Analysis: Nissan charges towards an electric future
11 August 2009
Nissan has revealed its full-electric plug-in Leaf, a car that will be on sale in the UK by the end of next year. But there's much more to the firm's electric dreams than simply selling a car, reports Paul Barker
The future is finally here. Well, Nissan's version of it. The pictured car, the Leaf, is supposed to be the breakthrough in bringing electric vehicles to the masses.
Arriving at the end of 2010, the Leaf should be the first purpose-built electric car coming to the UK. Parent firm Renault is also launching electric versions of its Kangoo (driven on p21), but the Leaf isn't based on an existing model, so Nissan claims packaging advantages of a designated model.
But the company's approach is about far more than just launching a car. Late last month, BusinessCar was part of an exclusive group given an intimate insight into how Nissan hopes to shape the future of electric vehicles.
Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn says the strategy is "unique because it goes beyond the vehicle itself. Taking this new technology to mass production requires building up the necessary infrastructure and securing the economic conditions for success through partnerships with governments and other third parties. This is our vision and we're working aggressively to make it happen." But how?
"Customers have a lot of images built on previous experience, and most images are pretty bad," admits Jerome Lacroix of Nissan's zero emissions mobility programme. "There are a lot of myths surrounding electric vehicles that we have to overcome." He pinpoints range, saying drivers fear being stranded by the roadside as their battery power ebbs away before they can find somewhere to recharge.
The company is promising that range is only a "short-term problem," with battery technology progressing quickly in line with the increased demand and economies of scale speeding up development.
Nissan talks of two key aims with the Leaf - it has to both look and drive like a normal car. "If you have a strange design, it doesn't make a customer confident about the technology," says Lacroix. "You can't ask customers to adapt to a product, the product has to adapt to the customer's lifestyle and offer no compromise, the customer won't change all their life habits for new technology."
"We are judging versus a normal C-segment [lower medium] car," adds Redmer van der Meer, Nissan's EV?product manager for Europe. "The message is very clear - no compromises on what is currently available except autonomy [range]."
That means five seats, a promised boot space equivalent to a Ford Focus or VW Golf, a top speed of 140km/h (87mph) and acceleration that is claimed to match a 110PS 1.6-litre lower medium hatchback to 60mph.
As well as the car itself, Nissan has been working on technology to go alongside it. Drivers will be able to link the Leaf to their mobile to monitor the state of charge, receive a text when it's topped-up and even switch on the aircon from their house, so the car is either heating or cooling while still plugged in, rather than running down the battery. "You can pre-heat the car while you're having your breakfast so the car will be warm when you get in and the heating won't have to work so hard when the car's unplugged," says Larry Haddad of the Nissan's product strategy team.
The standard satnav will also list every public charging station, and Nissan will update the system wirelessly as new charging points appear. The navigation will also automatically search out charging stations when the battery gets down to 20% charge.
The key issue is infrastructure. While the Leaf, like all EVs, can be charged from any three-pin plug socket, Nissan admits recharging is the biggest hurdle. Haddad claims 92% of people don't use their vehicle for more than 150km (93 miles) a day, so "for most people on most days, home charging is enough of an infrastructure to make electric vehicles work. If someone drives 50km to work and then 50km home again they don't need a recharging network because they have a plug at home."
But the firm's not naïve enough to believe that will be appropriate for all situations. "At weekends and vacations, 60% of people go over 160km, so we know we need a network of charging stations to make it work."
Nissan is looking at helping establish charging points at motorway service stations. "For long-trips and vacations it's critical to have a fast-charge network at rest stops on autoroutes," says Haddad. These could deliver an 80% charge in less than half an hour.
Unlike other firms that are buying in battery technology, Nissan and parent Renault have a partnership signed with electronics giant NEC. "Tomorrow the battery will be the key element so we want to keep the knowledge internally," says Lacroix. "Some rivals have been purchasing battery technology, we don't want to do this. If you lose battery technology knowledge then you more or less become a body designer and we don't want to do this."
Other partnerships will also be key to Nissan's plans, with Europe-wide deals with LeasePlan and Europcar, and the UK-based Greentomatocars all already signed (see panel, right).
In the UK
The company is already working with governments to try and ensure a serious network is in place prior to launch. "If you are doing nothing then nothing will happen," Lacroix tells BusinessCar. "We decided to create a zero-emission mobility programme - not a selling programme - to ensure that by the time we introduce the car, the country will be ready."
That programme covers volume forecasts, working with governments to plan incentives for early adopters, organising a charging network and an education programme. "If we just put cars in dealerships then it won't work, we need to explain EVs, and not just our EVs," he says.
Lacroix also admits that in the UK, the company has been asked to provide examples of work it has done with other governments, most notably in Portugal where an agreement will mean 20% of newly acquired public fleet vehicles will be electric by 2011. He was keen to emphasise the deal isn't for Renault/Nissan electric vehicles, but any model on the open market. Lacroix also said some governments are looking at similar agreements with private sector fleets, as well as legislation to force developers constructing or renovating buildings to install charging points.
Lacroix is keen to point out how crucial the fleet market is to Nissan's electric push, especially in the UK where the sector dominates new car sales.
"There are two situations. The first is the companies interested in communication, they're spending billions to show that they are green," he says. "We could sell some cars at whatever price we want to them."
"But for the real potential, it's the ones who realise that the cost of ownership, the cost per mile, will be cheaper than a C-segment car."
That's where the deal with the UK's number two, and Europe's biggest, lease firm comes in. "LeasePlan is a critical player if we want to enter the fleet market," said Lacroix. "We need to be on lists, and we have a common interest because LeasePlan works with companies with CO2-reduction objectives." And LeasePlan's knowledge is attractive. "Also of interest to us is the information exchange - they are experts in the fleet market and the kind of usage they do, so will help us to propose something relevant."
But there are three key considerations that lead Lacroix to believe corporate is the crucial sector for EVs. "One, it's less risky for fleets - private buyers only have one car and if fleets purchase 50 or 100 cars it's less of a risk. Two, fleets know the usage pattern of a car and know precisely which cars could be switched to electric. And three, at the moment companies are more open to the economic advantage being presented by EVs." Plus, Nissan is hoping to tap into the leasing giant's experience to help set residual values. Internally, the manufacturer is expecting RVs in line with lower medium sector rivals, and points to the leasing model as a help because the batteries can be upgraded as technology evolves.
To start with, Nissan is anticipating more demand than it can fulfil. "At the beginning we'll work with selected companies, we'll make sure we concentrate our energy where the partner will be good," he says. "It's not about size, look at Greentomatocars, their strategy is 100% in line with ours and they will have priority from us and get early cars. For them it's good and we benefit from their image."
A deal with rental firm Europcar is a partnership Nissan feels will aid the rapid acceptance of electric, with two-fold benefits to the manufacturer. Firstly, it offers the opportunity for a short test drive, to see how the car works. And secondly, Lacroix said Nissan "can imagine a marketing package", where Leaf owners also get a cheap deal for renting a conventional car two or three times a year. "It would be a shame to think we'd miss out on some clients for the one or two times per year they need a 'proper' car," says Lacroix. "If you buy an EV, you get a rental car for a certain number of days - 90% of the time the autonomy of the car is enough, but when I need to go on vacation I know I can have a car for almost free."
The Leaf is the first of what will become a full range of electric vehicles. "If we want to go for the mass market we have to target every segment," says Lacroix. The firm also sees a future for hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, and expects to be selling them in Europe by 2015.
Wireless charging is another area of development that could boost the dependability of electric vehicles. "We have the technology but it's very expensive and there would have to be a cost breakthrough before we can do it," says Haddad. "The easiest way is by a charging plate on the road, but it's a mid-term vision. You could see inductive charging in an owner's garage before the street, it takes a lot of copper to put in the road."
But the most important thing is the growing interest in a car that will be on sale in the UK a little more than a year from now. "It's very different from 18 months ago," concludes Lacroix. "Now every government wants to be part of it." And if they want to be involved, it means we certainly will be.