A bit of a controversial title, but let me say first, Shai Agassi is a genius. He has done a lot of great work and has accomplished a lot in the automotive industry. The concept of Better Place is simple, yet elegant. I order to overcome the global oil addiction, electric vehicles play an important role. The main problem as Shai Agassi saw it, was the battery technology. (mind, this was back in 2001!) As Shai saw it, the charging of an electric car took too long to be practical and batteries were (and still are) rather expensive. The solution was a battery swapping system. The system consists of cars with batteries that can easily be swapped for full batteries at specially designed battery swapping stations.
Battery swapping in practice, by Better Place
The concept of Better Place allows people to just purchase the car which they will own, and have a leasing contract for the battery with Better Place. The battery will remain the property of Better Place and the leasing contract includes an amount of allowable swaps and/or recharges. The system allows you to recharge your car also at home, where, in my opinion, will be where most of the charging will be done due to the short ranges people drive on average on a daily basis.
For such a system to be successful on a large scale, you need the following: a reasonable number of battery swapping stations, plenty of drivers that subscribe to the Better Place system and vehicles that are compatible with this battery swapping. To make things easier, ideally you would have one type of battery for each different car and available at every charging station. This will require an industry standard which tells the vehicle manufacturer how their battery should work, what form factor it has, etc. This industry standard would not necessarily be adopted by all car manufacturers, but at least by a fair share of them. At the moment only Renault has announced a few of its models to be compatible with Better Place. Most of the other manufacturers have chosen to design and build their own battery for their vehicle. Not very helpful when you try to establish an industry standard like the one needed for Better Place.
Shai Agassi on TED - Check their video if you haven't already
So, that's it? No widely supported industry standard and exit Better Place? I think not, first of all they are a few of the factors that helped the discussion on electric vehicles back then and even if their swappable batteries will not be a success, the idea of leasing your electric vehicle battery can take out a lot of current uncertainties on the battery for new owners. The industry itself is not too sure on what the exact life expectancy will be of an electric vehicle battery. By using a leasing contract the risk of a battery dying too early on you is kept on the industry side and not with the vehicle owner. Also, their swapping stations could be used as fast charging stations instead.
All in all, I am thankful for Better Place having played the role in the discussion it has played so far, but their original business model needs to get updated to the latest technological developments; time has caught up with it, or at least part of it.