Talking up the Israel-China relationship on electric cars

Most people still drive gasoline-powered cars, but many experts believe it is just a matter of time before everyone converts to electric vehicles. Three places are leading the way to that electric future: Israel, China and Silicon Valley.

Some 60 people gathered at a Mountain View law office on June 14 to learn more about the nexus of these centers of electric transportation innovation. “Driving Towards the Future: Israel, China and Electric Vehicles” was part of the Bay Area’s monthlong Israel China Cultural Festival.

One of the panelists, Jason Wolf, gave the audience a prediction: that within five years, 80 percent of the people in the room would own electric cars.

Jason Wolf (right) of Better Place and Yunshi Wang of the China Center for Energy and Transportation at U.C. Davis share ideas about the future of electric vehicles.

“It’s cheaper to drive on electricity and a battery than on gas,” said Wolf, the vice president of North America for Better Place, an Israeli provider of electric vehicle networks and services. “And driving on electricity is getting cheaper per mile and gas is getting more expensive.”

Wolf explained how Better Place, founded by former software executive Shai Agassi with offices in Palo Alto, builds infrastructure and provides services for electric cars, addressing the challenges of cost and convenience — two reasons why most car owners are sticking with gasoline-powered vehicles.

The company has built battery-switching stations and sold electric Renault cars in Israel and Denmark, and is doing prototype testing in those two countries. The idea is for vehicle owners to charge their cars at home for short-distance usage, and to change out batteries at switching stations during longer trips. Instead of filling their tanks with gas, car owners buy “mile packages” from electric service providers like Better Place.

While Better Place is dealing with the small Israeli and Danish markets, China is experiencing a 15 percent growth in total vehicles per year, according to panelist Yunshi Wang, director of the China Center for Energy and Transportation at U.C. Davis. Greg Neichen, the executive vice president for the Cleantech Group, a research and advisory group, was the moderator.

“China is in a honeymoon stage with motor vehicles right now,” Wang said, predicting that by 2020 some 350 million vehicles will be on the road. “Everyone wants to enjoy a lifestyle like they see in Hollywood movies, and that includes owning and driving a car.”

Therefore, he said, adopting clean technology is a top national priority. Also driving the country toward electric vehicles is energy security — China imports more than half of its oil, with projections that it will rise to 60 or 70 percent by 2015, according to the Brookings Institution.

Last December, partners Better Place and China Southern Power Grid announced the opening of the Switchable Electric Car Experience Center in Guangzhou’s Pearl River New Town.

Those type of alliances are vital, said Xia Xiang, the economic and commercial counselor at San Francisco’s Chinese Consulate.

“We all know Israel is a pioneer in the field of electric vehicles, not only just in research and development, but also in marketing,” he said at the panel.

While that is true, Wolf said, there is another dynamic at work: Israel needs the Chinese market to succeed.

“China is the game changer,” he said. “That’s why Better Place is in China — that’s the place that’s going to bring the tipping point.”

 When it comes to electric vehicles, he added, “China can’t afford not to do it, and Israel can’t afford not to be there.”

Renee Ghert-Zand