In an exclusive ‘meet the press’ session prior to the launch of KLIMS 2013, Autofreaks.NET was invited to an informal ‘chit-chat’ session with Tooru Abe, Nissan LEAF Chief Product Specialist, Product Planning Department No.1, Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. The panel also included Tan Keng Meng, Director of Marketing & Product Planning, ETCM, and Chiou Wi Guo, Senior General Manager, Product Planning, ETCM.
Below is the transcript of the meeting, in which we learned more about the Nissan LEAF as well as what it would be like to have a ‘fully-electric’ future.
Last year, Edaran Tan Chong launched the ‘Journey to Zero Emission’ campaign. What was the feedback from the campaign that have made use in planning the Nissan LEAF’s arrival in Malaysia?
We started our pilot programme in 2012. It was a great opportunity for us to test the market as we were aware that Malaysian motorists up to that point were only used to the characteristics of traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. A lot of feedback indicated that range and charging was of concern. Consequently the Nissan LEAF which will be launched has a 20% improvement in range from the previous model, and we have cut down charging time with the included home-charger by 50%. We are also now offering black as a colour option for easy maintenance. Additionally a roof spoiler solar panel has been added which helps to keep the 12v battery fully charged.
‘Range anxiety’ is a new phrase which has become common when talking about EVs. You mentioned in the presentation that the range for the Nissan LEAF is 195km according to the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) without the use of air-conditioning. Of course air-conditioning is a necessity in Malaysia all year round, so what is the estimated range under Malaysian conditions.
I think we can safely compare it to the actual driving range with air-conditioning during the summer in Japan which is between 130-140km. Of course this depends on driving behavior, and whether the miles covered are in the city or highway driving as well as the climate control temperature of the air-conditioning, all of which can affect the range of the LEAF
Why wasn’t an overdrive gear added to the Nissan LEAF to increase its speed?
It is true that an added gear could increase the speed of the LEAF, however considering the capacity of the electric motor in the LEAF, the maximum revolutions of the motor produces the upper limit of torque at the maximum speed. Thus adding an overdrive gear does not work well. If a more powerful motor was used, then an overdrive gear would be viable, but in that case a lower gear would be obligatory, and one of the unique driving features we wanted to maintain is the lack of any gear change which keeps the driving experience smooth.
If I was to buy a Nissan LEAF, what are the service needs and intervals I would have to take note of, and subsequently what does ETCM need to take into consideration to support the car in Malaysia?
Although the LEAF is a fully electrical vehicle, there are still many mechanical components which are similar to a regular ICE powered vehicle. As far as the traditional mechanical parts like the brake system, wipers, etc their service interval is the same regular vehicles which is 10,000km. The EV related systems however, like the motor, battery, etc only require maintenance every 20,000km.
Can the LEAF be serviced at any ETCM outlets or only at selected service centres?
At this point as the showrooms which will be selling the LEAF are only in the Klang Valley, we have two dedicated service outlets which are our Petaling Jaya, and Batu Caves service outlets. These two service centres are specialized in the service of electric vehicles, and in fact the Batu Caves service outlet is capable of doing repairs as well if the need arises.
Why is the charging port of the LEAF located on the front as most other electric vehicles have them located on the side?
There are two main reasons why we place the port on the front. Firstly, for safety, it allows the customer to see the connected charging cable, and prevents them from driving off without disconnecting it and closing the port properly. In fact the LEAF cannot be driven if the charging port lid is open. Secondly the drivers from the largest volume market of the LEAF, the US, usually park their cars front first, so a front charging port is more convenient.
Who makes the battery used in the LEAF, is it from Nissan itself or is the battery manufactured by a partner?Most EVs use lithium-ion batteries. Is it a fact that 100% electric vehicles cannot use nickel metal hydride batteries because they do not have enough capacity? The reason I ask is because lithium-ion batteries are still pretty costly at this moment in time and consequently adds to the cost of the car, so Nissan committed to using lithium-ion batteries despite their high cost. Lastly last year we read in the news about lithium-ion battery packs in Boeings catching fire. Has the issue been settled? What is your comment on that incident?
The Lithium-ion battery in the LEAF is joint project between Nissan and the Nippon Electrical Company (NEC), however the development of the battery was done by Nissan’s research and development (R&D) team so it can be considered an in-house battery. Nickel metal hydride batteries are cheaper, but do not have a large battery capacity. Hybrids have small batteries and do not require a large capacity, however fully electric vehicles require a larger capacity as the battery is the sole source of power for propulsion of the vehicle so lithium-ion batteries are needed. We believe that lithium-ion batteries are very safe. With regards to the incident with Boeing, we don’t know what factors contributed to the fire. Our lithium-ion batteries however have been heavily tested under different situations including crash tests, simulated lightning strikes, etc, so we are confident that they are safe.
Obviously the range of electric vehicles is dependent on the battery power. In your opinion, is lithium-ion battery technology going to improve in coming years so that the range of EVS can be extended? Or is there a need for a different type of battery or technology to achieve this?
We are constantly studying ways we can improve the capacity of our batteries. At this time we feel that lithium-ion batteries are the best solution, considering their safety and energy capacity ability and also cost. We believe that there are still improvements that can be made, and are constantly working towards this and hope to thus extend the range of our EVs beyond 200km.
Is there currently and end of life policy for the batteries? If a LEAF is involved in an accident and is written of beyond repair for example, does Nissan have mechanism or programme to retire or recycle the battery pack?
Nissan has a plant for recycling our batteries. In case of the situation you mentioned, ETCM will send the battery pack back to Japan for recycling.
So the recycling will take place in Japan?
Yes , that is correct.
One of the biggest concerns for prospective buyers of the LEAF is infrastructure, and where they can charge their car. What efforts are you undertaking to address this issue, and the ‘range anxiety’ it entails? Any initiatives to increase the number of charging stations?
Obviously charging infrastructure is one of the key considerations when buying an EV. In the Klang valley a number of ETCM’s facilities will be equipped with EV chargers, and even in our service areas. As far as public charging stations are concerned we are collaborating with another company called First Energy Networks (FEN). They have been placed with the responsibility of working towards improving the current charging infrastructure. We are also working with the government to lobby for more charging stations, and I think the government itself is looking at EVs as an eco-mobility option in the long run. This will cost money however, so we are working the government to get incentives to assist in this. Nonetheless , we foresee that the LEAF will be primarily used for commuting , so in fact there is the option to buy another charger which be installed at the office of a LEAF owner. We will continue to work on our part however to improve the charging infrastructure.
Many car manufacturers are producing EV models nowadays, and as lithium itself is not easy to come by, all of them seem to be competing for a common commodity. Where does Nissan get their supply from, and how do you ensure it is being mined in sustainable manner?
First of all, Lithium is not as rare as you think. If I’m not mistaken, the lithium used by Nissan comes from Chile in South America. If all motorists in the world switched to EVs then maybe lithium would become rare, however at the moment the global supply of lithium is sufficient, and lithium that is used is recycled as well.
Is there any R & D being done or how feasible is the possibility of having portable battery packs like in mobile devices or cell-phones to recharge cars in the future?
While cellphones and mobile devices also use lithium-ion batteries, they are completely different from the battery in the LEAF which weighs more than 250kg. Making it portable would be very difficult and very costly, so we don’t see this as a viable option, and don’t really see the need for a replacement battery just for recharging.
From the time the LEAF was first introduced, the range has been improved. What is the increase in distance in the current model?
We revised some control systems as well as the EV system itself in the original LEAF. Major improvements were made to its regenerative systems as well as efficiency of the charger and the EV systems. The original estimated range was 175km, and it has now been increased to 195km.
Besides range another concern is also recharging time. With an ICE (internal-combustion engine) vehicle, you can fill-up in 5 minutes. Recharging takes hours. Moving forward how much would it be possible to shorten the charging time without subjecting the battery to too much stress? Does the Nissan LEAF support battery swapping, e.g. is it possible to drive into a station, and have its battery easily detached and replaced?
Normal charging of an EV at home is done overnight, so the charging time is not considered so bad. However for charging when in public, with current quick chargers like the ones used in Japan, charging time from empty to 80% capacity is 30 minutes. These chargers are costly however, so it will take some time to implement them widely. As far as battery swapping is concerned, we initially studied the possibility of using this method, however it is very risky and technically difficult. The battery needs to be attached in a very precise manner and is very heavy which makes it costly, and difficult to implement. In light of this the quick-charging system seems to be the better route to pursue.
In your presentation one of the testimonials mentioned that the only sound you can hear is tyre noise. Are you working towards reducing this? Also would like to know more about the sound emitted by the LEAF when driving. How does it work?
Of course we would like to reduce tyre noise, and we have insulated the structure.
So the tyres are normal tyres?
The tyres on the LEAF have a very low rolling resistance and are specially made for the LEAF. Development of this tyre was a tough job as we wanted low rolling resistance but to still have good handling.
So owners of the LEAF would have to go back to Nissan once the tyres are worn out to get another pair?
Yes, we recommend that you use these special tyres for the LEAF.
With regards to the second part of my question?
The sound is emitted once you accelerate, below 30km per hour.
In US, it maybe common for most people to have an extra car. In Malaysia, however an individual rarely owns more than one car, so EV ownership may not be practical as of yet as it has to serve many needs, and is limited by the range.
The target customers for the LEAF are a very niche market. As you know the concept of an EV is new to Malaysia. It is targeted at motorists who are eco-conscious. We are more focused on showing Malaysians that an EV is in fact practical. We all allow for adjustments to integrate things into our lifestyle. We believe that once EVs gain greater acceptance, and reach a point of stability, they will be better received.
Did any adjustments need to be made to the LEAF’s battery or systems to acclimatize it to the Malaysian climate?
The LEAF has received the award of being the global car of the year in the past, which means it can be driven anywhere whether in Siberia or even Malaysia. Sales in the US have reached around 35’000 units, and it has had no problems dealing with the extreme conditions there even in states like Arizona where temperatures get higher than in Malaysia.
Between the battery and the motor which contributes the most to the LEAF’s overall weight
I would say the battery. To add to that I would say the structural enhancements to support the battery like the mounting points, have been integrated in such a way as to add to its structural stability and strength. The LEAF has achieved 5 stars in the Euro NCAP rating.
So will the LEAF model which will be available here have the same safety specifications as the one which received the NCAP rating? In regards to active and passive safety measures, airbags, etc?
This car is completely imported CBU model from Japan and is a global spec model, so the structural integrity and safety features are the same.
So if the Malaysian Nissan LEAF was sent to Europe and tested would it receive the same rating?
Well if you’re talking about its previous rating then yes. However, this year NCAP regulations have changed, and we have not sent it for testing under the new rules.