Shai Agassi and His Car

By Adam Hanin, March 22, 2011

One of the meetings Act for Israel Media Fellows had while on their visit to Israel was with venerable business leader Shai Agassi. But after visiting the Itamar massacre site, meeting Noam Shalit and Danny Ayalon (along with plenty of tours), green energy was – as you’ll read – the last thing on Claire Berlinski’s mind.

Is Shai Agassi Right? Is the Electric Car the Solution to the Oil Problem?

lean10 car 1772305b medium Shai Agassi and His Car

Perhaps this is going to go down in history as the biggest wasted opportunity of my journalistic career.

One of the meetings Act for Israel arranged for us was with Shai Agassi at A Better Place.

Unfortunately for Ricochet, I had no idea who Shai Agassi was, and because they packed our schedule with so many meetings with people whose significance I did appreciate–like the prime minister’s spokesman–I didn’t do any research before meeting him.

I didn’t even look him up on Google. In fact, I walked in there furious, because the meeting took place during Ricochet’s time–my editorial hours. I’d demanded free time and Internet access so that I could keep vigil over Ricochet and immediately stamp out any hint of an affront to the Code of Conduct–my sacred duty! Instead they stuck me in a conference room with some lunatic Israeli motormouth who was gibbering on about electric cars. So I was fit to be tied.

Anyway, I didn’t realize that an audience with Shai Agassi is a very big deal and an astonishing thing to have arranged. I only understood this afterwards when people said, “You met Shai Agassi? How?”

I walked in late–having been endeavoring without success to hack on to A Better Place’s wireless network in the ladies’ room–and looking sour. I sat down in the back and said to our guide, “Who’s that?” figuring he was just some PR flack. And even when she said, in a hushed, reverential way, “It’s him,” I had no idea I was in the presence of a man revered in Israel as a demi-god.

Now, here’s the thing: I still haven’t had time to really study this. He gave us the whole spiel about his electric cars, and definitely it was a smooth, compelling pitch. But I didn’t know enough about it to ask the right follow-up questions, and I still haven’t had time to do enough research to know whether this is as big a deal as he thinks it is.

I have this gut instinct that there’s a catch here, and that somehow it involves getting the government much more involved in re-engineering the economy, or trying to re-engineer it, than can ever be a good idea. But I may be completely wrong about this.

I don’t want to be the journalist who looked at the prototype iPhone and sniffed, “It will never work.” (My father tells the story of touring Xerox Park some many years ago and seeing the world’s first mouse. “Yeah,” they said to him, “We’re not sure what it will be good for, but it’s kind of cool.”)

I asked Shai if I could film him. He said no, it’s all on the Internet anyway, and he’d be more relaxed if I didn’t. He’s right, it’s all on the Internet.

So you tell me: Have a look at the videos I’m posting. Is this the solution to the West’s oil dependency problem? Could it work?

If it doesn’t seem bogus to you, maybe I’ll try to reach him again and get a better sense of what he’s doing. Or maybe I’ll just kick myself forever for not having understood what I was looking at.

Oh, and I didn’t get to drive it. Why not? Because I didn’t bring my driver’s license. It just didn’t occur to me that I’d end up in a situation where I’d need it. But everyone else who drove it said it was a great ride. Here’s Tim Mak’s report.

So what’s the catch, if any?

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Adam Hanin

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