Nissan’s Electric Car Plans: Victory or Vapor?

By · May 14, 2008

Carlos Ghosn, president and CEO of Nissan, unveiled the company’s five-year business plan on Tuesday. The plan—called “Nissan GT 2012” with the G and T signifying growth and trust—puts a major emphasis on electric vehicles. Hybrid and EV fans responded with a chant in unison: “Bring it on.” But green car enthusiasts also engaged their well-worn vaporware alert systems to detect false promises, improbable plans, and insincerity.

“It wasn’t long ago that Carlos Ghosn was a big naysayer about the role of electric vehicles,” said John O’Dell, senior editor at Edmunds.com, in a New York Times article. “Obviously, something has opened his eyes.” For the past few years, Ghosn has consistently called gas-electric hybrids “niche products” and “not a good business story.” In 2005, he said, “We don't want to build or sell cars that don't make a profit.” Ghosn has previously cited California’s greenhouse gas regulations for passenger vehicles as the only legitimate reason for moving toward electric-drive cars.

Ghosn has apparently experienced a dramatic conversion from hard-nosed businessman to electric car preacher. In the current issue of The Economist, Ghosn said, “We must have zero-emission vehicles. Nothing else will prevent the world from exploding.” Of course, he has a point about the need to reduce vehicle emissions, but the use of apocalyptic language from the CEO doesn’t ring true. Could his conversion to zero-emission vehicles have anything to do with Nissan being way behind in development of today’s hybrids?

Many of the headlines about Nissan’s electric car plans mentioned 2010 as the target date—but that date is for fleet testing. A more careful reading puts retail sales of Nissan EVs at 2012, at the earliest. And production numbers will be low. Ghosn said, “We’re talking about hundreds of vehicles first.” Japan’s Nikkei recently reported that Nissan’s 50-50 joint venture with NEC Corporation will be able to produce enough lithium ion batteries for thousands of electric vehicles and hybrids a year starting in the spring of 2009. That’s max production capacity for lithium battery technology still being tested—not safe and warranted out the door and installed in vehicles.

To make a go of its electric car plans, Nissan will need next-generation lithium ion batteries with rapid-charging capability and enough energy storage to deliver a driving range of 100 miles or more. NEC batteries are being tested in the Subaru R1e, a car only slightly bigger than the Smart ForTwo. The Subaru R1e promises a range of about 50 miles per charge, but will require a large external charger to reduce charging time from several hours to several minutes. That means coming back home for each charge. Mr. Ghosn will have to put his businessman’s hat back on, and ask if consumers will pay $25,000—the figure offered by Tom Lane, Nissan's global product-planning chief—for a vehicle roughly the size of a Smart car, with a top speed of 65 mph, a range of 50 miles, and overnight recharging.

Nissan is already working on these recharging challenges, by virtue of its partnership with Israel’s Project Better Place. In that project, the two companies hope to build an entirely new electric car business model and infrastructure—including lifetime warranties for batteries, roadside stations for charging, and a battery-swapping program. Here’s where the vaporware-detector really starts beeping.

“With battery swap-outs, you’re dealing with 300 pounds of batteries,” said Ed Kjaer, director of electric transportation at Southern California Edison. “You’ve got liability issues. You have issues around how that battery has been consumed by the previous driver. It’s not there today because the technology is not mature.” And that’s coming from one the electric utility industry’s most articulate and enthusiastic advocates of plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. Kjaer and others industry leaders propose a one-step-at-a-time approach beginning with more hybrids, then plug-in hybrids, then electric vehicles—and finally a two-way smart electric car-electric grid network.

Fans of greener cars should be very pleased with Ghosn’s “growth and trust” plan—and should encourage Nissan and other carmakers to charge forward. Way to go, Nissan! But let’s face it: until specific vehicles with detailed specific attributes and pricing are heading to a dealership near you, it’s just talk.

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