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How Two Billionaires Are Supercharging The Electric Car To Upend Big Oil

A roadhouse off Interstate 5 near Coalinga is the last place you’d expect to see an electric car pull in to refuel. A speck of nowhere surrounded by the endless farmland of California’s Central Valley, it’s almost exactly 200 miles from both San Francisco and Los Angeles–the kind of place unreachable by most electric cars. Until now. The roadhouse is one of only six locations in the world outfitted with Tesla “Superchargers.” One of these 6-foot-tall white slabs sits away from the gas pumps as if it wants no part of them.

Plugging in my sleek, silver $85,000 Tesla Motors Model S for a half-hour charge that will get me another 150 miles of range, a guy filling up his SUV ambles over. “How much is that costing you?”

“It’s free,” I reply.

He shakes his head and returns to a gas pump, ringing up a three-figure sale. A few hours and another Supercharger visit later, I arrive in Los Angeles from San Francisco, a journey that would have been impossible even a week earlier, covering 400 miles in six hours without emitting a molecule of carbon or spending a penny on fuel.

“A key reservation people have about electric cars is whether they’ll have the same sense of freedom they have with a gasoline car,” says Elon Musk, the 41-year-old billionaire cofounder of Tesla Motors. Musk plans to eliminate that fear next year through a solar-powered Supercharger network–and the electrons are on him (as long as you own a Model S). “The clearest way to convey the message that electric cars are actually better than gasoline cars is to say charging is free.”
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On the other side of the world another billionaire, 57-year-old Idan Ofer, is offering a competing vision. His startup, Better Place, has built networks of service stations in Israel and Denmark where drivers of Renault Fluence Z.E. sedans pull in and have robots swap the car’s depleted battery pack for a fresh one in minutes. “I want to scale as fast as possible, and I want to be all over Europe,” says Ofer, who FORBES estimates is worth $6.2 billion, making him Israel’s richest person.

They both can’t be right. The electric car market already appears a dubious proposition right now–the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and all-electric Ford Focus will sell only a bit more than 30,000 cars in America this year, versus 155,242 Toyotas sold in the U.S. in October alone. For the electric car business to be viable, it needs an industry standard. Which makes this car war–battery-supercharging versus battery-swapping–the next great technology platform battle, in the same league as AC and DC power, VHS and Betamax, Blu-ray and HD DVD, with the winner positioned to eventually take a shot at the $1.6 trillion gasoline-powered paradigm.

To raise the stakes still higher, two major wild cards are at play. The first is China, the world’s biggest car market and one unabashedly interested, given its oil import dependency, in electric vehicles. The Chinese government has decreed that 5 million of them should be on the road by 2020 but has yet to decide on fixed or swappable batteries as the standard. China’s scale can decide the winner. “Whoever is successful in this race in China will get the government to sanction and say, ‘This is the way to go,’ ” says Ofer, an old China hand who has spent the past few years giving Better Place an inside track with Chinese policymakers, party bosses and automakers. “ They’re going to experiment for a while,” he adds. “And that’s why we need to move as fast as possible there.” Advantage, Ofer.
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