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Nissan plans big bet on electric cars

WASHINGTON — When Nissan Motor Co. in mid-May publicly committed to selling mass-produced electric cars for use in corporate fleets by 2010 and consumers by 2012, it raised hopes about vehicles that are no longer powered by gasoline.

It also put Nissan's corporate reputation on the line.

The director of product development for Nissan North America, Mark Perry, spoke at length to McClatchy. Below are answers to some questions about Nissan's ambitious plans from Perry and others.

Q. Why is 2012 the start date for products offered to consumers if fleet cars will be ready in 2010?

A. "We want to be ready for consumers ... and the reason for two years of ramp-up is we really need help from an infrastructure standpoint," Perry said. For electric cars to be successful, he said, Nissan will need help from utilities and state governments. There must be some modification at consumers' homes to ensure that the electric cars can charge their batteries correctly.

Q. What sorts of changes?

A. In order for batteries to be charged, the cars need a 220-volt outlet, like those used in laundry rooms for washers and dryers. These will need to be installed in garages or in front of driveways. In some parts of California, building codes already require these outlets. Utilities must ensure that homeowners have the right amperage in breaker boxes and determine where to put new outlets.

"None of these things are hurdles or new technology ... but there is a process involved to go down a checklist to see that this can happen," Perry said.

Q. How long will charging take?

A. The lithium ion batteries that Nissan and its partner NEC Corp. are developing would take about seven hours to charge overnight. Quick battery charges require more power than homes usually have, and Nissan expects commercial quick-charge centers to crop up for charges that take only half an hour.

Q. What cost savings are anticipated?

A. Assuming that gasoline in 2012 is at least $4 a gallon and the fuel efficiency of today's hybrid cars of about 45 miles per gallon, electric cars would offer an estimated $2,500 in annual savings. Instead of fuel costs, electric cars would cost about $350 to $400 to charge annually if they're charged under peak pricing times.

Q. What's that?

A. Many utilities are shifting to smart meters. These give real-time assessments of energy consumption on the grid and in your home. Nissan assumes that homeowners would charge their cars at night, when energy consumption is at its lowest. Utilities like this because they've invested in creating electricity capacity that's underused in off-peak hours. They want to shift to a peak-hour pricing scheme in which they can charge differently in peak and nonpeak hours to encourage conservation and use the power grid more efficiently.

Q. Will these new cars be electric versions of popular models such as the Altima or Maxima?

A. "It's a completely dedicated and new electric vehicle. It will not be an existing vehicle," Perry said. Nissan hasn't settled on a name yet, but has decided that this won't be what Perry called a "glorified golf cart."

"The car that we're designing is going to be a real commuter vehicle," he said, noting that it will have room for four or five adults.

Q. What will the vehicle's range be?

A. That hasn't been determined yet, but Perry said that Nissan was studying commuter data to understand which markets would be best served and what the optimal range was for commuters. The electric cars are most suitable for urban areas, where the distances traveled are shorter and charging stations could crop up easily.

"To facilitate mass market introduction you really need to make this a very easy decision for consumers to make," he said, acknowledging there will have to be a change of mindset.

Q. Such as?

A. Conventional gasoline-powered cars have a range of 300 to 400 miles per fill-up and virtually unlimited places to refuel. That won't be the case with electric cars, which will need to be plugged in regularly, as cell phones do.

Nissan is exploring commercial tie-ins for charging stations. Since a quick charge that would boost a battery takes almost a half-hour, grocery stores, fast-food shops and even coffee shops could offer charging stations.

"You've kind of got them (consumers) as a captive audience. As a retailer, that might be attractive," Perry said.

Q. Is an electric car for everyone?

A. No. Since most families own two or more cars, the electric car would be the one used for shorter commutes and local travel. Like other carmakers, Nissan also is rolling out a line of fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles that combine battery technologies with small engines that run on gasoline. The electric car is most likely to be a family's second car, not its primary vehicle.

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