Nissan EV-02 Prototype: First Drive

Underneath this Cube lies Nissan’s upcoming electric car

Nissan EV-02 Prototype: First Drive

Nobody knows for sure what the everyday car of the future will be. Will it use gasoline, diesel, ethanol, hydrogen, electricity, solar power, some combination thereof, or something entirely new and different altogether?

The crystal ball is cloudy on this subject and with the global economic crisis and deteriorating environment weighing heavily on practically every decision being made in this industry, Nissan strongly believes that electric vehicles (EVs) will play an important role in reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

As such, it expects to introduce its first zero-emissions vehicle in the U.S. by 2010, with plans to sell it globally in 2012. I recently traveled to Michigan to get some seat time in the current working prototype for this future electric vehicle.

THE BITS

FAST FACTS

1. Nissan will introduce an electric vehicle in Japan in 2010, with sales in the U.S. by 2012.

2. Underneath this second-generation Cube lies Nissan’s latest electric technology with lithium-ion battery packs and an electric motor making between 107 and 174hp.

Dubbed the EV-02 test car, the vehicle seen here is powered by Nissan’s latest laminated lithium-ion battery pack and zero-emission electric motor technology. Don’t let its Cubic looks fool you, however, as I’m told the production version will look nothing like this.

Company reps were tight-lipped on this subject at the ride-and-drive preview event, though it’s not difficult to envision any future production model as some kind of compact five-door hatchback (the current or a future Versa perhaps) with seating for five and all the dynamic safety features and amenities people expect in Nissan’s current offerings. It would also have to have a minimum range of at least 100 miles to be somewhat practical.

The EV-02 prototype has all this and while my time at the wheel wasn’t long, the all-electric powertrain performed admirably, even on the big empty conference centre parking lot cone course that Nissan had set up.

Technical details on the electric powertrain are scant as well. Power to the drive wheels is somewhere between 80 and 130 kW via the electric motor in the front – that’s anywhere from 107hp to 174hp.

The transmission is a one-speed deal with a variable gear ratio that provides acceleration that’s directly proportional to the amount of input. That said, the vehicle gets off the line quickly and up to speed smoothly and silently.

Actually, it feels similar to a small four-cylinder with a CVT when accelerating; and, much more powerful than, say, a new 2010 Toyota Prius, off-the-line in EV mode. The Prius and some other gasoline hybrids now come with a "fully electric mode," but these systems are not designed for hard starts or fast speeds and will automatically disengage with too much throttle or speed.

The Nissan EV-02 prototype did not behave like this at all – it starts and stops, makes turns and goes from A to B like any normal car does. I doubt it could do a burnout and wheelspin is not a concern now and/or in the future. It has four wheels, brakes, cup holders, a stereo and standard safety features common in almost every passenger vehicle, which is exactly what consumers will be expecting when the first waves of mass-produced EVs start arriving here in a few years.

Nissan claims the laminated battery pack and control unit in this vehicle has twice the capacity (140 kWh/kg) and 1.5 times the power (2.5 kW/kg) of its earlier, more conventional batteries thanks to nano-level electrode improvements. The battery profile is thin enough so as to fit beneath the rear passenger seat in this vehicle. And, even though there’s no shortage of headroom in this version of the prototype (the body is a second-gen extended wheelbase JDM Cube after all) there’s nothing to indicate it won’t integrate well (probably better) into future versions.

AND KIBBLES

Nissan has been developing lithium-ion batteries since 1992, using them in several different electric (EVs), hybrid-electric (HEVs) and fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) from the ’95 Alltra EV to the ’05 X-Trail FCV. Other manufacturers have been working on the problem for many years too. Yet with all the improvements and advances in automotive battery technology, range anxiety is still a concern for many consumers. Rightly so.

After all, EVs run on electricity alone and therefore need to be charged regularly. For the home and office, that will mean plugging into a 240V outlet (professional installation required) for a period of time. While out doing errands, quick charging stations at the super market, mall or restaurant parking lot, for example, could help keep a battery topped-up. Finally, and most importantly perhaps, is the creation of a pathway charging network that would equip services with higher-voltage (say 480V to 600V) charging stations that could have you back on the road after a quick pit stop and snack.

An EV pathway charging network may be similar to California’s Hydrogen Highway initiative Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger helped kick-start in 2005 with $6.5-million in funding to build hydrogen-equipped fueling stations along the CaH2Net. A bigger key to this project, however, has been the development of hydrogen fuel standards, which were finalized in 2008. As for EVs, the manufacturers are still waiting for more guidance that will better define the targets.

Some dealers might not be thrilled at the lower maintenance costs associated with EVs compared to vehicles with internal combustion engines. Others will see it as an opportunity to sell accessories that are tailored to EVs. (I passed along a few suggestions at this event, including portable 12V solar panels, photovoltaic roofs – which the new Toyota Prius hybrid does have – and capacitors to store up and shore up that power.) Rather than relying on regenerative braking and rolling resistance as the only means to recharge while in motion, things like copper-lined spinner wheels and stealth air turbines or jets could help support this task without having to slow the vehicle down. I’ve got more, but I digress.

LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL

Be it hydrogen or electricity, there’s a virtually endless to-do list for developing and promoting the necessary alternative energy supply networks and infrastructure America needs to ensure zero-emissions mobility becomes a viable long term reality. It’s worth pointing out that, at present, most of the electricity produced in the U.S. is done by burning coal.

A lot needs to happen for pure electric vehicles to succeed in the consumer marketplace. Partnerships with both governments and private enterprises will be at the forefront of moving all this along. And, to this end, the Renault-Nissan Alliance is already working with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee to promote the development of zero-emission vehicles and complementary charging infrastructure.

Besides existing partnerships with the State of Tennessee, the Alliance has additional infrastructure partnerships in California, Arizona, Oregon and elsewhere – 27 total plus some more in-the-works – it hopes will lead to an electrified corridor, if you will, stretching from Seattle to San Diego and beyond.

Nissan plans to begin electric car production in Japan by late next year with an expected annual production run of 50,000 units. The Japanese automaker also just announced it will invest between $500-million and $1-billion to update its Smyrna, Tennessee plant to build this future green car and produce lithium-ion batteries thanks to low-interest loans the U.S. government says it will give to automakers who build environmentally-friendly cars in the States. Nissan says its Smyrna plant will produce 50,000 to 100,000 of the electric vehicles it plans to begin selling annually by 2012.

THE VERDICT

In the meantime, Nissan will continue to partner with public and private organizations to make EVs available for fleet/commercial use in 2010 and 2011. The goal is to mass market EVs to consumers in 2012, however, in regions where there is infrastructure in place, individual retail sales could begin even sooner.

Pure electric vehicles won’t be the final word of zero-emissions mobility, but they will help us get there. In the short and mid term, EVs can still succeed in the absence of an all-encompassing charging network – mostly in urban markets – because people, corporations and governments are taking action. The shift from a fuel-based society to a more sustainable one that embraces renewable energy alternatives and new technology is (slowly but surely) underway.

Nissan’s research found the average American drives less than 100 miles a day. By the time 2012 rolls around, EVs ought to be getting at least twice that. Of course, that’s only part of the battle, because for any pure electric to succeed as anything but a pure novelty item, it will have to be a real car, for real people to use in real-world situations.

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