Turning Over a New LEAF

As the Nissan LEAF illustrates, this year’s emerging category of 100% electric vehicles (EV) is finding exciting new ways to leverage telematics.  Late last year, I visited one of Nissan’s Drive Electric Tour stops to test drive the LEAF, Nissan’s 100% electric mid-sized hatchback. The LEAF (Leading, Environmentally friendly, Affordable, Family car) is very impressive and it is clear that Nissan invested heavily in industrial design and user experience.

The LEAF convincingly dispels the usual objections to EVs, such as style, performance and anxiety about the cars’ range. Built to travel 100 miles on a single charge, the EPA rated the Nissan LEAF with an MPG equivalent of 106 city, 92 highway for a combined 99 MPGe. (This calculation is based on the EPA’s formula of 33.7kW-hrs being equivalent to one gallon of gasoline energy.) Perhaps this is part of the reason Nissan met its goal of 20,000 LEAF reservations three months ahead of schedule.

One of the stations at the Drive Electric Tour focused on the LEAF’s power pack. It is purpose-built with 48 modules, each with four wafer-like cells (192 cells total). The entire pack weighs approximately 600 pounds and sits under the rear seat, front seat and floor of the LEAF that gives the car a low center of gravity and improved vehicle handling. The life of the power pack depends on the amount of fast charging at commercial stations versus slower, off-peak overnight charging on a 240V home system, but Nissan expects the LEAF to have around 70 to 80 percent of the power pack’s original capacity after ten years. When I drove the LEAF, I found that its power plant delivered peppy pickup and it felt like driving a gasoline-powered car.

From the driver’s seat, the most prominent feature is the CARWINGS telematics system. Its seven-inch screen displays possible range and the car’s current position on a moving map. The system tells you which charging stations are reachable and automatically populates the map with new charging stations as they come on line. It tracks your energy usage information and allows you to see daily, monthly and annual reports that show distances traveled and total and average energy consumption, among other things. As battery charge gets low, CARWINGS switches the car to “economy” mode in an effort to maximize range and then directs you to the nearest charging station.  One of the most interesting features of the system is that it leverages social networking and crowdsourcing. The CARWINGS system connects all Nissan LEAFs to a network, wirelessly feeding the cars’ energy economy statistics to a central server. The central system tracks each car’s driving efficiency and uses its “Regional Rankings” system to compare your LEAF’s energy economy to that of other LEAF drivers in the region. This means that as a LEAF owner, you compete with other owners. Winners receive a gold trophy icon on the CARWINGS dashboard control center. The second, third and fourth place winners can also win a place on the graphical podium, receiving icons depicting gold, silver and bronze medals.

Another “delight feature” of the Nissan LEAF is a smartphone application that enables remote interaction.  The app can send messages to the vehicle, such as an instruction to warm or cool the interior to a preset temperature before the driver is in the car. This allows the car to use the grid to power its climate control system rather than using the car’s battery power after the car has left the charging station. The app also allows you to start charging the car, see how “full” the battery is, check when the battery charge will be complete, and calculate the car’s estimated driving range given its current charge.

This year’s crop of EVs marks the next step in the transformation of transportation. Planes, trucks and cars have all become more dependent upon electronics and software. Transportation vehicles are moving from being mainly mechanical devices to having a much larger proportion that is electronic. I believe 2011 will be a critical year for the adoption of electric vehicles. If the Nissan LEAF’s ahead-of-schedule reservation success is any indication, things are moving in the right direction.

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