Driving Nissan's New Electric Car Prototype

Nissan on Monday previewed its upcoming electric vehicle (EV) on Monday with the unveiling of its latest prototype and a new EV platform.

The prototype offers a taste of the performance that will be offered by a production electric vehicle that Nissan plans to announce this Sunday. While the body and interior will differ the core platform of the electric vehicle will be very close to that of the prototype. Nissan's production version will go on sale in Japan and North America in 2010 and should reach Europe in 2012.

The prototype is based on Nissan's Tiida car (Versa in North America, Latio in SE Asia), has room for 4 or 5 people and a top speed of just over 140kph, which is well over the speed limit in Japan and most other countries.

On a full charge it can travel at least 160 kilometers. That covers the typical daily distance driven by 98 percent of Japanese and British motorists, 95 percent of German drivers, 90 percent of those in France and about 80 percent of the average daily distance in the U.S. and China.

Nissan let me take it for a test drive around its track in Yokosuka, Japan, and it handles and performs just like you'd expect from a car in its class. With a few subtle exceptions, such as the battery indicator on the dashboard display panel, there are few clues it's an electric vehicle and that's perhaps the most impressive thing about the car. It's no Ferrari but it's also not a golf cart.

Coming out of a curve I put my foot down on the accelerator and the car took off quickly and easily reaching 100kph in a few seconds.

And it's very quiet -- so quiet that Nissan is considering adding simulated engine noise as a safety feature so pedestrians and other road users have an audible warning that it's approaching.

They key to its quiet running is, of course, the absence of a gasoline engine.

Under the hood is an 80kW electric motor connected, via an inventor, to a bank of Lithium Ion batteries that sit under the floor from the front to rear seats. The batteries are flat and thin laminated types and four of them are packaged in a battery pack, which is a large rectangular can. There are several banks of these cans under the floor.

A full charge of the batteries will take about 16 hours on a standard Japanese 100 volt home power supply but this time can be cut in half if connected to a 200 volt supply, which is available to home owners.

A quick charge station, supplied with an industrial 3-phase 200 volt supply, can recharge the car in just 30 minutes and Nissan envisages these will be built around town as part of a wider infrastructure to support electric vehicles. Around 100 quick charge stations are expected to be ready for the first electric vehicles in 2010.

In the test car sockets for both home charging and quick charging are hidden under the Nissan badge at the front of the car.

The company is also experimenting with a contactless charging system that uses induction between a charging plate on the street and one on the bottom of the car. The prototype EV doesn't have this system but Nissan demonstrated it on another car. The system charges the battery when the two plates are aligned so Nissan envisages these to be installed in parking bays.

When it comes to Lithium Ion batteries Nissan might need to convince some potential owners of their safety. The well publicized problems with laptop batteries of a few years ago raise obvious safety questions although Nissan contends drivers need not worry. The laminated batteries run much cooler than conventional cylindrical cells of the type used in laptops thanks in part to a manganese electrode.

"For a decade, about 80 percent of the [research] activity was dedicated to reliability," said Hideaki Horie, Nissan's top lithium ion battery researcher. He said the car maker has conducted hundreds of stress tests to ensure the batteries don't cause a problem during a crash.

"We are very confident," said Horie.

The batteries are likely to make up a substantial part of the cost of the car so Nissan is intending to sell the car but lease the batteries to customers. That should cut initial costs for the car and means it will be possible to exchange them for a fresh set when they reach the end of their 10 year life. It also leaves Nissan responsible for recycling or reuse of the battery packs.

There's also a fairly impressive IT system to back up the car. Throughout its life the car will maintain contact with a Nissan center that will monitor performance of the vehicle and its batteries. It will be possible to remotely check the charging status of the batteries and also means Nissan will be able to notify drivers of potential faults with their cars, should anything appear amiss.

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