Sunday, August 2, 2009

Nissan first to Australia with EVs?

The Nissan Australia website, as well as a few other Nissan country specific portals have been sporting a EV badge for a short time now, which until just a few hours ago led to a sign-up page to register interest. Now that logo, as well as a top-row menu item on their website leads to a flashy marketing presentation touting their zero emissions strategy. A strategy headed up by a real zero emissions true electric vehicle.

It looks like the big announcement from Nissan slated for the 2nd of August is their new Leaf EV. The Leaf (its Nissan bonnet logo pictured left concealing a nifty two-port charging socket) is a nippy 4-door hatch, with a snub-nosed low-drag front, reminiscent of the Prius, and a rear that seems more Citroen/Renault.

But this announcement from the Japanese automaker is really about more than one car: they really have thrown all their weight behind the EV concept, in an uncompromising way - and the Leaf is just the first real world sign of this strategy.

Without mentioning Toyota explicitly, the Nissan EV strategy is clearly targeting the Prius which has until now been the poster child for eco-friendly high-tech automobiles.

However as climate evangelists will tell you a world full of Prius drivers is still a world addicted to oil. And still a world where tailpipe emissions take us closer to midnight on the climate change doomsday clock.

Toyota, and Honda too, are bearish on EV technology. Of course Honda has an ongoing dalliance with Hydrogen fuel cells. But why is Toyota, with its Prius full of batteries and clever electric technology not more gung-ho on electric?

While some view Toyota's Hybrid Synergy drive as a clever entree for the motoring public to full electric vehicles, their top brass are still saying that full-electric vehicles - with no internal combustion range-extender or cooperative power source - are not a viable strategy for them. Improvements in battery technology and commitments on infrastructure are needed, they say, before committing to EV's, and while they're busy selling the Hybrid Synergy drive to other manufacturers they'd be mad to say anything else.

Basically Toyota just don't think the motoring public are ready to buy pure EV cars.

Toyota have been toe-dipping with talk of an EV based on the Toyota iQ - a mini-car popular in Japan, they remain convinced that the incredible success of the Hybrid Synergy drive, and in particular the Prius is a golden goose that will keep laying for some time.

Mitsubishi dropped into the EV scene a year or so ago with lots of chat about their iMiev electric car. Earlier this year the compact four-seater was doing the rounds of Australia in a traveling road show to try and guage interest in the fully electric vehicle.

However like the iQ, the iMiev is stuck in the mini-car mentality - electric car equals under-powered.

Elon Musk recognized in Tesla that breaking down the "golf cart" myth was essential to getting broad take up of EV's as a real transportation option.

However, many manufacturers seem to be failing to innovate in their EV offerings, producing underpowered cars like the 47kW iMiev, or worse still "neighbourhood cars" that are not capable of highway speeds at all.

Note: don't try to compare those kW figures with the power ratings on an internal combustion motors - the whole power delivery and performance characteristics of an EV are completely different to ICE powered vehicles. Also power on an EV has more to do with the settings on the battery management system and drive-by-wire setup which balance range, safety and wear-and-tear against performance.

Don't get me wrong - I would be happy to see lots of folks buying the iMiev or even an neighbourhood car, and saving all those emissions nipping down to the shops, or dropping the kids at the bus stop.

And the Leaf is not the hairy chested sports car that the Tesla is.

But what Nissan is doing with the 80kW Leaf and its 160km range is truly ground-breaking in a consumer vehicle. They are producing a car that is designed to appeal to anyone looking at for example the Mitsubishi Colt or Toyota Yaris.

Nissan are not quoting zero-to-100km/h times on their website but from the looks of the car and the specifications it appears to be looking good for around 7 seconds zero-to-100km/h. And like all electric cars it will do a lot better in the 0-50km/h range than many gas-guzzlers, leaving them standing at the lights as it surges silently away.

I will be the first to admit that electric cars are not for everybody. If you're an outdoors type constantly tooling off to the waves or to where the fish are biting, then the electric vehicles coming out in the next few years are not for you - their range is not good enough, they won't have the towing capacity, and quite frankly they probably won't fit your lifestyle. A flex-fuel diesel is probably the best thing for those folks - and will be for some time.

But there are huge numbers of people for whom a peppy zero-emissions compact car is an absolutely ideal solution for daily getting around, commuting, buzzing out to visit friends, do the shopping and getting to the gym.

Oh, and forget about "infrastructure". With Australia's 220 volt power you'll charge up to that full range figure in 6-8 hours while you're sleeping. For typical commutes even if you forget the occasional night to plug it in you'll still have plenty of juice. Most EV owners will never ever need infrastructure - they'll just plug their car in, wherever they are.

Imagine that - never ever having to go to the gas station again. Sounds great to me.

Where the BetterPlace model makes sense is for large fleet buyers who may currently have LPG fuelling setups at their depot, and want to take advantage of the lower maintenance costs and smaller energy costs of an electric fleet. Also they get to take advantage of green credentials - in their marketing, and in any future carbon trading scheme. Fleets like for example the Queensland Government operation are keenly aware of these factors and a BetterPlace battery swap station or two is entirely in their scope.

The question for us antipodean motorists will be - when? Hopefully since Nissan partners BetterPlace have been trumpeting their new infrastructure rollout in the Canberra Australia will be one of the early-adopters - we can only wait and see, but I'm picking this might very well be the first electric car on our shores.