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Nissan's electric charge

Date: 18 June 2008

While other carmakers hedge their bets on the best propulsion for the future, Nissan has come out squarely behind full-electric vehicles. Guy Bird reports

The acceleration of a milk float, toy car looks, a lack of range, slow recharging and expensive to buy - full electric vehicles have not enjoyed the best image over the past decade.

But all these cliches might soon be consigned to history. As oil prices spiral upward and CO2 climbs the agenda for politicians and UK businesses, carmakers are quietly coming up with new electric vehicles (EV) with zero tailpipe emissions and lower total lifecycle vehicle costs.

Nissan will be one of the first to bring a vehicle to market as president and CEO Carlos Ghosn recently announced: "This is not some Star Wars prototype but mass-market, and not just one car but a whole range."

Nissan says categorically that the technology has improved. It is now developing a 'flatpack' lithium-ion battery - as opposed to less space-efficient cylindrical ones - with a range of 60-90 miles and much quicker charging measured in minutes rather than hours. The company has considerable experience with full electric vehicles, producing them as far back as 1996 for the Japanese market, and has recently announced the start of battery mass production through Automotive Energy Supply, its joint venture partnership with electronics giant NEC.

Nissan's design chief Shiro Nakamura says the first vehicle will be an all-new vehicle (like the Toyota Prius) rather than an adaptation of an existing model (like the Lexus RX400h) and "appropriately sized to Seat four people". As well as other cars - possibly including an Electric Cube - an electric LCV could also follow.

When and where?

The plan is to launch a model first in Japan and the US (subject to incentives), followed in 2011 by Israel and Denmark, whose governments have already decided upon major discounts on very high car taxes. The 2011 launch will be alongside sister brand Renault.

From 2012 the cars will sell worldwide, including in Britain. UK MD, Paul Willcox told BusinessCar: "I think the UK will be one of the first in Europe to take up EVs given the maturity of CO2-related taxation." He also said he would be increasing pressure on the SMMT to lobby the Government for tax breaks as well as speaking to key city councils individually. Willcox added: "As long as national and local governments are receptive to incentives, I want EVs. In 12 months' time we'll have a clearer picture of what will come in product terms. The durability of the technology is key; it shouldn't be a compromise."

How will it be sold?

There will be a new business proposition for the electric car. If Israel's prototype model comes to the UK, British fleets might end up with a mobile phone-style contract where the car is purchased but the battery and energy is paid for through a monthly subscription. This fee - thought to be about £275 per month for Israel - would allow 18,000 miles a year through access to the charging points. The service provider is a new US-based company called Project Better Place that aims to install a whopping 500,000 charging points across Israel. The electric cars will have on-board computers to advise drivers of remaining charge and nearest re-charging points.

Other makers are also pushing full-electric agendas of course - Mitsubishi is hoping to bring an electric version of its iCar supermini to the UK by 2010 and GM is still plugging its 'plug-in' electric cars - but from today's standpoint Nissan and Renault look better placed than Mitsubishi and at least as advanced as GM. And with CEO Ghosn fully behind the project, expect it to happen. He concluded by saying: "Zero emission vehicles is a territory we want to own. On electric cars, we're the most ready. Battery and electricity has to be cheaper than the price of oil but with oil at $120 per barrel that's not difficult."