Nissan LEAF
Nissan LEAF. Click image to enlarge

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Nissan LEAF

Los Angeles, California – Although development of electric vehicles began way back in the 19th century, it turns out that solving the riddle of battery-powered transportation is a 21st century challenge.

Enter the Nissan LEAF, planned for limited launch in 2010, and for international volume release in 2012. Powered with an advanced lithium-ion battery that is engineered and manufactured by Nissan, the LEAF will be “the world’s first affordable, zero emissions family vehicle,” according to Renault-Nissan.

Unlike specialty electric vehicles (EVs), the LEAF is a five-passenger, four-door car of conventional design. Its range on a full charge is 160-kilometres, and it can be charged overnight in your driveway via a 220-volt outlet (the same type of outlet used by clothes dryers). According to consumer research conducted by Nissan, the 160-km daily range satisfies the requirements of 70 per cent of the world’s drivers.

Nissan LEAF
Nissan LEAF. Click image to enlarge

The LEAF has plenty of passenger and cargo room, a complete array of occupant amenities and safety features, and performance that will keep up with, or exceed, most cars on the road (0 -100 km/h in less than 10 seconds; top speed of 140 km/h, for instance). Additionally, it is 99 per cent recyclable.

As you would expect, Renault-Nissan President Carlos Ghosn is optimistic about EVs in general and the Nissan LEAF in particular. But the optimism is based on a convincing interpretation of the transportation industry, its future energy demands and likely environmental outcomes. While he doesn’t envision EVs replacing the internal combustion engine in the very near future, he does see the global fleet comprising 10 per cent EVs by 2020.

Mr. Ghosn is convinced that consumers will respond to the availability of a vehicle that uses no gasoline, is affordably priced, attractively designed and offers the same everyday practicalities as a conventionally fuelled car. The “zero emissions” produced by the LEAF is an “added bonus,” according to Mr. Ghosn. “There are no tailpipe emissions because there is no tailpipe,” he points out.

Nissan LEAF
Nissan LEAF. Click image to enlarge

However, Nissan does not see the introduction of the LEAF in isolation from development of the infrastructure that produces electricity. Mr. Ghosn suggests that recharging EVs will mostly take place, during off-peak times, and that the initial production plans of 500,000 LEAFs globally in 2012 is a quantity that will barely impact existing infrastructures.

“By the time we get to 50 or 100 million EVs, we’ll need a transformation of the delivery system for electricity,” said Mr. Ghosn, but in the meantime, the plan is that the primary charging station for the LEAF will be the home, and secondary venues will be quick charging stations operated by commercial suppliers. The quick charging stations will charge the LEAF to 80 per cent of full capacity in 30 minutes.

Although the LEAF is clearly an automotive breakthrough, some will question its restricted range and extended charging times, not to mention the safety and reliability of its battery. To this Mr. Ghosn replies that the LEAF represents a first step in mass EV transportation that will lead to further developments and advancements. Consequently, as the scale of the EV sector increases, the cost of components like the battery will fall (along with its size and weight) while output is expected to increase. Charging times, likewise, should get shorter over time.

Nissan LEAF
Nissan LEAF
Nissan LEAF. Click image to enlarge

Canadians will naturally be concerned about the effectiveness of the lithium-ion battery in winter, as conventional batteries lose their power when the temperature drops. Mark Perry, Nissan’s Director of Product Development, says that the LEAF battery doesn’t lose power until minus 20 degrees Celsius, and that even when temperatures fall below that point, the power loss is only a few per cent. However, the battery will be challenged in winter by extensive use of the heater, heated seats, heated mirrors and rear-defroster, all of which are typically not used during the warmer months (the air conditioner, in comparison, is more efficient than the heater, requiring less energy to operate). In any event, range will be reduced in the winter, although it still may be sufficient for daily requirements without a supplementary charge.

Another criticism and a pretty obvious one at this point, is that if you don’t have a driveway and access to a 220-volt outlet, the LEAF will not be for you – at least, not until apartment buildings come with outlets at their parking spots, or quick charging stations proliferate.

Concerning the battery, consumers may wonder what happens if the battery in their LEAF is made obsolete by a better model. A wrinkle on LEAF ownership is that the battery will be leased to consumers, rather than owned by them. The plan is to enable owners to retrofit more advanced batteries as they become available, with the old batteries recycled.

Nissan LEAF
Nissan LEAF. Click image to enlarge

The Los Angeles preview of the Nissan LEAF represented the first leg of a 22-city North American tour of the vehicle, although invitees didn’t get a chance to drive one (a LEAF was there as a static display). What we did drive for a few minutes on a closed course was a Nissan Versa built on a LEAF platform. That vehicle was silent in operation, simple to drive, and notably powerful under acceleration.

Along with the LEAF, Nissan has announced two more as-yet unnamed vehicles that will use the same technology: a light commercial vehicle and an Infiniti compact luxury vehicle.

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