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Nissan Electric Vehicle Preview - VIDEO ENHANCED

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EDITOR'S NOTE: The Auto Channel's RoadTrip, featuring exclusive in-depth video and interviews about Nissan EV Technology can be found at the bottom of this page.

Pre-Preview: Nissan Electric Vehicle

By Carey Russ

What's the biggest block to a truly functional electric car?

The power source.

Electric cars have been around since the dawn of the Automobile Age. Even then, electric propulsion was nothing new, having seen widespread use in interurban railways (what we'd call "light rail" now, nothing new there, either) and even heavy freight main lines. And in automobiles. The electric car was a serious competitor to internal combustion in the early days, as it was quieter, cleaner, and needed less maintenance. At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the land speed record was held by Belgian Camille Jenatzy, driving "La Jamais Contente" (translated: the Never Content) -- an electric car. Speed? A then-incredible 65 mph.

So why did electric cars lose out to internal combustion? In a word, batteries.

Electrified railroads could draw essentially unlimited power from a distant source, transmitted via overhead wire or a third rail. Trains are limited to travel on fixed rails. Cars aren't -- although San Francisco, CA, has long had electrified busses that draw power from overhead wires along fixed routes. Note that "fixed routes"...

A vehicle that can travel on any road needs a self-contained power source, and for an electric vehicle, whether car or truck, that has meant batteries or fuel cells. While fuel cells get plenty of attention, they're still far from ready for prime time, as they are expensive and require a currently nonexistent hydrogen infrastructure. Battery-powered electric cars lost the fight against internal combustion almost a century ago because of range problems, and that has been their chief disadvantage ever since. Add long charging times and a further reduction of performance in cold weather, and it's easy to understand why "electric car" at this point in time refers to "golf cart" or "neighborhood electric vehicle", a polite way to say street-legal (or semi-legal) golf cart.

But battery development continues, and a high-capacity, high energy-density, quickly-chargeable battery will be a wonderful thing for more than just transportation. How many battery-powered gadgets do you depend on during your day?

Which brings us to Nissan.

If Nissan has seemed quiet on the alternative vehicle front in recent years, that's merely an illusion. Behind the scenes, and away from the American market, Nissan and its partner Renault have made some important breakthroughs, especially in battery technology. And Nissan is planning to release an electric car for sale to selected groups within 18 months -- by late 2010 -- with general public sale by 2012 at the latest.

During a recent presentation to the press in San Francisco, CA, Mark Perry, Director of Product Planning and Strategy for Nissan Americas mentioned that the as-yet unveiled production Nissan electric car will be a five-passenger sedan with all of the safety equipment and conveniences expected by today's customers. Expect something at least as well-appointed as a midlevel Altima. It will have a range of 100 miles, which will make it an excellent commute and around-town vehicle for most people -- how much do you drive during an average day? Multiple charging modes are in the design: slow charging from a 110V source, four-hour charging from 220V, or a 26-minute fast charge from a 480-volt power source.

Nissan plans no price premium for its electric car, and it should have a lower cost of ownership than a comparable internal combustion car, since it will be mechanically simpler and is expected to get the equivalent of 367 mpg according to Department of Energy equivalency calculations. Gasoline would have to be less than $1.10 per gallon for a conventional car to meet the expected four cent per mile operating cost.

The key to Nissan's adventurous outlook is the lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery pack, a technology the company has been developing since 1992. In 2007, Nissan and NEC formed a joint venture called Automotive Energy Supply Corporation, AESA, to mass-produce Li-ion batteries for vehicle use. The newest laminated Li-ion battery pack is the same physical size but has twice the power-storing capacity -- 140Wh/kg -- and 1.5 times the power output as earlier versions. This means twice the driving distance per charge, and a long life. Computer management of each individual cell ensures stable performance and safety.

Of course there are some issues that need to be addressed before electric vehicles become practical transportation. Number one is a charging infrastructure, analogous to gas stations for internal combustion. And after that, standardized charging voltages and connections, useful for both electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrids. Beyond that are charging stations themselves.

Since there is already a functional electrical power distribution network, EV (and plug-in) recharging need not be identical to gasoline or diesel "recharging". You could put a 220V recharging station in your garage, allowing a four-hour total recharge with Nissan's latest battery pack. The price mentioned? $500 for the recharger and an additional $500 to $1500 for installation, minus incentives and tax credits. Away from home, or apartment/condo parking lot, could be similar medium-speed recharging stations at workplaces or public parking lots(recharger/parking lots, anyone?) or quick-recharge stations at restaurants, convenience stores, or supermarkets.

And note that an electric vehicle doesn't necessarily have to follow the internal combustion model of one central engine/motor driving the wheels via shafts. Smaller traction motors could be used at each wheel, allowing more passenger and cargo space for any given footprint. But don't expect anything too radical at first, as existing technology is always leveraged with new technology at the beginning.

Click PLAY to watch The Auto Channel's RoadTrip episode featuring the Nissan EV

Although Nissan's production EV doesn't yet exist, at least as far as anyone is admitting, a drivetrain close to what it will use does. And at the close of the technology presentation, we were invited to drive one of two prototype Nissan EVs in existence. Around a parking lot safely away from traffic and the worst of SF pavement. You didn't think Nissan was going to let a multi-million dollar vehicle out in city traffic, did you?

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So I had a short drive in an interesting vehicle. Based on the previous-generation Cube, it was not at all a typical engineering test vehicle filled with instrumentation and cables and electronic test devices. It was a quiet, well-developed, comfortable small sedan with quick acceleration -- an electric motor makes its
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maximum torque at 0 rpm, as soon as it starts spinning, for instant low-speed acceleration, as is most useful in traffic and around town. With no gearchange, merely select forward or reverse and off you go. Other than the extreme quiet and smoothness from the lack of an internal combustion engine and associated transmission parts, it was a pleasant and unremarkable car. As a commuter and grocery-getter, it would work very well as is, we just need to wait for the recharging infrastructure. And since that is all readily-available technology, the wait won't be long.

A hundred years later, the electric car returns. Interesting times, indeed.

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