All but a handful of cars on the floor of the LA Auto Show, which runs through Nov. 30, have combustion engines—including quite a few diesels—but electric cars are getting their moment in the spotlight at the greenest of US auto shows.
Carlos Ghosn, CEO of both Nissan and French carmaker Renault, gave the keynote address to kick off the show’s media days. After nodding to the severe financial pressures facing all carmakers in the current market slowdown, he reiterated Nissan’s plans to offer an electric vehicle in the US and Japan in 2010 for commercial customers and large fleets, with showroom sales to consumers in 2012. Ghosn envisions as many as seven million pure electric vehicles being sold around the world by 2020—given the necessary investment from auto companies and governments. That figure would represent about 10 percent of the total market.
Ghosn pointed out that Nissan has experimented with lithium ion batteries to power vehicles since 1992, and now owns its own lithium ion battery company, through a joint venture. He envisions a lineup of electric vehicles shared by Nissan and Renault, from a small urban vehicle to a minivan, and even a 4×4 or sport utility. Each of these must be appealing on its own, he stressed, offering every capacity that standard cars do, with zero emissions as “the cherry on the cake.”
Ghosn also described Nissan’s partnerships with countries, states, and regions willing to share the costs of rolling out public charging infrastructure for electric vehicles—including the State of Oregon, as well as local utility Portland General Electric, which joined such locales as Israel, Denmark, Portugal, Japan’s Kanagawa Province, and the state of Tennessee. (A day after Ghosn’s keynote, California’s Sonoma County was added to the growing list.)
Ghosn did not reveal details about the design of any electric cars from Nissan, but a few days later, in an exclusive interview with HybridCars.com, Mark Perry, Nissan’s director of product planning, confirmed that the company’s electric vehicles will be purpose-built and not based on existing models. “We want to make sure it’s iconic, as something different, unique and futuristic,” said Perry at the San Francisco Auto Show. “But not in a Blade Runner, George Jetson kind of way.”
Excitement about Mini E
Without a prototype or even a concept drawing of any of its upcoming EVs, Nissan was upstaged in LA by BMW, which showed the Mini E, an electric conversion of BMW’s popular Mini Cooper hatchback. The Mini E made its world debut amidst a crush of reporters and TV cameras. The car offers BMW a way to gather information on how drivers actually use electric vehicles, which it badly needs. The maker of ultimate driving machines has to come up to speed on EVs fast, as other automakers work toward rolling out electric-drive cars to meet increasingly stringent emissions laws in most major markets.
Some 500 Mini Es will be offered to carefully chosen consumers in California, New York, and New Jersey; more than 10,000 drivers have already applied to lease the cars, at $850 a month. The battery pack that replaces the rear seat links together 5,088 small lithium ion batteries (an approach similar to that used for the all-electric Tesla Roadster) for a total capacity of 35 kilowatt-hours. BMW quotes a range of more than 150 miles for the car, and 0-62-mph acceleration times of 8.5 seconds. A 150-kilowatt electric motor drives the front wheels through a single-speed gearbox, replacing the standard Mini’s engine and transmission. Each Mini E is supplied with a 240-Volt charger developed by long-time electric-drive pioneer AC Propulsion.
Judging from the car’s popularity on test drives—it was instantly booked, depriving dozens of disappointed journalists of the chance to drive it, including us—the idea of an electric car with sporty handling, sassy looks, and the backing of a major car company could be a real winner.
Another electric vehicle on display was the much-touted Chevrolet Volt, although its financially challenged parent General Motors had canceled its planned new-vehicle launches and media events. As a result, the Volt sat alone on its turntable within a large area sparsely populated with current GM vehicles.