though it is) over Japan.

    • #14
    • March 21, 2011, at 5:16 AM PDT
    • Like
  15. raycon and lindacon Inactive

    And those batteries. They use lithium as their major component. Some estimates put 50% of the world’s known lithium supplies in Bolivia and Peru. And we think Saudi Arabia is unstable?? Try the world supply of lithium in the hands of communist guerrillas.

    It is a real chore to find any good news in the idea of an electric car. But, I guess since so many people in the Western world have bought into the global warming scam, electric car marketing reminiscent of the 1950’s Disney nuclear powered car fairy tale is a natural next step.

    Does AlGore sell these things??

    • #15
    • March 21, 2011, at 5:45 AM PDT
    • Like
  16. Michael Tee Inactive

    This is the future.

    • #16
    • March 21, 2011, at 6:03 AM PDT
    • Like
  17. Crabtree Inactive

    At this point in their technological development, I view the electric car as the equivalent of those curly fluorescent lightbulbs. Both are built in China and the Pacific Rim with very nasty toxins that are then flushed into the environment under their extremely lax safety regulations. Both the bulbs and the batteries are impossible to dispose of in a safe cheap way in the first world, so they will inevitably be shipped to China and the Pacific Rim… where, again, they will be dumped into the environment. The irony, of course, is that the first part of the US to feel the impact of this pollution will be California because of the same air currents that are panicking people about radiation right now. We really do need another source of fuel than gas, but right now, the electric car isn’t it. The only solution that I can see, as much as some people hate to hear it, is to allow technology to continue to improve. Also, improve the US power grid and general infrastructure, but that’s just a good idea in general.

    • #17
    • March 21, 2011, at 6:20 AM PDT
    • Like
  18. raycon and lindacon Inactive
    Michael Tee: This is the future. · Mar 21 at 6:03am

    Fuel cells have much of the same problems as do batteries. Massive amounts of electricity are required to separate the hydrogen and oxygen components. Again, we are looking for a solution for a problem we do not have. We keep forgetting the major issue… over 60% of the oil used in the world is for transportation. Converting oil to energy outside the internal combustion engine is a vast undertaking, requiring immense resources we simply do not have. And to solve what problem?

    • #18
    • March 21, 2011, at 6:20 AM PDT
    • Like
  19. Crabtree Inactive

    Michael Tee: This is the future. · Mar 21 at 6:03am

    Did you see the Top Gear where James May drove that? They need to make that segment the commercial.

    • #19
    • March 21, 2011, at 6:22 AM PDT
    • Like
  20. Rapporteur Inactive

    Sorry to nitpick again, especially late in the thread, but I believe the clever fellows with the mouse (as well as a lot of the graphical user interface components we now use) were at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, rather than “park”.

    • #20
    • March 21, 2011, at 6:33 AM PDT
    • Like
  21. Spin Coolidge

    Cool hand makes exactly the right point in his #2. It is precisely the first question to answer. It takes the same amount of energy to move 1800 pounds of metal and plastic down the road, regardless of where the energy comes from. It doesn’t make any sense to me to switch from burning gasoline to do it, to burning natural gas and coal (which is what you would be doing, in effect, in the United States). I’m all for electric cars. But you first have to generate the electricity to power them. And the way people are talking about nuclear power these days, the future seems grim.

    • #21
    • March 21, 2011, at 6:33 AM PDT
    • Like
  22. Franco Member

    “It’s not your battery” He says. It’s a consumable. So you buy the car cheaply and pay over time for the consumable electric battery. At several thousand dollars, a battery lasting 24 months, less with constant swappable use, combined with electricity costs – which will continue to rise with more demand from the transportation sector that might make $6 a gallon gas look good in comparison. So the electric car buyer can’t expect to save on “fuel”, which takes out the economic incentive for converting.

    Once the states like the USA Japan Denmark have “invested” so much in this scheme, they will continue to raise taxes on gasoline in order to promote their investment in electric cars.

    One other thing no one has mentioned. We are already very dependent on electricity. When there are massive power outages from overloads, hurricanes etc. at least we still can travel. If we go all electric, these power outages will be much more devastating.

    • #22
    • March 21, 2011, at 6:42 AM PDT
    • Like
  23. Robert E. Lee Member

    “I told Orville and I told Wilbur and now I’m tellin’ you, that thing will never fly.”

    This guy’s scheme sounds iffy to me. But I’m appalled at some of the comments. A fully mature electric vehicle will not spring from the ground all at once. It will take years of hard experience, research, and customer usage to improve what is essentially just a start. If the same attitudes I see here were responsible for the development of the internal combustion engine, we’d still be riding horses and saying the automobile would never work because the fuel was imperfect (and it was pretty bad until they added lead) and the machine was primitive and prone to breakdown.

    I’m not sure about electric cars; frankly, I want my nuclear-powered flying car. It’s the 21st century, I paid my bucks, I want my Buck Rogers. However, I am appalled that no one in this august body has an encouraging word about something different.

    Drill all we want, the time is coming when are fossil fuels will be gone. I think we should be encouraging something better before that time is upon us.

    • #23
    • March 21, 2011, at 6:49 AM PDT
    • Like
  24. Kennedy Smith Inactive

    Hey, my computer runs on clean-burning electricity. Just plug it into the wall, and it doesn’t emit any carbon at all. I’m very proud of it.

    Come to think of it, so do my lights. And my air conditioner. And my refrigerator. And my custom-ordered Japanese robot companion. She’s very low-maintenance.

    Wind and solar will never supply enough energy for mass consumption. They take up way too much space, and solar-panel metals are rare and expensive. I’m willing to give tidal power a listen, but only because Harry Shearer swears by it.

    • #24
    • March 21, 2011, at 6:51 AM PDT
    • Like
  25. Crabtree Inactive

    Robert E.,

    The difference between the development of the internal combustion engine and the electric car is that most the people who are trying to sell us the electric car want to make it a social issue where the government “encourages” us to buy them. The best of them want that encouragement to take the form of government subsidies and artificial increases in the cost of running gas cars. Its as if Henry Ford had the government place a huge tax on oats, saddles, and collars.

    • #25
    • March 21, 2011, at 6:58 AM PDT
    • Like
  26. David Foster Member

    Someone mentioned Xerox PARC. The history of this place demonstrates that “R&D” is not a substitute for “innovation.” There were plenty of brilliant scientists & engineers there doing good work, but it fell short in commercialization and in making money for Xerox, because that company did not have an adequate structure for pursuing innovative businesses outside its mainstream. If PARC had been conceptualized as a venture business unit, rather than only as a research center, and given adequate control of its own destinies, history might have been very different.

    • #26
    • March 21, 2011, at 7:04 AM PDT
    • Like
  27. David Foster Member

    …meant to say: “R&D is not a SYNONYM for innovation”

    • #27
    • March 21, 2011, at 7:09 AM PDT
    • Like
  28. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    Xerox PARC, yes, yes, PARC, I am chastised.

    I’m really torn between my “this guy sounds like a socialist at heart” instincts and my “yes, but think how many great ideas were dismissed as nonsense” instincts. I wonder if he’d accept an invitation to join RIcochet and discuss it with us? I’ll ask him.

    • #28
    • March 21, 2011, at 7:11 AM PDT
    • Like
  29. Robert E. Lee Member
    Crabtree: Robert E.,

    The difference between the development of the internal combustion engine and the electric car is that most the people who are trying to sell us the electric car want to make it a social issue where the government “encourages” us to buy them. The best of them want that encouragement to take the form of government subsidies and artificial increases in the cost of running gas cars. Its as if Henry Ford had the government place a huge tax on oats, saddles, and collars. · Mar 21 at 6:58am

    I can’t disagree with you there. There’s a huge difference between individuals working hard to improve their product and a government forcing it on the people. But I want to encourage all of those budding Henry Fords out there.

    • #29
    • March 21, 2011, at 7:17 AM PDT
    • Like
  30. Foxman Inactive
    Kennedy Smith: And my custom-ordered Japanese robot companion. She’s very low-maintenance.

    · Mar 21 at 6:51am

    Given that you refer to your companion as a she, I don’t want to think of what actvities you engage in.

    • #30
    • March 21, 2011, at 7:22 AM PDT
    • Like
  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3