There are many reasons why caring for the environment is a Jewish value. The destruction of the environment on the alter of human consumption is simply another manifestation of the massive egocentricity that exists within the human condition. Humans have to realize that we are not the center of the universe. As Maimonides noted, every aspect of the universe has an independent raison d'etre. Irrevocably damaging the environment, therefore, interferes with another’s reason for being.
Taking modern geopolitics into consideration, the reasons for wanting to replace fossil fuel with an alternative form of energy - especially if you are Israeli - are much more urgent. Few people have taken up this challenge with more vigor and passion than Shai Agassi and his Project Better Place. This week I had the opportunity to visit Better Place Center in Central Israel. The center is impressive and showcases Agassi’s vision for his Electric Car Network. It offers the opportunity to test drive an electric vehicle as well as to view the battery changing station they have built to allow an electric vehicle to drive without having to stop for an extended time to charge its battery.
Forefront of automotive revolution
There is no doubt that Shai Agassi and Better Place are partly correct in their thesis. Vehicles are moving away from the previous model of being fully propelled by a combustion engine fueled completely by petroleum, to a different more environmentally friendly model. The big question is whether the Better Place model is what the final product will look like.
It reminds me of the transition between the public phone and the cell phone. Sometime in the later 1980’s and early 1990’s CT2 phones became fashionable. Companies like Phonezone and later Rabbit in the UK sold mobile phones that worked when you were in the vicinity of a telepoint. This was a midway point between the modern cell phone and the public phone. It allowed the user to use their own phone but they could not travel too far with it while speaking on it. They needed to remain within the vicinity of the telepoint if they wanted to continue talking. When the cell phone became more affordable companies like Rabbit was relegated to the dustbin of venture startup history.
Agassi’s idea seems to be smart and innovative and as a Jew he is certainly a powerful proponent of the major Jewish values of Tikun Olam, helping the environment and saving lives. But it is hard to believe that this will be the final product. In the United States one can now buy GM’s Chevy Volt. This is an electric vehicle that has a combustion engine that acts as a generator to give the car further range. It does close to 100 miles a gallon and does not require billions of dollars of expenditure on battery changing stations and additional infrastructure. In addition there is no need for the consumer to sign up with a company that will provide the energy for the car.
As solar and other mobile charging technologies become more advanced, together with a small combustion engine miles per gallon will be reduced even further. This direction offers virtually the same result as the Better Place model but is less restrictive to the consumer and doesn't need the massive infrastructure investment Agassi’s idea entails.
With Better Place, Israel has placed itself at the forefront of the new automotive revolution. Let’s see if they can go one step further and help create the car that basically charges itself without the need for charging or battery changing stations. The technology is not that far off and it seems to this observer that Israel should be spreading its risk and investing in that option as well.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts
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