Editorial | The curse of the Ellert

Innovators must realise that humans are more than creatures of habit, they are also keen to avoid past mistakes

It’s easy to understand why Better Place, the now defunct electric car company, settled on Denmark as the proving ground for its innovative system of battery replacement stations. 

Seen from above, Denmark is a small, flat country with a relatively well developed infrastructure and high petrol prices. It also benefits from its image – whether deserved or not – as an environmentally conscious nation that relies heavily on wind power. 

There is, however, one factor that counterbalances all these reasons. It is the Ellert. 

Whether Better Place was ignorant of Denmark’s failed contribution to the development of electric cars or it simply chose to ignore it is hard to know. But before selling their cars here, Danes Better Place would have been wise to ask Danes to draw their image of an electric car. Had they done so, they would likely have been left with a pile of pictures of what amounts to an electric handicap scooter inside a protective cabin. 

That the Ellert, a vehicle with room for little more than the driver and a single bag of groceries, failed to revolutionise our transport habits should have come as no surprise. Better Place, though, ought to have understood that overcoming people’s bad experiences was not going to happen overnight, even if their vehicles resembled modern cars in both design and their ‘refuelling’ method.

From a logistical standpoint, Better Place should have been a success. Though not without its kinks, the company’s system of battery-swapping went a long way to solving the problem of limited range that reduces the attractiveness of all electric vehicles.

But with its limited selection of models to chose from, Better Place in essence resorted to the sales philosophy set down by Henry Ford in 1909, when he remarked that car buyers could have “a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”. That’s an attitude today’s car innovators can’t afford to adopt if they hope to overcome the double whammy of established competitors and ingrained consumer habits. 

With Better Place’s failure more rooted in corporate decision-making rather than public-sector support, the company’s departure is unlikely to impact the city’s efforts to market itself as a proving ground for environmental technologies. That effort is, in fact, likely to get a boost by the UN’s decision to open its climate technology office here

Even so, we suggest requiring all the employees of the new UN office to drive Ellerts while they are here. It will remind them that just because something is good for us doesn’t mean we’ll actually buy it.