BE'ER SHEVA, ISRAEL—Yes, the Negev Desert is a long way from Connecticut, and we're also not within rocket range of the Gaza Strip, as the university town of Be'er Sheva is. But when9/11 happened I had comparable feelings of vulnerability shattering an outward calm. The Negev was under constant attack during my visit. Hundreds of missiles hit the region last week causing no fatalities but damaging schools and causing some injuries, as well as a lot of psychological damage.
I had journeyed to Israel to visit Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev, a college specifically set up in the 1960s to help foster development in the vast lower half of the country, which is home to only 10 percent of the population. That means water desalination and figuring out how to grow crops — ranging from olives and dates to melons, tomatoes and very crisp bell peppers — despite some of the world's saltiest soil.
And it means some fascinating environmental projects, including making biofuels from algae, large-scale solar (tapping into a huge potential resource) and trying to stop a disturbing "sinkhole" problem caused by water loss in the Dead Sea. I visited BGU's computerized driving simulator (using a Cadillac donated by GM) that, among other things, tests how motorists react to marijuana and alcohol intoxication. Preliminary data showed that drinkers tend to be over-confident and drive faster than dope smokers, who crawl along because they at least know they're impaired. Test data from the simulator also showed that fancy displays and graphics sometimes reduce the effectiveness of onboard navigation screens.
Also in the Negev is Better Place, the car charging company headed by Israeli Shai Agassi. The ambitious company wants to wire the world, but Israel is first (followed by Denmark, China, Japan, Australia, Canada and San Francisco). I stayed just a block from a new Better Place battery switching station in the small town of Mitzpe Ramon. That station wasn't open yet, but it should be able to swap battery packs in less than a minute — as I've seen demonstrated in Japan. There are 33 such stations in Israel now, as well as thousands of "recharging points" (my hotel had two).
The system is scheduled for a commercial launch in the second quarter of this year, and Better Place says it has more than 50 Israeli companies ordering EVs for their fleets, and 1,500 cars ordered in arrangements with four leasing companies (Avis Israel is reportedly one of them).
Gas is expensive in Israel, and Better Place says service costs of its Renault Fluence Z.E. electric cars are 40 percent less than for internal-combustion cars (and insurance is 20 percent less). Israel is surrounded by oil states, but they're mostly hostile to it, and the country doesn't have its own petroleum resources. There's not much evidence of EVs taking over Israeli roads yet, but it makes eminent sense.
Come to think of it, electric vehicles would be a great addition to the BGU campus, which was in lockdown because of the cross-border rocket attacks. The school was undamaged, and students — many of them Americans, who are heavily represented at the medical school — rallied around. There are students from the Arab world, too, including a Jordanian desalination Ph.D candidate who told us that actually living and working with Israelis changed his attitude toward them. The region needs more of the kind of environmental collaboration fostered at BGU.
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