Nissan is on tour promoting its upcoming electric vehicle, the Leaf, in select cities across the U.S. The 5-passenger EV will become available in December 2010, and faces many challenges in fostering a supporting vehicle charging infrastructure and creating consumer-friendly financing options, but thus far they seem to have a well-conceived plan. During an event in Portland this week I spoke with Nissan senior manager for corporate planning Brian Verprauskus about the Leaf launch plans.
Ensuring that consumers will be ready to charge on the day that they bring the vehicle home is a new challenge for Nissan and the other EV manufacturers. Nissan plans to partner with a nationally known company to provide the wall box for plugging in the vehicle and to manage matching vehicle owners with electricians. Nissan will choose a company that has experience going into consumers’ homes, and will likely announce the partner in early 2010. Consumers will need to connect the box to a dedicated circuit for EV charging, which requires carefully managing the process to reduce risk of a customer improperly plugging in a vehicle and causing damage to the vehicle or property. Nissan’s plan is smart because many consumers will need hand holding to understand the issues of EV charging, and a company with adept at customer relations will be key.
Nissan is putting the majority of the intelligence in the vehicle charging equipment, which enables them to monitor and manage charging. This includes delayed charging, a critical feature for utilities who fear EVs adding to peak demand. This is also necessary because today there are few standards for managing charging and for hardware and communications standards, so Nissan had to create its own technology until the rest of the industry catches up.
Nissan has elected to use cellular networks to send data between the vehicle and the company. This will also enable Nissan to send text messages to consumers to alert them if the vehicle is not plugged in when it is supposed to be. Consumers will also be able to pre-heat and pre-cool their vehicles through messages sent from their cell phones.
These features address a fundamental challenge with electric vehicles – they not only have to be emissions free to satisfy environmentally-conscious customers, but they also need to be the most geeked-out vehicles that most consumers have ever driven. The EV experience must be clearly differentiated from driving a gasoline car because consumers won’t save money driving EVs until the price of gasoline rises significantly.
Down the road Nissan will have to deal with contention between equipment as smart meters and smart wall boxes will also have features for managing charging. As new standards are passed, it will be a bit messy as auto manufacturers will have to upgrade equipment and react to potential hardware incompatibilities.
Another challenge for Nissan and other EV manufacturers is pricing the vehicles and the batteries. The company will lease the vehicles and batteries, sell the vehicles and lease the batteries, or sell the vehicles with the batteries. If Nissan attractively prices the batteries assuming that I can resell them after 5 years but cannot find a market, the company may have to write them off at a sizable loss.
Nissan has picked select markets including Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles to launch the Leaf, which will enable the company to work the kinks out before a nationwide launch. The support of business, civic, and political leaders for a charging infrastructure is critical for EV success. So far Nissan appears to be forming all of the right partnerships to make that possible.