Making electric cars smarter

Better Place CEO Shai Agassi says automakers can learn a lot from the infotech world. But he's still charged up about cars.

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By Stephanie N. Mehta, assistant managing editor

Shai Agassi, founder of Better Place, which also makes a software platform for cars.
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(Fortune Magazine) -- If anyone sits at the intersection of Silicon Valley and Detroit, it is Shai Agassi, a software engineer turned supplier to the car industry.

Agassi left a top post at enterprise software company SAP (SAP) and in 2007 founded Better Place, which is building a network of charging and battery-switch stations for electric cars. He spoke with Fortune's Stephanie N. Mehta about the powerful combination of cars and technology.

What can car makers learn from their technology counterparts?

The automotive industry has not been disrupted in 100 years. If Henry Ford walked into a Ford (F, Fortune 500) plant today, he'd recognize the product and the manufacturing process.

Disruption is coming to the auto industry. How will it change its business model? Technology companies know how to deal with disruption: In tech, if your business isn't being disrupted, you disrupt it yourself.

Are there lessons from Detroit for the tech industry?

I have a lot of respect for the auto manufacturers. They make a product people live inside -- and can die inside -- so they are held to very high standards. When software goes down for a minute, what's the worst that happens? You lose a minute [of productivity].

How is Better Place using information technology to help build better cars?

Most of the operating systems in cars end up being the lowest-cost platform. We wanted the best technology: We wanted Intel's Atom chips, Microsoft Windows Embedded, full Wi-Fi, and GPRS capabilities.

But why build such a sophisticated system for vehicles? It's not as if I'm going to do vector algebra in my car.

You can't have thousands of cars without good computers on the electric grid. The software helps us figure out when to recharge your car: It will learn that you drive your car to work every day and leave it in the parking lot until 6 p.m., except on Tuesdays, when you leave at 4 p.m. The computers can talk to our network and figure out the best time to recharge every car in the system.

Having a great operating system seems as if it would allow you to do other things too.

We think we can build applications for the cars that people will pay for, or that will differentiate our system. Sort of like iTunes for the car. CarTunes, perhaps?  To top of page

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