When the all-electric Nissan Leaf hits the U.S. market next year, consumers will have to consider its relatively short 100-mile driving range, as well as the scarcity of charging stations beyond their own homes. Nissan plans to tackle these concerns by providing information–and lots of it–to help drivers manage the recharging process.
The success of the Leaf and other electric cars “is going to come down to how comfortable people are that they can get where they want to go, won’t run out of charge, and won’t have to go through some process that will take them a long time and impact their ability to use the vehicle,” says Rod MacKenzie, vice president and chief technology officer at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a research think-tank in Washington, DC.
In other words, all-electric cars will need to connect the recharging infrastructure to in-car telematics.
The Leaf will do this with a communication module that connects via satellite to Nissan’s global data center. It will be similar to existing telematics systems, such as GM’s OnStar, which detects mechanical breakdowns and accidents and beams this information back to base.
But the Leaf will add an emphasis on monitoring the battery’s condition and helping drivers keep their batteries topped-up. Planning recharges will be crucial: giving a Leaf a full charge will take 16 hours from home-based stations, at the voltages available in the U.S. or Japan, or eight hours at the higher voltages available in Europe. At a fast-charging station, equipped with high-voltage plugs, a charge will take 30 minutes–still a long time compared to filling a gas tank.
The Leaf’s dashboard display will show remaining battery life, the location of charging stations, and which stations are within range. When the car gets low on power, the driver can put it into a “limp” mode so it drives at the most-efficient speed to ensure it gets there.
Once the driver plugs a car into a charging station, Nissan sends e-mail updates on how the charge is progressing, and when it’s done. And finally, the owner can use a mobile device to switch on the car’s electric air-conditioner or heater before detaching it from the charging station, so as not to waste battery life after pulling away.
“Most people think that the charging infrastructure is the Achilles’ heel of an electric vehicle project. But it’s really not,” says Mark Perry, Nissan’s director of product planning and advanced technology strategy. “We are doing this to address peace of mind. We think people will recharge at home 80 percent of the time. But this lets people feel comfortable with the what-ifs,” he added.
Perry sees the dashboard information offered by the Leaf going even further in the future. “Eventually what will be available is not only charging station locations, but if they are occupied and unoccupied, and even a reservation process,” says Perry.