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Published 30 January 2013 00:55, Updated 31 January 2013 02:41
Evan Thornley demonstrates Better Place technology to ACT chief minister Katy Gallagher in 2011. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Evan Thornley, the Australian chief executive of Better Place, the company behind rechargeable batteries that can be swapped in and out of electric vehicles, has resigned from the role after just three months in a sign that all is not well at the high-profile company.
Earlier this month, Tel Aviv-based Better Place said Thornley, appointed in October after founder Shai Agassi was sacked as chief executive by the board, would be replaced with immediate effect by chairman Idan Ofer and global chief executive Alan Gelman.
Thornley, who made his fortune by founding and selling search engine LookSmart and later became a Victorian MP in the Brumby Labor government, joined Better Place as head of the company’s Australian operation in 2009. In an email to staff published by crikey.com.au, Thornley says differences about strategy led to his January 16 removal from the top global position.
“In recent times, strong and honestly held differences have emerged at the most senior levels of the company about how we best take the company forward,” he writes. “I do not wish to be a barrier to that unity and so will step down.”
The change comes at a time of turmoil for the company, which retrenched 20 per cent of its Australian staff last year – a reported 10 people out of a global total of 300 retrenchments – as it sought to reduce cash burn and focus on its more advanced markets in Israel and Denmark.
Better Place Australia spokeswoman Felicity Glennie-Holmes referred queries to the parent company. Thornley did not respond to a request for comment.
Better Place is involved in electric vehicle trials across Australia. It is one of four providers of charging technology in Victoria’s trial, which is considered the most extensive. The Victorian trial began in 2010 and includes two US-based companies, ChargePoint and ECOtality, as well as Melbourne-based DiUS Computing.
Better Place focuses on a removable batteries, while ChargePoint and ECOtality focus on recharging services and DiUS’s system centres on household-based charging.
The local company says it is the only one in the world with technology certified compliant to the global ZigBee protocol that specifies how home-based smart meters communicate with utilities through wireless networks, a crucial step in allowing consumers to manage their power usage according to fluctuations in the price.
ChargePoint Australia chief executive James Brown said he couldn’t comment on Better Place’s problems.
“Their business model is different to ours,” Brown said on Tuesday. “ We really couldn’t offer any comment whatsoever.”
He said, however, while battery swap technology could work for “high-volume, high-turnover fleets” – such as taxis, which were built with stronger parts because of their heavy workload – it was not suitable for ordinary passenger cars, which were unlikely to be manufactured to withstand the repetitive strain that would come from the frequent replacement of equipment like a battery.
“The engineering for high-volume, high-turnover fleet cars – taxis – is such that it is more able to accommodate the higher engineering specifications of a car that has a battery pulled out 5000 times over a 10-year life span, whereas your normal everyday consumer car is not necessarily engineered using the same heavy usage componentry,” Brown said.