Shai Agassi’s Big Idea

Today, Project Better Place founder and CEO Shai Agassi will testify before Congress, in a hearing titled “$4 Gasoline and Fuel Economy: Auto Industry at a Crossroads.” If, like me, you’re interested in what he has to say, you might want to tune into C-SPAN at 1:30 EST.

As most readers will know, last year, Palo Alto-based Project Better Place began endeavoring to build a new, electric car network in which it will lease out batteries that can be exchanged at its own charging stations by all-electric car owners.

The company has already won a meaningful amount of support. Renault and Nissan announced in January that they’ll make all-electric cars in collaboration with PBP. A123 Systems, a richly funded startup with a new lithium ion technology, is at least one of the vendors that will provide batteries to charge them. And PBP has $200 million in venture capital, including from VantagePoint Venture Ventures, Morgan Stanley, and private investors. It’s using most of that money to build out hundreds of thousands of its battery-swapping stations in Israel and Denmark. (Both governments have happily agreed to help PBP set up the stations, as well to offer generous tax incentives to electric car purchasers.) Deutsche Bank analysts estimate that five to 10 more countries are about to follow suit.

I wonder if, when Agassi first began talking with investors, any of them blanched. Agassi was a big star at SAP, which he joined in 2001 after it bought his company TopTier. Still, while his plans for Project Better Place were praised from the outset, there was also plenty of skepticism surrounding its ambitions. Observers wondered: Are drivers truly interested in a fundamentally new transportation infrastructure? And given today’s hurried lifestyles, are people really willing to wait around while their exhausted car batteries are swapped out?

Given the spotlight on global warming and gas prices now headed in one direction, the answers to those questions are more uniformly becoming yes and yes. (Just one barometer of the shift: Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer highway miles in April than they did in April of 2007, according to the Federal Highway Administration.) Indeed, despite the many challenges facing the company — starting with the many hundreds of millions of registered cars already on the road — PBP’s investors are, I think, smart for making the gamble they have.

We’ll see if Congress agrees. I hope so. At a minimum, asking Agassi to share his vision signals that this government, too, is beginning to appreciate the potential of his big idea.