Two young tech stars—Israel’s Shai  Agassi and China’s Wang Chuanfu— are amongst those in the running to build viable electric car models to replace petroleum. It’s a race that pits representatives from two of the world’s most innovative clean technology nations—Israel and China. Whoever wins could steer the transportation landscape for decades to come.

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Better Place is the electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure and systems provider spawned by wunderkind Shai Agassi, known for leaving his position as second-in-command at SAP—the world’s largest enterprise software application vendor—to seek out a solution for the betterment of society. His company has so far been known for working solely in small landmasses such as Denmark, Hawaii, and Israel to figure out EV solutions. Yet after participating as the only foreign company in a Yokohama, Japan showcase last year, Better Place has just completed a 90-day trial in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills.

The company’s cars, batteries, in-car software, operations centers, and especially switch stations—where used-up electric batteries are swapped out for pre-charged ones—are being tested on four Nissan Dualis with switchable batteries, operating with some of the world’s savviest and time-pressed cabbies, in partnership with the largest taxi operator in Tokyo, Nihon Kotsu.

Larger contracts may start coming in if an analysis confirms the trial’s effectiveness. Eventually, Better Place might provide cities worldwide a pragmatic way to minimize climate change and reduce low-level urban pollution. An important value-add: quick battery switching and a potential storage destination for variable renewable energy sources (such as wind and solar).

“Tokyo has more taxis than London, Paris, and New York combined, with approximately 60,000 vehicles, representing a high mileage, high visibility segment that can serve as the catalyst for this technology to transfer to the mass market,” said Kiyotaka Fujii, president of Better Place Japan.

This comes on the heels of the world’s largest cleantech deal, where an HSBCled team invested $350 million in January, establishing that a functional supportive battery-switch infrastructure would be less expensive than many might expect. According to Agassi, the cost of creating their network would be equivalent to one gas tank per car in whichever country adopts it. In the U.S., where there are about 10 transportation corridors each at approximately $1 billion per corridor, a total investment of $10 billion is expected in order to begin to electrify the entire country’s automobile network.

A project is already under development in Australia to show this model works in countries, regardless of size.

“Build Your Dreams” is an apt name for BYD Auto Co., the Shenzhen, China-based company that made headlines last year when Warren Buffett was permitted to buy a 10 percent stake. It plans to start selling its E6 electric crossover and the F3DM hybrid in the United States by year’s end, which would seem unrealistic had Toyota’s market-leading hybrid, the Prius, not recently fallen from grace. Chairman Wang Chuanfu, like Agassi, is a young upstart leading an unexpected startup: his background is in battery engineering and manufacturing. Yet he maintains designs on growing BYD into the world’s largest car company by 2025, a feat for a country with a short track record in automobile manufacturing, not to mention design and engineering, and for a company known for creating the energy packets that go inside hardware. That said, BYD already beat the Japanese once by re-jiggering the age-old assembly line so it now relies on quickly adapting migrant workers rather than cumbersome machinery.

With the reputation of the Prius tarnished, the Chinese company could hardly have found a better time to roll out its green cars in the U.S. and Europe. BYD recently announced it will begin selling its electric and hybrid cars in Europe in 2011 and hopes to start sales in the U.S. even earlier. Last January, Chairman Wang said that American drivers might be able to get behind the wheel of BYD cars this year.

Wang’s model relies on ferrous battery-powered dual mode hybrid. This battery is what makes BYD stand out: it has no heavy metals and should provide a 10-minute fast charge at special charging stations. To demonstrate its recyclable, non-toxic nature, Wang reportedly drank a glass-full of the liquid when Buffett was doing due diligence.

The plug-in hybrid will be a version of their F6 Honda Accord sedan, the F6DM. BYD’s flagship car, the BYD E6 pure electric MPV, has been released as a taxi in Shenzhen city under a testing program before rolling out nationally and internationally.

As the charging stations have only been tested in small urban areas, questions remain as to the viability of the broader infrastructure. As to creating the hardware to house Wang’s batteries, a recent agreement with Daimler AG portends that for BYD, one’s imagination is the only limit.

Whether these ventures are mere glimpses of genius or the next great leap in a postpetroleum world, EV’s range is poised to be rapidly extended with these two young entrepreneurs at the helm.

Originally published in PresenTense Magazine: The Environment Issue, #12

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