Battery Electric Cars: Ready for a Comeback?

You may well have seen Chris Paine’s documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? In it, politicians, Big Oil and auto manufacturers are taken to task for sabotaging California’s Zero-Emission Vehicle mandate and destroying the consumer market for battery electric cars. The end of the General Motors EV-1 is portrayed as the death knell for electrics in general.

If you ask one big automaker (Nissan), though, the electric car is anything but dead. In fact, Nissan is hoping to leapfrog all others with its upcoming all-electric, battery-powered car, called LEAF, which is set for launch in 2010. Nissan has towering goals for its electric-car strategy, including a long-term target carbon dioxide reduction of 90 percent. The Japanese auto manufacturer, now operating in tandem with Renault, is not alone in believing that such a target is impossible without a serious influx of battery electric vehicles, because conventional vehicles, no matter how clean, produce carbon dioxide.

So do hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles. The LEAF is the first salvo in what Nissan refers to as a “holistic” approach to energy use and transportation. Battery electrics like LEAF are zero-emission vehicles, and they enable the use of electricity derived from various sources, including oil, natural gas, biomass, nuclear, wind, wave action and hydroelectric. Critics argue that the vast majority of today’s electrical-generation stations are not zero-emission, but Nissan asserts it is doing its part as an automaker by building cars that are zero-emission no matter where their power comes from.

To succeed, the Nissan LEAF must accomplish two exceedingly difficult objectives. First, it must win acceptance as a consumer product. That is hard enough for any model in the increasingly crowded marketplace, but it is especially difficult for a vehicle that will only be able to travel 100 miles on a charge of electricity before its battery bank’s power is depleted. Nissan is doing all it can to reach that critical mass of numbers by pricing the attractive five-passenger hatchback at about the same level as an equivalent gasoline-powered car. But the more difficult feat will be convincing a large portion of the buying public to go electric. Since a goal of the effort is to reduce the spread of greenhouse gases, which some link to global climate change, critical mass is necessary for success. If the LEAF and other electrics don’t command a lion’s share of the global car market, they will have virtually no effect on stemming potential climate change. They may tag their owners “green,” but they won’t save the planet.

Drivers of the new LEAF will discover that the experience is much better than they may have guessed. A push button turns it on, and a console-mounted selector allows you to choose whether the car moves forward or backward. No gears or shifting are necessary because of the flexibility of electric power. Acceleration is reasonably brisk thanks to the immediate torque from the 80 kW electric motor that drives the front wheels, and top speed is said to be nearly 90 mph. With its lithium-ion batteries mounted under the floor, the low center of gravity offers a smooth ride and good handling, though the low-rolling-resistance tires aren’t designed for ultimate roadholding.

An odd but perhaps necessary adjunct to electric driving is the fact that with the LEAF, and likely other electric cars to follow, the batteries will not be included -- as in toys and games of yore. Instead, Nissan plans to lease the integral batteries to owners of the car with a monthly charge for use. Even with this cost factored in, overall driving cost should be less than with conventional gasoline-powered cars. So the consumer is again being tantalized by the rebirth of the electric car. But the question remains: Will 100 miles of range be enough?