The soul of a new machine

One of the by-products of our recent activities in low carbon vehicles is that we have built some new relationships and get involved in more activities than we used to.  So it was that, the other week, I went out as part of a UK group to see what Nissan are doing about zero emission mobility.  It was a fascinating day. 

It took place in a large room lined with high quality graphics and dominated by one of those models that demand to be looked at - in this case a section of an urban environment, with many of the facilities and ideas aimed at making electric vehicles more appealing to the mass market.  It started with the usual restatement of the challenge - the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the growth in the desire for personal transport, both in the developed world and, more alarmingly, in the developing world, the technological challenge of providing minimal disruption of the user perceived needs - they are all trotted out regularly enough for everyone to recognise the outline and detail!

There was then a nice discussion about the potential additional features that could - and in many cases should - be built into electric vehicles - such as better navigational systems that helped manage the power with respect to geography and travel needs.  At points, I wasn't sure if Nissan were briefing us or using us as a focus group but it was interesting to take part in a discussion where everyone seemed to know what were facts and what was conjecture!

After lunch, the pace picked up.  We were all to be given the opportunity to drive the powertrain of the new car, albeit in the body of a Nissan Cube.  One by one, we went outside....  The drive consisted of a winding circuit around the town.  First, you had to follow the electric Cube in an automatic Note.  The Note is not a bad car, with about 100 bhp from a 1.6 l engine, and the automatic made it easy to drive.  At one point on the circuit, the electric Cube pulled away up a mild hill.  To try to keep up, you had to apply some pressure to the accelerator and the Note changed down twice but still didn't keep up.  Once I had proved I could follow, I was then allowed to drive the electric Cube.  What you then realise is that it is following another Note - which was effectively acting as its bodyguard! 

The electric Cube itself is a sizable investment by Nissan and was alleged to be insured for £1m.  The leading car was to ensure no-one had an accident with the electric Cube - presumably throwing itself in the way?  It also ensured that the "guest" electric Cube driver didn't go too fast, of course.  Anyway, the electric Cube was easy to drive.  Like most electric cars, it has a stop pedal, a go pedal and not much else.  It handled well around corners and coped with the twisty roads neatly.  When the hill arrived, I knew what would happen.  The lead Note (presumably a manual car) accelerated away.  I pushed on the "go" pedal and the electric Cube responded easily, pulling up on the lead car and leaving the trailing Note (now driven by another of the guests) well behind.  They had made their point about drivability and torque subtly and well!!

Once we had experienced the basis of the actual "car" we got to learn more about the real car it was to power.  It was to be a C class (a Golf or Focus equivalent), it was to have a range of about 100 miles, and the pricing structure was very interesting - you will buy the car for the price of an equivalent petrol or diesel car and then "rent" the battery system for the same cost as driving about 10,000 miles in one of those cars.  This means that, in the early days of electric vehicles, when subsidies will abound, it will be more cost effective for most drivers. 

Once subsidies go, a large fraction of drivers will still benefit, but low mileage drivers might be disadvantaged on running costs.  Of course, the price of the battery system will also probably come down and their efficiency go up, so more users will benefit.  I suspect the business model will evolve, but this is an interesting attempt to make these cars competitive.  It also means that the responsibility for the battery rests with the supplier and the proposed cost model takes account of recycling and warranty.  

There was an interesting debate about sales and support models.  Nissan (along with every other car manufacturer) will point out that having an existing dealer and service network will mean that early adopters have the current (almost ubiquitous) backup system.  There was a counter-argument that alternative sales outlets might tempt new buyers, and that service protocols will be different.

What all of us agreed was that the basic package was sound.  The car drives well and - although some will obviously still suffer from "range anxiety" - it offers a balance of performance that suits a sizable fraction of drivers.  To address this remaining sticking point, Nissan were already discussing inductive charging and managed to get into the newspapers with the idea.  What we all agreed on was that the Cube was an acquired taste and that the "clothes" and name of the new car would be important.  That was announced on August 2nd.  It looks a bit like all the hybrids but does have a different sort of name.  As I understood the briefing, it will arrive in the UK in time to take advantage of the Department for Transports' subsidies in 2011.  What is important about this is that it may well be the first volume all-electric car, it has the backing of a large, global car manufacturer and it has addressed most of the issues raised against such cars.

Let's hope it delivers on the promise - but from where I sit, the signs are good!

 

Last updated on Tuesday 18 August 2009 at 23:00

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