01/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Inspired Auto Bailout Of Tom Friedman's Dreams

Tom Friedman's column today bemoans the lack of foresight and innovative thinking in Detroit. While the topic isn't particularly new -- can you think of anyone not distressed in some way by the failures of the United States auto industry? -- Friedman points out a few places involved in the futuristic-sounding Better Place electric car network:

What business model am I talking about? It is Shai Agassi's electric car network company, called Better Place. Just last week, the company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., announced a partnership with the state of Hawaii to road test its business plan there after already inking similar deals with Israel, Australia, the San Francisco Bay area and, yes, Denmark.

The Better Place electric car charging system involves generating electrons from as much renewable energy -- such as wind and solar -- as possible and then feeding those clean electrons into a national electric car charging infrastructure. This consists of electricity charging spots with plug-in outlets -- the first pilots were opened in Israel this week -- plus battery-exchange stations all over the respective country. The whole system is then coordinated by a service control center that integrates and does the billing.

Agassi's plan was the subject of a big feature in Wired not too long ago. The story highlighted the kind of passion Friedman seems to wish for in Detroit. Agassi left a job to start thinking about a free electric car network:

Nevertheless, many of Agassi's colleagues from SAP joined him. They realized that what Shai was building was still essentially a software company. He needed a network that allowed cars to tell the grid how much charge they were carrying and how much more they required. The system had to know where the car was so it could tell the driver where to go to "fill up." And it had to electronically negotiate with the local energy utility over when it could and couldn't take power and how much to pay. Few of his colleagues asked to read the business plan before signing on. They were joining the cause, not just the company. "Once you have a mission," Agassi told me over dinner one night last winter, "you can't go back to having a job."

If Friedman's colleague Paul Krugman is right about the coming decentralization of the US auto industry, then both might be cheered by San Francisco's work with Shai Agassi and Better Place:

The new $1 billion project is expected to encompass the cities of San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland. Similar deals have been signed with governments elsewhere, and now California marks the first stop in the US market. The United States is set to go electric.

According to media reports, Better Place, which is headquartered in Palo Alto, will begin constructing the charging stations by 2010, with commercial sales beginning in 2012, a few short years away. The electric cars will be built by Renault-Nissan.