Businesses are besieged with warnings that they will not survive if they do not become digital organisations. That means ripping out traditional structures, styles and processes of business, and preparing for a world in which information flow is at the heart of operational activity.
The same thing is about to happen in the automobile industry, but replacing the word “digital” with “electric”. One after another, governments are beginning to set target dates for reduced or even zero emissions from new vehicles. Car brands have to change, or vanish.
However, merely replacing a petrol-driven vehicle with an electric version is the business equivalent of making digital versions of company documents and little more. By not adapting the way the business operates, this “digitisation” creates greater inefficiency by duplicating rather than replacing processes.
So it is with the electric vehicle (EV): merely putting these on the road without changing the ecosystem within which they operate, they have little impact on the environment, or on lifestyles. For this reason, numerous EVs that have taken to the road over the past 70 years have vanished not only from the roads, but also from our memories.
Suddenly, that is changing. The success of two brands – the Tesla and the Nissan Leaf – has acted as an On button for an EV revolution.
Tesla is still primarily an American brand, with a network of charging stations focused on California but beginning to spread across the country. Nissan has it heartland in Japan, where charging stations are almost as common as petrol stations. In South Africa, only a few dozen charging stations dot the country.
Globally, however, Nissan is leading the charge. The Leaf is the world’s best-selling EV, with around 300 000 sold in six years of production. That doesn’t sound like much, given that Nissan sold 5.63-million vehicles in total last year. However, it is becoming clear that the first generation Leaf was as much a proof of concept as a pioneering vehicle.
It’s by no means the first EV in production. That legacy belongs to the 1947 Tama, built in a post-war era when oil was scarce and electricity plentiful in Japan. With a top speed of 35km/h and a range of 96km, it was used mainly as a taxi for the next three years. The 1950 Korean war brought with it an oil boom, and electric vehicles became little more than a fanciful notion. Tama’s manufacturer, Tokyo Electro Automobile, became Prince Motors, and then merged with Nissan in 1966.
It was only in the 1990s that the conceot became viable again, when Nissan and Sony jointly developed the first Lithium-ion battery that could be used in a car. In 1997, it debuted in the Prairie Joy EV, which is famed for having been used for Japan’s Arctic Envoronment Research Centre at the North Pole for six years without a mechanical hitch.
An advanced version of that battery was built into the 2000 Hypermini, used for the world’s first vehicle-sharing trials in Yokohama and Ebina. The trials proved the utility of electric vehicles in urban areas, and persuaded Nissan to proceed with development of the Leaf.
Last week, the second generation Leaf was unveiled in Tokyo, highlighting both the evolution of EVs and of the thinking behind their role in urban environment.
The specs are, of course, the key selling point of the vehicle, and no spec is more important, at this stage in EV history, than range. The limited range of many EVs has even resulted in a new phrase – “range anxiety” – to describe the stress people feel when they think their vehicle will run out of power before they reach a charging station.
That term may soon be considered quaint. Nissan has more than doubled the range of the Leaf, to 400km from less than 200km. This has required a more dense battery, which takes a little longer to charge than the previous version: 14 hours when plugged into a normal power outlet at home or work, compared to 12 hours before, and 40 minutes at a fast-charge station, compared to 30 minutes before. The trade-off for longer range will be welcomed.
At last week’s world premiere of the new Leaf, however, such improvements had equal billing to Nissans EV philosophy. Its thinking is framed in the concept of Nissan Intelligent Mobility, which rests on three pillars: Intelligent Power, Intelligent Driving and Intelligent Integration.
Daniele Schillaci, executive vice president for global marketing and sales at Nissan, summed up the pillars at the premiere:
“The first pillar is Nissan Intelligent Driving, which gives our customers more confidence through safety, control and comfort. This includes our development of autonomous drive technologies and advanced driving systems.
“The second pillar is Nissan Intelligent Power, which makes the drive more exciting but also cleaner and more efficient. This includes zero-emission and electrification technologies.
“The third pillar is Nissan Intelligent Integration, which connects our vehicles to our wider society.”
The Leaf’s autonomous technology, ProPILOT, is likely to capture headlines for bringing the self-driving vehicle closer to reality.
“Once activated, ProPILOT can automatically control the steering, acceleration, and brakes using a speed preset by the driver,” said Hideyuki Sakamoto, executive vice president for product engineering. “It is a single-lane autonomous driving technology that you can use on highways.
“The ProPILOT park controls every operation required for parking including acceleration, braking, shifting, turning the steering wheel and applying the parking brake.
“The combination of the world’s first four omnidirectional cameras and 12 ultrasonic sensors enables you to park precisely wherever you wish in just three steps, at a press of your finger.”
However, it is Intelligent Integration which truly sets the Leaf apart from its growing roster of competitors.
It incorporates vehicle-to-grid and vehicle-to-home systems that allow the car to feed power back into the electricity grid, or to keep a home’s lights and appliances on during a power outage. In Nissan’s hometown of Yokohama, near Tokyo, it is being integrated into city planning.
The future potential is for smart buildings, smart homes and smart cars not only to talk to each other, but also to coordinate resources between them, automatically. Because it extends beyond the car and can have a massive impact on the urban environment at large, intelligent mobility may well represent an even bigger lifestyle shift than self-driving cars. The EV represents the beginning of that shift.
- Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee
2017 Nissan LEAF specifications (Japan model)
Specifications for other regions will be announced at the start of sales.
|Overall length (mm)||4,480|
|Overall width (mm)||1,790|
|Overall height (mm)||1,540|
|Track width front/rear (mm)||1,530-1,540/1,545-1,555|
|Minimum ground clearance (mm)||150|
|Coefficient of drag (Cd)||0.28|
|Tires||205/55R16 or 215/50R17|
|Cargo area (VDA)||435 L|
|Gross vehicle weight||1,765-1,795|
|Maximum output||110 kW (150 ps)/3283~9795 rpm|
|Maximum torque||320 N･m (32.6 kgf･m)/0~3283 rpm|
|Cruising range||400 km (JC08)|
|Charging time (normal charging)||16 hours (3 kW)
8 hours (6 kW)
|Charging time from alert to 80% (quick charging)||40 minutes|