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Nissan’s Leaf: Charged with Information

The all-electric car will tell drivers where to recharge.
December 15, 2009

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.

Leaf dash: The Nissan Leaf interior includes dashboard displays that can show the location of nearby charge stations.

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.

Info display: An e-mail displayed on an iPhone (center) will tell Nissan Leaf owners when their car is finished charging. Dashboard displays (clockwise from top left) show the car’s driving range and charging stations near the destination; the location of the nearest charging stations; battery charge levels and time to full charge; and an option for preheating or precooling the car before unplugging.

Some startup companies hope to make a business out of providing recharging stations and even battery swaps for rapid “refueling” along highways. But initially, recharging facilities, whether provided by startups, carmakers, or the government, will be relatively scarce. “Telematics will be an important part of helping you find those stations. And telematics will be an important part of accurately predicting that you can make it to your destination without refueling,” says MacKenzie.

Wirelessly transmitted charging information will be less important for GM’s Chevrolet Volt, also due for mass production next year. This car will carry a small gasoline engine for the purpose of recharging the electric battery. The gas option will boost its range from 40 miles in all-electric mode to 300 miles in gas-recharging mode. And this makes the Volt far less dependent on charging stations. Still, GM is using OnStar to monitor the mechanical and battery condition of pre-production Volts. And like the Leaf, production Volts will beam information about their battery’s condition as well as any battery malfunction data to headquarters, and will notify users of charging-station locations.

Eventually, both electric and plug-in hybrid cars will most likely be able to communicate with power utilities, so consumers can charge their cars at off-peak times. By doing this, they could take advantage of lower off-peak electricity prices and avoid stressing the power grid.

The U.S. Department of Energy is now studying the best ways to manage car-charging on the power grid. Also involved with the study are Electric Transportation Engineering of Scottsdale, AZ, and Gridpoint, a smart-grid company based in Arlington, VA.

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