Had lunch the other day with Nissan North America Product Planning Vice President Larry Dominique. He is the point man for communicating Nissan's green-vehicle vision, beginning with its soon-to-come LEAF battery electric car. A few minutes earlier, he had presented exactly that to a large roomful of automaker and supplier representatives, industry analysts, consultants and media.
The occasion was the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) Management Briefing Seminars, an important industry conference that has been a 44-year annual tradition. He and Nissan Midwest PR manager Brian Brockman had invited a small group of journalists to join them for lunch so we could ask burning questions about the car and the plan. Which we did. Find out what the answers were after the jump.

We learned that, among other things, there will be similarities between Nissan's LEAF BEV roll-out beginning next year and GM's EV1 launch 13 years earlier. For starters, they will begin with leases and expand later to private sales, and they will pre-qualify prospects to ensure they understand the car's operating parameters, range limitations, charge times, etc.

LEAF customers will need their own garages, at least at first, and 220V power sources for EVSE (Electric Vehicle Service Equipment) home charge units. And roadside assistance will be part of the deal to rescue any who encounter problems or run out of volts on the road.

Nissan is working with state and local governments and utilities, just as GM did, as well as with technical support supplier Electric Transportation Engineering Corp. (eTec) to ensure that sufficient public charge stations will be available in the five markets (Seattle, San Diego, Oregon, Tennessee, and the Phoenix/Tucson area) where the car will arrive first. Also, Nissan is talking with Better Place about adding potential quick battery swaps in the future.

We're paving the road, laying the groundwork, for all OEMs.
According to Nissan's LEAF announcement press release (read it in this post), Renault-Nissan's zero-emission mobility programs "include partnerships with countries such as the UK and Portugal, local governments in the Japan and the USA, and other sectors, for a total of nearly 30 partnerships worldwide." These partnerships will focus on three major areas: 1) development of a comprehensive charging infrastructure through public and private investment, 2) incentives and subsidies from local, regional, and national governments, and 3) public education on the individual and societal benefits of zero-emissions mobility.

"We're paving the road, laying the groundwork, for all OEMs," Dominique says.

Over lunch, we learned that LEAF's claimed 100-mile range is based on EPA's L.A.-cycle test, and Dominique believes that is a realistic estimate for real-world usage, depending on speeds, driving style, weather and terrain. And it will use somewhat less of its li-ion battery pack's total 24 kWh capacity (we're guessing 16-18 kWh) to lengthen the pack's life and avoid the safety risks of discharging Li-ion to near-zero state-of-charge (SOC) or pumping it to 100 percent. Similarly, GM's Volt pack will use just half of its 16 kWh capacity between 30% and 80% SOC. Nissan's fast-charge capability will stop at 80% SOC for durability and safety reasons.

Dominique's presentation had followed those of Ford Chief Financial Officer Lewis Booth and new GM Product Development Vice Chairman Tom Stephens. After lunch came a session called, "Sustainability of the Automobile (Industry) in an Era of Climate Change," which featured talks by Ford Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering Group VP Sue Cischke, Toyota Public Policy and Government/Industry Affairs Group VP Josephine Cooper and Environmental Defense Fund Executive Director David Yarnold, among others.

The previous day's speakers had included Akio Toyoda, Toyota's new President, Edward Montgomery, who is executive director of the White House Council on Automotive Communities and Workers, and Ron Bloom, senior adviser to the Secretary of the Treasury, assigned to the President's Task Force on the Automotive Industry. The final day's "Advanced Powertrain Forum" featured fact-filled presentations by Toyota Advanced Powertrain Program Manager, Advanced Technology Vehicles, Fuel Cell and Hybrid Vehicle Group, Justin Ward, GM Global Vehicle Engineering, Hybrids, Electric Vehicles and Batteries, Bob Kruse and high-level representatives from battery makers A123 Systems and Compact Power. Heavy duty! We'll cover what some of these folks said another time.

Will there be an upscale Infiniti EV? "It fits very well with Infiniti's technology image," Dominique says.
As you probably know, the LEAF will be a Prius-sized 5-door, 5-seat hatchback. Called "a critical first step in establishing the era of zero-emission mobility," it will be all-new and EV-only, though it does share some architectural elements with Nissan's B-segment Versa. While pricing has not been announced, Dominique says it will compete with "well-equipped C-segment vehicles" in the $25-33,000 range. Asked whether that price will include the 48-module laminated li-ion battery (instead of the battery being leased separately), he hints that it will. "We want our customers to have just one payment," he says.

Our sources (including Honda R&D) indicate that li-ion batteries today typically cost $1,000 or more per kWh, and the near-term target is $500-800/kWh. But Dominique suggests that Nissan will pay much less for LEAF's high-power, high-energy laminated li-ion pack. "At $500 per kWh, my battery would cost $12,000," he tells us. "It will be a lot less than that."

You also probably know that Nissan plans to launch the LEAF in late 2010 in Japan, Europe and the U.S., starting with leases to public and private fleets. Sales to private customers should follow before long in cities with sufficient public charging infrastructures and expand to most others by 2012. The first 50,000 annual capacity will come from Nissan's Oppama, Japan, plant while Nissan North America (with a $1.6 billion U.S. DOE loan) will tool up its Smyrna, TN facility for another 150,000 a year, plus 200,000 li-ion batteries.

Will there be an upscale Infiniti EV? "It fits very well with Infiniti's technology image," Dominique says. "But it will be important to offer the 'right' Infiniti EV." Asked whether Nissan's Green Program will include additional hybrids – beyond today's low-volume (Toyota technology) Altima hybrid – and range-extender EVs in addition to battery EVs, he refers to those alternatives as "interim" solutions. "Our ultimate destination," he asserts, "is pure EV."

Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), AutoMedia.com, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.

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