What Shai Agassi has been up to after SAP

A few weeks ago I was in Israel on a tour with some political bloggers when I unexpectedly heard a name from the information technology journalist side of my life: Shai Agassi.

The Israeli-born Agassi, of course, was once the heir apparent at German business software vendor SAP AG, rising to head the products and technology group. He was widely expected to succeed Henning Kagermann as SAP's CEO when he was due to retire in 2007, but when Kaggermann decided to stay on a little longer, Agassi decided to move on.

And what he moved on to do was found a Paolo Alto., Calif.-based start-up called Better Place. It's a company dedicated to building the infrastructure necessary to support an electric car, and when I was in Israel I visited their demonstration centre just outside of Tel Aviv. Better Place sees the Israeli market as ideally suited to test the electric car concept: it's a small, westernized, modern country, where driving anywhere doesn't take too long at all. And since the major oil producing-countries aren't all big fans of Israel, to say the least, it's a country with a vested interest in lessening its petroleum dependence.

We got the marketing video, and were told Better Place is building charging stations in public places across the country. It's also building robot-controlled battery changing stations: a car drives in over a bay, a robot reaches up to swap the battery, and you're off and driving in minutes. That's the promise, anyways. Beginning next year, they plan to begin selling subscription packages that include the car and maintenance, power, and a charging station at your home and one public place of your choice, such as your office. You simply tap your smart card on the charger, plug in, and you're good to go

.A few problems with all this I see. For one, they're not telling us the price yet. I wonder what the cost is for all that hydro? And secondly, for all their talk about going green, and the nice clips in the video of windmills and solar panels, the fact is such technologies can only provide a fraction of our power needs today. The majority of Israel's power-generation is coal-based — hardly green energy — and a massive electric car network would only require more and more coal to be mined and burned. So, not to say this isn't worth doing, and certaintly the declining supply of petroleum is another factor, but aren't we really just transferring the pollution from the tail-pipe to the power plant?

Anyways, putting all that aside it was time to test drive a prototype electric vehicle on Better Place's test track. A former fuel-burning Renault converted to electricity to test the concept and infrastructure, getting started was a little different. No engine to turn over to start, you just press the on button and then another button to put it into gear. After that, it was like any other car. It had a good amount of pep and acceleration, comparable to any other similar-sized car. And while it wasn't loud, it wasn't the stereotypical silent stalker either; I could hear the engine purr as I accelerated.

So, it's an interesting concept and I certainly wish them luck. I'll be interested in seeing their pricing model. For now though, while the concept may work well in a small country like Israel, I see some challenges applying it to Canada.

With someone of Agassi's talent and drive behind it though, it's an experiment worth watching.

Meanwhile, I'm off to Orlando to cover SAP's Sapphire user conference and talk with some of Agassi's old colleagues. Watch this space for updates from the conference this week.

Follow Jeff Jedras on Twitter: @JeffJedrasCDN.

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