Is the future of the auto industry electric cars?
Nissan believes so. It expects that by 2020, 10 per cent of new cars sold in the world will be battery-powered. If the global car market is 70 million a year in 2020, that’s seven million new electric vehicles a year.
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Moreover, by 2050, there could be two billion cars on the road – twice as many as there are today – and 40 per cent of them could be electric, says Royal Dutch Shell, as reported in The Wall Street Journal.
Those are the optimists, those who see a booming marketplace for EVs. Of course others, such as J.D. Power and Associates, are less enthusiastic. A J.D. Power study predicts pure EV sales will reach 1.3 million a year by 2020 – not seven million.
As for Canada, well, this country may have cold winters and plenty of open spaces – both of which present a problem for mass adoption of EVs – however, this country also has an abundance of clean electricity. Nissan Canada’s head of strategic planning, Ian Forsyth, notes that 70 per cent of Canada’s electricity comes from hydro facilities or some other “clean” source. In B.C., Manitoba and Quebec, essentially 100 per cent of the electricity comes from non-polluting, renewable sources.
Thus, Nissan Canada is hyped to start selling its Leaf battery electric vehicle (BEV).
“It’s a real car. You can drive it in any kind of traffic, with no compromises,” he says.
The Leaf will go on sale next fall in Canada. By then, if there are any EV bugs, they will have been seen in the markets where the Leaf hits showrooms this month: the United States, Portugal, The Netherlands and Japan. Forsyth adds that the coming year’s Leaf production of 50,000 units – all built in Japan – is sold out.
Already, 5,000 Canadians are what Nissan calls “hand raisers” – they’ve indicated a serious interest in buying a Leaf next year. By the middle of 2011, Nissan Canada is aiming for 10,000 hand raisers. “And we need to ensure they have a satisfying experience,” says Forsyth, adding that Nissan Canada has not yet set a price for the Leaf, though in the U.S. the car sells for just under $33,000.
Nissan, of course, is not the only auto maker getting in the EV business. General Motors’ Chevrolet Volt EV is also going on sale in the U.S. It differs from the Leaf primarily in that it has an on-board gasoline motor that recharges the battery pack – a so-called range extender. In all other respects, the Volt is an EV.
Nissan, Chevrolet and many other auto makers can’t know exactly what reception their EVs will get. Nissan, says Forsyth, will market its Leaf as a no-compromises automobile with a 160-km range and a 140 km/h top speed. The Leaf will also come with an eight-year, 60,000-km warranty on the battery. Perhaps the most interesting selling point, though, is on the cost side. Nissan is arguing the Leaf should be less expensive to drive than a gasoline car.
The numbers: a typical gasoline car getting a combined 8.0 litres/100 km will have an annual fuel cost of $1,800 or $0.08 per km (at $1 a litre). The Leaf? At current electricity rates (averaging $0.06 a kilowatt-hour) the per km cost comes down to $0.009, with annual energy costs coming in at $180 or one-tenth the cost of a comparable gasoline-powered, four-door hatchback.
The Leaf will cost more up-front than a comparably sized family hatchback, though some of the difference will be offset by the amount saved on gas. Subsidies also factor into the cost equation. The Government of Ontario will give the first 10,000 EV buyers up to an $8,500 subsidy.
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As well, an electric car will be easier and less expensive to maintain. EVs don’t have spark plugs, they don’t use oil, and an EV motor barely has any moving parts. The battery has a lot of complex electronics in it, but no moving parts. And the regenerative braking system – if you use it properly – is going to do most of the work your brake pads do now. So in an EV, there is almost nothing to maintain outside of tires.
“We haven’t calculated maintenance costs, but they will be lower,” says Forsyth.
He also suggests that buyers need not worry about resale value. Nissan expects a four-year-old Leaf to retain about the same amount of its purchase price as any other standard family car – 40 to 45 per cent after four years.
Nissan has clearly thought through many of the issues holding back buyers from going electric – driving range, overall performance and vehicle cost. That only makes sense. Nissan, like Chevy with its Volt, is poised to begin moving the Leaf off dealer lots. Both appear to have an early edge on rival auto makers. But for how long?
Several other car companies, big ones and small, are about to sell EVs of their own. They range from niche maker Fisker with its $90,000 Karma super car, to big-volume car companies such as Audi (A1 E-Tron) Daimler’s Smart (electric fortwo), Toyota (FT-EV) and Ford (Focus electric).
Until widespread production begins in larger numbers, no one can be entirely sure how these vehicles differ (or are alike) in performance, reliability and the technology they employ. Governments have yet to tackle the thorny issue of comprehensive EV regulations and market forces – the price of oil, for instance – will also be in play as the EVs come to dealers and neighbourhoods around the world.
For buyers thinking of going EV green, the most important consideration is lifestyle. Nissan Canada plans to interview and educate potential Leaf buyers extensively to make sure they’ll be happy EV owners. Ninety per cent of Canadians may commute less than 60 km a day – well within the range of the Leaf – yet not all of them may be ideal candidates for a Leaf. Nissan is looking for buyers with predictable and unwavering daily driving routes. If that route includes a lot of high-speed driving, they need to know this shortens the EV’s range.
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Once on the road, EV drivers also need to concern themselves with potential charging issues. A typical 220-240 volt charge will take about eight hours, says Forsyth, adding that high-speed chargers will be able to recharge flat batteries to 80 per cent in 30 minutes, once regulatory standards are in place.
Yes, there is an argument to be made that the future of the auto industry is with EVs. If so, one other selling point should be on the tape: EVs have the potential to be very entertaining to drive. The Leaf, for instance, is quiet and quick, with a near 50:50 front-rear weight distribution.
It’s entirely reasonable to expect car companies to market EV not just as green cars, but as an improvement on today’s traditional internal combustion engine vehicles. If that tactic proves successful, nearly everyone will agree that the future of the auto industry is, indeed, with EVs.
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