Are Cars Electric?

Are Cars Electric?

Nissan unveils the future of driving... maybe


Originally published on on August 2009

804-C&B-01If you read the local press here in Japan, you could be forgiven for thinking that Toyota is saving the world with its gas-electric hybrid vehicles, particularly its bestselling Prius model. Toyota/Lexus have amassed a broad range of hybrids, including the big, fat Lexus LS600h. Honda recently joined the fray with its Prius wannabe, the Insight, but Nissan has been a reluctant player in this market, producing only a limited number of hybrids in the United States using licensed Toyota technology.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has been saying for years that hybrids aren’t the solution—the way forward is actually electric. At the opening of the company’s new global headquarters in Yokohama on August 2, Ghosn put his money where his mouth is as he unveiled the Leaf, Nissan’s electric-powered vehicle (EV) of the future. The very near future, in fact, as the Leaf will go on sale next year.

One of the main worries in producing battery-powered vehicles has always been the recycling of batteries. Nissan’s solution is that Leaf buyers will only own the car; the batteries will be supplied on a lease basis, thus making up part of the running costs of the vehicle rather than the purchase price. By taking responsibility for the car’s main environmental sticking point, Nissan will allow drivers to cruise around with a clear conscience.

“As its name suggests, the Leaf is totally neutral to the environment,” trilled Ghosn. “There is no exhaust pipe, no gasoline-burning engine. There is only the quiet, efficient power provided by our own compact lithium-ion battery packs.”

Be that as it may, the Leaf still requires feeding, and this means consuming electricity. The car only has a range of around 160km, after which it must be plugged into the mains for eight hours to recharge. Nissan says research shows that this range meets the normal requirements of 80 percent of drivers. Yet families won’t want to face a scenario where, for example, they have to make an emergency trip only to find their EV is slowly chugging jolts of power from the meltdown factory at Three Mile Island. The result is that most families will require a second, non-electric car, which may not be an option for some.

804-C&B-20In the long term, it is likely that the charging time of EVs will be reduced and the range extended. Indeed, the amazing Anglo-American Tesla electric sports car can not only reach 100km/h in under four seconds, it can also travel nearly 400km on a single charge. Meanwhile, Subaru, one of Nissan’s rivals in the EV stakes, says that its recently released Stella minicar can be charged to 80 percent of capacity in 15 minutes, although a full charge still takes eight hours. Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV is similar, but offers an “Eco-drive” gearing position that reduces power output (and thus saves on electricity). Nevertheless, its maximum range tops out at 160km. Both cars cost over ¥4.5 million, a big price to pay to earn your green credentials. Ghosn insists the Leaf will be more affordable.

“The Leaf’s purchase price and cost of ownership will be competitive,” he said. “The car minus the battery will be within the price range of a comparably positioned car with an internal combustion engine. The monthly cost of the battery plus the electric charge will be less than the cost of gasoline.”

Although the Leaf will be launched next year, Nissan isn’t planning to start mass production until 2012. It has secured a $1.6 billion loan to modify its main manufacturing plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, and is also making plans for production in Europe.

If Nissan can replicate the success of the Toyota Prius, Ghosn’s prediction that the future is electric may well come true. Then again, that’s a big “if.”