At Barack Obama's first press conference after the election, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm stood right next to the President-elect.
But Granholm didn't sit with Big 3 company heads as they pleaded unimpressively for auto industry bailout money before Congress this month. She took a trip to the Middle East instead, to meet with software wiz and electric car visionary Shai Agassi.
Agassi's Project Better Place has grown by leaps and bounds in the past year. At first, the idea of paying for cars like paying for mobile phone use seemed far-fetched. With heavily subsidized units and monthly fees, drivers wouldn't really own their electric cars. But they would gain access to an expansive network of charging stations and save loads on fuel.
As the economy soured and Detroit's death knell started to sound, national governments from Israel to Denmark to Australia have come on board with Agassi's plan.
So have companies like Nissan and Renault, beating GM's Chevy Volt with a plan to produce cars that will hook up to half a million electric vehicle charging stations, which will be built by Better Place in Israel by 2011. The New York Times reports that the Volt is being jeopardized by the overall health of the very company it is supposed to save.
And the Volt won't even hit showrooms until 2010... who knows if GM will still be around in its current form?
Granholm toured Better Place's research facilities in Israel last weekend, and she even took a ride in one of the EVs. Here we see the Governor and Agassi in front of the kind of plug-in we may see all over the world in a few years, with a conspicuous Renault ornament on the grill:
Granholm wrote pretty generally about the experience in her blog. It's more stock rust-belt speech material than the kind of emphatic reaction we'd hope for, if she really thought Better Place could save Detroit.
"We want to reduce our state's and our nation's dependence on foreign oil, and the advanced battery has the potential to do just that," she wrote. "We talked about future partnerships that might be viable for Michigan, and in Michigan, we know that new energy means new jobs."
There is also quite a disconnect between Granholm's apparent political will and the American auto industry's exasperating stubbornness.
GM Vice President Bob Lutz has been going around disparaging Better Place, telling the Toronto Star in October, "I don't see how the business equation could possibly work."
This is coming from an exec at a company begging his government for billions of dollars to stay afloat? Come on!
The state of Michigan may lose another 100,000 jobs next year, according to a University of Michigan study, and the suits are responding by publicly mocking competitors and flying around in private jets to beg for bailout money.
Obama and Granholm are growing ever more frustrated with Detroit execs. The new administration and transition team are offering help, but a major public relations overhaul is needed. Most importantly, Detroit needs to show that it is friendly to new ideas and not just new money.
For one thing, Lutz can look over to California, where the link between government and business is both strong and fruitful. That's where the latest breakthrough in Project Better Place is unfolding.
Bay Area Mayors Endorse Project Better Place
Silicon Valley is where much of the gruntwork will be done to develop Better Place's batteries and charging infrastructure, and as of late November it looks like the Bay Area will also be one of the first major rollouts for the plan.
Last Thursday, a group of Bay Area mayors endorsed Project Better Place with a plan to build 250,000 charging ports throughout the region. The $1 billion plan will kick in by 2012.
This is nothing short of a revolution. Better Place will revamp the entire transportation system of one of the biggest and most prosperous population centers in the United States.
From core projects in Israel, Australia's West Coast, and now the Bay Area, we will see more widespread implementation.
Shai Agassi said in October that a nationwide rollout of the charging infrastructure around the U.S. would cost around $100 billion. Given the astounding speed with which his Project Better Place has caught on internationally, it is no longer ridiculous to say this country could actually have a nationwide electric car grid by 2020.
This is exciting stuff, folks. We'll keep you up to date with the latest.
PS. My service, Green Chip International, is on the verge of recommending a Chinese battery play that will have serious implications on the global electric vehicle market. Buffett has already put his money down, and you can be next. Take a moment to read about the coming Green Energy Gold Rush. I think you'll be as excited about the opportunity as we are.