Nissan Reroutes Its Electric Car Plans, This Time with Multiple Technologies

By · June 29, 2016

Tavares and Tailpipe

Nissan's new plug-in hybrid system first appeared in the Gripz compact crossover shown last fall at the Frankfurt Motor Show

In the months leading up to the 2010 introduction of the Nissan LEAF, Carlos Ghosn, the company’s chief executive, said his big bet on EVs was based on one company declaring itself as the undisputed leader of a specific advanced technology. Toyota already claimed hybrids, he said, in a scene that appears in the 2011 documentary Revenge of the Electric Car. Other companies would continue to make hybrids, but Toyota would always be the hybrid king. Ghosn announced that Nissan was staking its claim as the electric car leader and building a big battery plant to support its efforts.

In terms of total cumulative sales to date, Ghosn delivered. The Nissan LEAF is the most popular electric car in history, with around 100,000 vehicles on US roads and another 125,000 or so units in Europe and Asia.

That’s a major achievement—but one that has to be tempered by the acknowledgement that Nissan has lost any claim of being the sole owner, or even the leader, of the EV movement. It shuttered its plans to build a battery factory, before a single pack was produced. Sales of the LEAF have been sporadic over the past five years. So far in 2016, the Nissan LEAF, the only plug-in car offered by Nissan, is in fifth place on the sales charts, behind the Tesla Model S, Chevrolet Volt, Ford Fusion Energi, and Tesla Model X.

As longer range relatively affordable electric cars, like the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3, make their way to market, Nissan clearly needs to revitalize its plug-in plans. The competition is stiffer than ever. In recent months, we have heard how Volkswagen, Mercedes and BMW will be offering plug-in variants of nearly every model in its lineup.

What’s the response from Nissan and Carlos Ghosn? First, it appears from recent reports that Nissan is working on a 60 kilowatt-hour 200-mile EV, probably in the form of a new LEAF due out in 2017 or 2018. It’s evident now that this year’s LEAF, which offers multiple battery packs including one nudging range to 107 miles from 84, is not a bold enough move to reclaim leadership—not when 200-mile cars are coming down the pike.

Despite acknowledgements that a long-range LEAF is being developed, details remain scarce. What has been acknowledged by Ghosn is that Nissan will make a plug-in hybrid, with a system that resembles the gas-electric series hybrid architecture of the Chevy Volt.

Dubbed e-Power, and first appearing as the Gripz compact crossover shown last fall at the Frankfurt Motor Show, the new Nissan compact plug-in hybrid is expected in Japan next year. There’s no clear word if or when it will be sold in the United States. Last week, speaking at a shareholders meeting, Ghosn said, “This new electric vehicle will meet consumer demand for greater autonomy and fuel efficiency. It will utilize a new e-Power system that matches the agility, quietness, strong acceleration and efficiency of the Nissan Leaf.”

Acknowledging That Consumers Want Choices

What a difference five years makes. In January 2011, when the Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt were both just hitting US roads, executives from Nissan and General Motors battled for PR points regarding which company had the “real electric car.” Carlos Tavares, then Nissan's executive vice-president of the Americas, speaking at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit, famously held up a muffler and tailpipe and said, “As automakers, we have a duty to communicate with clarity to help customers understand today’s technology. If you’re calling your car electric, and it has one of these, you’re only muddling the message.”

Tavares and Tailpipe

Tavares and tailpipe, captured on video at the 2011 Automotive News Congress.

It’s doubtful that many consumers understood the distinction between an EV, PHEV and ER-EV then, or that they understand it now—especially not with Nissan saying last week that it will introduce an electric car that has a range-extending engine (and a tailpipe). The message will continue to be muddled and, frankly, beside the point. Another recent announcement from Nissan, about its development of a fuel-cell car that generates hydrogen through onboard reformation of ethanol, will likely generate more blank stares. Whether or not ethanol-based fuel cells make sense or not, the announcement doesn’t help clarify the company’s electric car intentions.

Of course, any car or technology that displaces petroleum-based and polluting miles with cleaner electric miles should be celebrated. The market (and the environment) needs both electric cars and plug-in hybrids (and dare I say it on, hydrogen fuel cell cars as well). It’s great that Nissan is developing a plug-in hybrid that it believes will “answer consumer demand for greater autonomy and fuel efficiency,” as Ghosn said.

Maybe the hard-earned lesson that Nissan learned—and what might be the company’s enduring contribution to EVs—is the acknowledgement that they can come in many different shapes, sizes and technology configurations. The EV movement is big and strong. It can’t be contained with one type of system or owned by just one company. The fact that Nissan jumpstarted the mainstream EV market and spurred the current level of fierce competition—one that it is struggling to keep up with—deserves kudos from all of us who want to see a greener transportation future.

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