Touring the Better Place Visitor Center in Tel Aviv

A quick spin in the Laguna EV at the epicenter of the Better Place project

Ask any addict why they don't quit, and they'll probably tell you it comes down to one sticking point. The addiction could be to caffeine or cocaine, but whatever the excuse – from work stress and social factors to depression or a general lack of willpower – addicts always have something to blame for their continued use.

The same could be argued for oil addiction. Because when it comes down to it, there really is only one sticking point that prevents a world dependent on petroleum from switching to electric vehicles. It's not about availability, because as any economics student (or drug dealer) will tell you, supply always catches up to demand. It's not about the source of the electricity, or the production and disposal of batteries. More than any other reason, oil addicts blame range anxiety.

For drivers used to getting into their cars and hitting the open road, range is a commodity we're just not willing to give up. While battery technology is constantly improving, it's still a long way from matching the range you can get on a full tank of gas and an endless chain of pump stations. But there's one company that says they've found the solution... or at least a stop-gap. One that could get the world's drivers off of gasoline and on the road to electric propulsion. We headed out to Tel Aviv to see what they were up to. (Continue reading...)

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Photos Copyright 2011 Noah Joseph / AOL

Now, Israel is a country that's no stranger to the news, but the automotive section is hardly where you'd expect to find it. That's because, while its tech sector is burgeoning with more NASDAQ-listed companies than any country outside North America, the fledgling Mediterranean enclave has no automotive industry to speak of, and – in stark contrast to its neighbors – no oil, either (recent natural gas discoveries notwithstanding).

What's brought Israel to the attention of the automotive industry is the electric car project started by Shai Agassi, a former SAP executive who found in his homeland an ideal launch-pad for the project known as Better Place – and we'll tell you why.

Better Place Visitor Center - Tel Aviv

For starters, Israel has a vested interest in reducing the world's dependence on foreign oil, much of which comes from its largely hostile neighbors. For another, Israel's gas prices are about 50 percent higher than what Americans wince at shelling out at the pump. Finally, Israel is a tiny country, roughly the same size and population as New Jersey, but with one vital difference: while many residents of the third smallest state in the union regularly drive outside the Garden State, Israelis are bound to relatively short commutes.

Little wonder, then, that Better Place and Israel found in each other an ideal partner. So what's the big idea? When it comes down to it, it's rather simple. Instead of leaving drivers to worry if their batteries will last the day or last the year, Better Place is setting up a network of installations to rival the proliferation of gas stations over the past century. Part of it comes down to a multitude of charging outlets, but the novelty is the battery swap station, which Better Place is building in Israel, Denmark, Tokyo and other locations.

Renault Laguna EVRenault Laguna EV

The Better Place model encompasses swap stations that are as simple to use as an automated car wash. Drive up in your electric car and the mechanism positions the vehicle, drops the spent battery out the bottom and replaces it with a charged one. The entire process, from arrival to departure, takes three to five minutes (depending on the car), of which 50-90 seconds are spent actually swapping the battery. Then you're on your way, without having to wait for the battery to charge.

As long as there's a switch station along your route, range anxiety is eliminated, and Better Place has already opened the first of over 50 slated to open across Israel. And to eliminate the concern of buying a battery that will deteriorate with every use, Better Place owns and maintains the packs themselves. The idea is to sell miles, not big battery packs.

Renault Laguna EV

The process is demonstrated at the Glilot interchange just outside Tel Aviv at a location that could hardly be more symbolic: The facility used to house Israel's strategic oil reserves, which were relocated following a botched terrorist attack. Better Place has converted it into a center for visitors to peer into a future that dispenses with the internal combustion engine and all that entails.

Once launched, the location will also serve as the central dealership for the network of cars that are expected to fill the country's motor ways and parking lots. Even before pricing and final specifications were announced, Better Place had already received preliminary orders from over 10,000 customers, plus another 60,000 from 150 of the 300 largest corporate fleets in the country.

Renault Laguna EVRenault Laguna EV
Renault Laguna EVRenault Laguna EV

In the meantime, the visitors have been coming: Since opening in February 2010, the facility has attracted schools, tourists, political leaders like French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Senator Joe Lieberman and celebrities like Leonardo di Caprio and Bar Rafaeli.

The tour starts with a video in a theater furnished with the reupholstered seats of old cars, after which the Renault Fluence ZE that will be the first vehicle offered under the program spins out on a turntable. Then it's off to the neighboring structure where the battery swap is demonstrated, in our case, on a Nissan Rogue converted to electric power before eligible drivers can take to the wheel of one of Better Place's electric vehicles.

As we were there before the Fluence Z.E. was launched, our drive took place in a converted Renault Laguna prototype. FEV swapped out the 2.0-liter diesel engine and 6-speed manual transmission and installed an 18-kWh battery juicing a 125 kW (168 hp) electric motor – only slightly less power than the top-spec diesel Laguna from the factory. Tipping the scales post-conversion at 1,735 kg (3,825 lbs), the EV is heavier than the 1,507-kg (3,322-lb) Laguna III Dynamique sedan on which it's based, but can still run 0-60 in under 11 seconds and cruise to a range of over 60 miles.

That proved more than enough to get us up and down the track a few times, providing smooth acceleration uninterrupted by changing gears. While the weight is higher than stock, its lower center of gravity made it feel flatter through the corners. And the lower revs at which the power comes in, even compared to a torquey diesel, means the pedal can be put down earlier, too. Otherwise, the driving experience is much as you'd expect from a conventional or hybrid vehicle.

Renault Laguna EVs

The Fluence Z.E. that will actually be offered on the market, by comparison, is both smaller and – at 1,543 (3,402 lbs) – lighter than the Laguna EV. Its 70-kW (94-hp) electric motor isn't nearly as powerful, but that's purportedly enough to take it from 0-62 mph in about 9 seconds. With a 100-mile range, the Fluence Z.E. is capable of traveling much farther between charges or battery swaps.

The Better Place model, at the end of the day, is a good start, but it's no magic solution. But then, nothing is. Because like kicking any addiction, weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels will take time. But after seeing first-hand what Better Place has in store, that long arduous road ahead looks just a little smoother.

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Photos Copyright 2011 Noah Joseph / AOL

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