POSTED: 1:52 a.m. HST, May 28, 2013
JERUSALEM » Better Place, an Israeli-based company that had been a major player in developing Hawaii's electric vehicle charging network until selling its local operations in March, reached the end of the road Sunday when it announced plans to liquidate.
The company started out as a source of pride and a symbol of Israel's status as a global high-tech power, but it suffered from a local brand of hubris and overreach. Better Place's end came after it burned through almost a billion dollars and failed to sell its silent fleet of French-made sedans to a skeptical public. The company's earlier pullout from Hawaii was part of Better Place's exit from the North America market.
It was an audacious idea that came to symbolize Israel's self-described status as "Start-Up Nation," a company that believed it could replace most gasoline-powered cars with electric vehicles and reduce the world's reliance on oil — and all within a few years.
But it all came crashing down.
"This is a very sad day for all of us. We stand by the original vision as formulated by Shai Agassi of creating a green alternative that would lessen our dependence on highly polluting transportation technologies," the company said. "Unfortunately, the path to realizing that vision was difficult, complex and littered with obstacles, not all of which we were able to overcome."
It capped a stunning fall from grace for Better Place and its founder Agassi, a former high-tech whiz kid who sought to change the world by building a revolutionary network of battery-swapping stations.
Agassi, 45, believed that in an era of global warming and rising oil prices, environmentally friendly electric cars could be the wave of the future, if only a way could be found to overcome the limited range of their batteries.
Better Place offered an elegant solution. The vast majority of travelers who commute short distances could plug in their cars at home or work each day to keep their batteries recharged. For longer distances, customers could stop at the swapping stations, remove their used battery and replace it with a fully charged one in a matter of minutes. (Better Place did not operate any battery-swapping stations in Hawaii, instead opting to install a network of 77 conventional 240-volt charging kiosks with the help of a $582,000 federal grant administered by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Better Place sold the network to Portland, Ore.-based OpConnect for an undisclosed price.)
Agassi's native Israel was chosen as the company's main laboratory, and a network of several dozen stations was installed, offering travelers nationwide coverage.
Star-Advertiser reporter Alan Yonan Jr. contributed to this report.