Nissan Goes Electric

May 6, 2008
2008 Nissan Pivo2 Concept

2008 Nissan Pivo2 Concept

Why is it conventional wisdom is so often wrong? The general consensus has long been that there’s no market for battery cars. Just go to the local video store and rent a copy of “Who Killed the Electric Vehicle?” the populist documentary that stirred so many waves last year.

The thing is, the EV isn’t dead - certainly not if Nissan has anything to say about it. In an exclusive interview with the Asian automaker’s global product planning chief, Tom Lane, I have learned that electric propulsion is back, but perhaps the single most significant project on Nissan’s docket.

We got a hint of that a few months back when Carlos Ghosn, joint CEO of Nissan and its French alliance partner Renault, landed in Israel. There, he announced a groundbreaking program in which Nissan will provide an all-new line of EVs, and its public/private partner, the Project for a Better Place, will set up a nationwide network of sales, service, and charging centers.

As with conventional EVs, a motorist will be able to plug into a standard wall socket to recharge, but the Israeli service centers will also be equipped to do a fast swap, replacing discharged batteries with new ones, in a matter of minutes.

The program makes sense in a small country like Israel – and in Denmark, where Nissan has a similar venture underway – but again going back to conventional wisdom, it’s long been argued that EVs won’t work in countries like the U.S., with its vast borders and long distances from city to city.

Indeed, California’s bold – some would say naïve – EV mandate of the early 1990s, failed for several key reasons: the high cost, limited functionality, long charging times and, most importantly, the limited range of the EVs of that day. With first-generation lead-acid batteries, the GM EV1, highlighted in “Who Killed…” barely got 75 miles on a charge.

In the coming weeks, Nissan is expected to announce a battery breakthrough, and from what Lane hinted during our conversation, it’s not unreasonable to expect that, within a few years, the automaker hopes to be getting somewhere closer to 150, even 200 miles on a charge. And the executive told me a quick charge should take as little as 20 minutes.

So Nissan is ready to bring the electric vehicle back to the U.S. market. Lane confirmed that it will introduce an all-new vehicle in 2010, initially for sale to fleet markets. That makes sense, because they’re best equipped to provide the necessary infrastructure. But by 2012, Lane added, Nissan will take its new EV to the retail market.

“We’re taking this thing seriously, not as just a way to sell 200 cars in California. It will be a real business,” he stressed.

Lane was circumspect about some details. He wouldn’t say, for one thing, exactly what type of product Nissan will go with, though sources indicate it will likely be a somewhat conventional sedan or light crossover, rather than the wild and wacky Pivo2 EV the automaker unveiled at last autumn’s Tokyo Motor Show. What the planning chief did reveal is that Nissan believes its EV must be reasonably full function, with a relatively good cargo and people-hauling capacity. And perhaps most significantly, Nissan is aiming for a price tag in the “mainstream,” which would mean something in the mid-$20,000 range.

In Lane’s view, the EV is “the silver bullet,” which explains why its development has quickly become “the number one commitment” at Nissan; not yet in terms of raw capital, “but it’s the thing we’re committed to make happen.”

In the long run, Lane believes that when it comes to “the total cost of ownership, an EV can be cheaper to own” than a gasoline-powered vehicle. Maybe, but to get there could require the creation of a creative business case.

The Israeli venture is one example, but whether it could be copied in the U.S. is highly suspect. For the American market, Nissan thinks there are other ways to promote EV ownership.

For one thing, motorists might be encouraged to switch from gas to electric by utilities who’d prefer not to keep adding capacity to the national grid. By plugging in thousands of parked EVs, a utility could draw on their stored power during peak demand times, during the day, then recharge the vehicles before motorists head home. Used batteries could be resold, and not just for scrap. Those same utilities might add them to their network to further balance load demand, suggests Lane.

“You have to believe in it,” Lane says, though in a wide-ranging conversation, he admits the EV can still be a hard sell. And like any smart business, Nissan is hedging its bets.

The automaker recently introduced its first hybrid-electric vehicle, the Altima Hybrid. That vehicle, offered in only limited volume, makes use of technology licensed from Toyota. But a little more than a year from now, Nissan will introduce its own hybrid system, one which it promises will leapfrog Toyota’s well-publicized technology.

Meanwhile, Nissan is developing its own Plug-In Hybrid, or PHEV, in concept quite similar to the highly publicized Chevrolet Volt. It would feature enough batteries to cover perhaps 35 to 50 miles, and a small gasoline engine that would kick in for longer drives.

The common thread to all this is electric propulsion, and that, clearly, is something Nissan is quite charged up about.

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