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Better Place, which had promised to have thousands of cars on the road last year, acknowledges the rollout is behind schedule, mostly because of bureaucratic hurdles and production issues at Renault.

Better Place has also spent years testing its integrated system designed to allow its operation center, which is connected to every car, to monitor the vehicles and correct problems remotely. For instance, its software notifies drivers when their batteries are running low and directs them to the nearest switching station.

Israel sales director Zohar Bali predicts up to 5,000 Fluences will be silently running on Israeli roads and highways within a year.

Israel was chosen for the experiment in part because of its tech-savvy population. Also, with 80 percent of the population living in a narrow, densely populated stretch along the Mediterranean coast, it provides a perfect laboratory for the charging network.

Better Place claims it can shave up to 20 percent off the annual cost of owning a car, especially if gas prices, now around $8 a gallon here, continue to rise. Drivers buy access to the switching stations and charging spots through a monthly package ranging from under $300 to over $500, depending on mileage.

Israelis are taking notice. Better Place says more than 80,000 people in this country of 7.8 million have trekked to its visitor’s center, situated at an abandoned oil reserves depot outside Tel Aviv.

What happens in Israel could decide how broadly Better Place deploys.

So far the Fluence is the only model compatible with the grid, but Renault’s Middle East director, Jean-Christophe Pierson, says the company is considering a more compact model. Better Place is also in contact with other carmakers.

Denmark is set to become Better Place’s second launch site this year. Australia is to become its first major market, with deployment in the capital, Canberra, also this year. Small-scale projects are in place in Hawaii and California. Amsterdam is the next European target after Denmark.

The company also has its sights set on China, where it already has opened a demonstration battery switching station.

Agassi sees the “tipping point” for electric cars coming in two to three years, propelled by dropping prices of cars and batteries. By 2017, he expects 50 percent of all new car sales in Israel to be electric.

The largest investor is The Israel Corp., whose holdings include Israel’s biggest oil refinery and deep water oil drilling.

Idan Ofer, whose family controls The Israel Corp. and who serves as Better Place’s chairman, said he saw no contradiction between his oil and clean-tech holdings.

Film giant Kodak “knew about digital photography. And look what happened. They still went bankrupt because they didn’t do anything about it,” observed Ofer. “There are many examples. I don’t want to be there.”