Former SAP chief Shai Agassi thinks he has a winning formula for electric cars

On Monday when I flew to New York I couldn't get away from Shai Agassi (right), the former president of enterprise software maker SAP. I first spotted him on an airport TV being interviewed on CNN. Then I read a feature story about him in The Wall Street Journal, which I picked up to read on the plane. Then, when I arrived at my hotel I went online and discovered a blog post about Agassi written by my colleague Dan Farber over on ZDNet.

Agassi was everywhere because he publicly re-emerged from obscurity after resigning from SAP in March. Agassi's new gig is called Project Better Place and its mission is to create a new platform and ecosystem for electric cars, and Agassi has raised $200 million to get it off the ground.

What Agassi's Better Place wants to do is to separate the battery from the car, get automakers to standardize on a single battery type, and then set up a network of charging sites (run by Better Place) where cars can drive through and have their batteries changed. Agassi says that current technology allows for batteries that can power cars for 100 miles.

Under the model that Agassi is proposing, cars would be sold without batteries by the car makers (potentially bundled with batteries by the car dealers) and Agassi's company would sell monthly subscriptions to consumers for swapping out their batteries at charging sites.

Pilots will begin in 2008 and will start by focusing on local delivery vehicles and taxis. The trials will expand to about 100,000 vehicles in 2010.

The idea of separating the batteries from the cars has a lot of potential because the users don't have to own the batteries, which can allow a company like Better Place to make advances in battery life and users to quickly see the benefits when they go to a charging station and get one of the newer, more efficient batteries as part of their regular swap-out.

However, if a separate battery standard does emerge, it would also be good to have multiple companies that offer battery recharging stations so that market competition can keep costs down and drive innovation. We're obviously still a long way away from, but it's good to see that we're starting to have some of these conversations.