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Nissan Reveals "Leaf" Electric Car for 2010

Will the vehicle’s short range hamper its success?
August 3, 2009

Last week Nissan showed off the battery and drivetrain platform for its upcoming electric vehicle. Now it’s revealed the car itself–the Leaf.

This zero-emissions vehicle, which has a range of 100 miles on a charge, will go on sale next year in Japan, the United States, and Europe. It will be powered by a lithium manganese battery developed in a joint venture between Nissan and NEC. Manganese-based lithium ion batteries are popular with automakers (GM plans to use one in the Volt) because they’re more stable than the cobalt oxide batteries commonly used in laptops and other portable electronics.

Nissan is taking a markedly different strategy than companies such as Toyota, GM, and Chrysler, which have emphasized hybrid vehicles that can run on both electricity and gasoline. Even the Volt, which GM is describing as an electric vehicle, has an onboard gasoline generator that kicks in after 40 miles of driving to recharge its battery. Because gasoline stores orders of magnitude more energy than batteries, such vehicles can have longer range than pure battery electric vehicles like Nissan’s Leaf. What’s more, fuel tanks can be refilled much faster than batteries can be recharged, at least without special electrical connections, making long-distance road trips easier. (Electric vehicle enthusiasts like to brag about cross-country trips, but these require careful planning–it’s good to find RV parks equipped with 220-volt outlets–and a willingness to take frequent breaks while the car charges.)

Nissan has been working with a company called Better Place on a strategy for extending the range of EVs. The idea is to build battery swap stations along major highways. Drive in and a simple robot takes out your car’s depleted battery and inserts a charged one, and you’re quickly on your way again. Nissan demonstrated one version of a swap station in May.

But it wasn’t immediately clear whether the Leaf would be compatible with swap stations. A spokesperson for Nissan said that the company doesn’t plan to use a swap strategy in the United States, but she expects the Leaf could be used with swap stations in other countries. She said she’d get back to me to confirm. (If she does, I’ll add that here.)

Many EV supporters say it doesn’t make sense to buy a car with a gasoline engine and fuel tank as well as an electric motor and battery pack. After all, most of the time either one or the other is just dead weight, sitting there unused. They say, if you commute less than 80 miles each day, buy an EV. Then, for those relatively rare occasions when a longer range is required, rent a car. Or use the EV as a second vehicle.

But one of the most expensive parts of an EV is the battery, and most people actually commute less than 40 miles a day. If you can make do with a battery pack half the size, you could save money, even with the added cost of a gasoline generator. So either strategy–pure EV or hybrid–could make sense.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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