OSCAR the Grouch

by Brian on November 2, 2012

in In the News

On Sunday, Better Place held their first ever customer event. A couple of hundred Better Place electric car owners – including us – descended on the company’s Herzliya showroom to hear from Better Place staff the inside scoop on where the company is headed. It was an electric gas to see so many petrol-free cars in one parking lot. (It was also a bit daunting to find our car on the way out since all the cars are the exact same Renault Fluence ZE.)

Better Place VP of Sales Zohar Bali handled most of the presentation, which included reassurances that the company is steadily selling more and more cars. He backed it up with various numbers – 20 cars to this hi-tech company, 25 to another. I didn’t write down all the names, but Amdocs and Matrix figured prominently on the list, as did Elco, which has agreed to purchase 125 vehicles by the end of 2013.

Most of the main leasing companies in Israel have signed on, as well, Bali said – at least in a limited way so far. He admitted it was hard to move cars with all the bad press the company has received since Shai Agassi’s ouster. Still, he insisted Better Place was on track to sell 2,500 cars in the next 12 months.

Bali didn’t sugarcoat the financial difficulties the company is in – he confirmed the reports in the press this week that the company will be laying off staff (the Israeli media says 150-200 staff members out of a total of 400, mostly in R&D and infrastructure, but not sales and marketing).

A charming slideshow played with pictures of happy customers in front of their cars, shaking hands (and often hugging) their salespeople. Then Bali opened up the floor to questions and feedback.

There was overwhelming agreement that the car itself is a dream to drive, the swap stations work as advertised, and that Customer Service is efficient and polite. There was the kind of enthusiasm you’d expect from a room full of early adopters.

There were complaints too: the batteries aren’t lasting the full 140-160 kilometers per charge as promised (Bali said it’s very “individual”) and that there aren’t any swap stations on Highway 6. An English speaker said he had a hard time with Better Place’s emails and announcements in Hebrew. (Customer Service manager Oded Shtemer promised the customer would get them in English from now on – hey, us too!).

Then someone brought up OSCAR, Better Place’s vaunted operating system for cars.

To put it bluntly: OSCAR is a grouch. He is awkward and sometimes surly. If you ask him for directions, he doesn’t always have the right answer and his instructions on which route to take can plunge you into terrible traffic. OSCAR’s maps seem to be suffering from the malady that has plagued Apple’s new iPhone maps product (indeed, they are based on the same purchased map data set).

We had our own “experience” with OSCAR on our drive to the Better Place event. After we entered in our itinerary, OSCAR recommended that we swap batteries on the way. Fine, we didn’t want a repeat of our near-battery depletion experience on our first day out. OSCAR’s suggestion was the Nesharim station. That seemed kind of out of the way, we thought, but OSCAR knows best, right?

Nesharim is in Ramle, quite a drive to and from Highway 1. With the swap itself, that added a good 20 minutes to our travel time. The nice station attendant told us that, when it comes to finding the nearest swap station, we shouldn’t trust OSCAR; better to program it in ourselves. Thanks a lot, OSCAR!

The good news: OSCAR is due for a major facelift and a new version will be released, give or take, by the end of the year. It will address most of the problems people have been having, particularly by adding better maps, customizable routes and integrated crowd-sourced traffic data (like fellow Israeli startup Waze).

It will actually require we re-learn a lot of the software, OSCAR’s project manager explained, taking to the stage. That’s the downside to being an early adopter, he added cheerfully, as we all nodded appreciatively – we knew what we were signing up for by getting in at the beginning.

Indeed, as we left the meeting, we marveled over the very fact that an automobile company held its own “user group” event and that they answered all our questions patiently and honestly. Similar meetings would be held every couple of months, Bali said.

Getting into bed with Better Place is more like buying a 1987 Macintosh than a car. You have to be a bit of a fanatic. I’m still using a Mac 25 years later (not the same model of course). Will that be the same with my Better Place car? Hopefully, and I’m sure that OSCAR will pull himself out of the trashcan by then.

I reported on the old grouch yesterday on Israelity.

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