Thursday, December 16, 2010

Nissan LEAF Was My Idea

Have you ever seen the commercials for Windows 7 where a user has an idea for an OS feature? In the ad, Windows 7 came out and it included that feature. The user then proclaims "Windows 7 was my idea." That is how I feel about the Nissan LEAF.

The first Nissan LEAF cars are being delivered to customers this week. This is a historic time for EVs. In October of 2008, I was selected to take part in a small focus group of EV-drivers with Nissan. We met with several people from Nissan including Mark Perry, director of product planning and strategy for electric vehicles. This was the first time that I had ever met anyone from Nissan. I had no idea if Nissan was serious about EVs, or if they would really listen to what I had to say. I had been reading a lot of press about EVs at that time and I had not seen a product that focused on what I thought were the right things. A chance to talk to a car company, any car company, was an opportunity to share my thoughts.

During the session, I was one of the last participants to address the Nissan team. Most of the other members talked to them about how great 100 miles would be and about deploying charging infrastructure. As I have discussed recently, I don't think charging infrastructure is the priority. Rather, I focused on what I thought the *car* should be. Obviously I am biased, but it seemed to me that the Nissan team was far more engaged when talking with me than with the other participants. They had several direct questions as well as open ended discussion areas. Here are some of the many things we talked about.

Set Realistic Expectations
Their opening statement was "We will be selling an affordable, mass market, 100-mile range, fully electric, freeway capable car. It comes to market in late 2010. What do you think the car needs in order to be successful and what do we as a company need to do to make it work in your region?"  I was skeptical. Remember this was 2008. It is easy to make big claims like this and no one had ever delivered on them. Every EV that had been brought to market up till that point had been a niche vehicle. Even the highly priced Tesla Roadster had slipped its delivery date multiple times in 2007 and in 2008 only a handful of Roadsters had been delivered. It was the only freeway capable EV being sold at that time, and with the $100k price tag it was a niche vehicle. With Tesla having CEO troubles, it was not clear if the little up-start would survive and ever make it to their "Blue Star" project. In 2008, wildly hyped vaporware was the norm in the EV world. I suggested that they take the opposite approach and "under commit and over deliver" rather than fall into the hype-cycle syndrome. If the vehicle was really only going to get 70 miles of range in real-world driving, start saying so now.

The rule of thumb is that an EV must exceed the 70/70 point to have any hope of broad appeal. That is minimum of 70 miles range in real world conditions and minimum of 70 MPH top speed. If the goal truly is a mass market vehicle, they must surpass these minimums, or go back to the drawing board.

Range Anxiety
Our next topic was range: One hundred miles of range was the stated goal. Many of the participants in the room talked about how great that was and how it is more than enough for most people, even if they don't know it. And while I agree with that, the important thing is to make sure the vehicle alleviates range concerns whenever possible. Make the vehicle to sell to the customers as they are; not how you want them to be. People currently are concerned with range. When I am showing my EV, the most common question is how "far will it go?". Right or wrong, some people will be concerned about range until EVs can drive the 300+ miles per charge, comparable to a typical full tank of gasoline.

To address range concerns, Nissan must give drivers the range data in a clear picture. My recommendations were:

  1. Show how far the current charge level will take the vehicle. Not with just a number, but I wanted to see on the map if the place I want to go is within my currently available range. I wanted to be able to check this even if I had not entered my destination, because most of the time I know where I am going and do not need to enter an address.
  2. Include charging station locations in the navigation system maps. This seems obvious now, you can find Google mash-up maps of just about anything, but back then (over 2 years ago) it seemed like a great idea.
  3. If I enter a destination beyond the range, suggest charging points along the way.
  4. Have a "Find Nearest Charging Station" button that is prominent. The button should be on the steering-wheel or a fixed button near the navigation system. I don't want to have to go through levels of menus to get to this. This is the "Oh no, low battery!" button.
Charging station locations will be added frequently over the first few years that the cars will be on the road. It is a pain to keep car navigation system maps up to date. You have to download files, burn a disc or use a thumb drive, take it to the car... Forget all that, it is a hassle and I would not want to do it on a frequent basis. Rather, I said they should include a telematics system that automatically updates the maps in near real-time.

When they asked what size I thought the vehicle needed to be, I told them the story of buying our first hybrid. Early in 2000 our Subaru Outback had been totaled. We wanted a fuel efficient car to replace it. After some research we had found that Honda and Toyota were coming out with hybrids within the next year. These were the top two candidates. A few months later, a nearby Honda dealership had an Insight that we could test drive. It was not a good fit for us. The 2-door felt crowded and impractical. Based on that test drive, we went to Toyota and put down a deposit on the 4-door Prius, sight unseen, no test drive (there were no cars in our area to drive yet).

We were on a waiting list to get one of the first Prius sold in the US. It was 9 months before the car arrived. During which time my wife took the bus to and from work. She was determined to get a car that used less fuel and was already loyal to a car that she had never driven.

What does this anecdotal story mean to Nissan for their (then yet-to-be-named) electric vehicle? If they truly want it to be mass market, make it a 4-door. I also mentioned that the car should be sized for Americans; we are big people and generally need a little more room than people from other parts of the world.

Multiple participants asked in various ways what they were going to call the vehicle. They did not give us any hints. When the name topic came to me, my only suggestion was that they have a dedicated EV name. E.g., they should not launch with an "Electric Altima" or an "Electric Cube". My example was again the Prius. Prius sales were far better than Hybrid Camry or Hybrid Civic. If they wanted electric versions of their existing line, they could do this later. They must have an EV flagship product first.

For early adopters especially, part of the experience of buying a new breed of cars is being part of something special. This does not mean the vehicle has to stand out as weird, but it does have to be recognizably badged as an EV. It has to be its own brand and not "just a sub-brand". Owners will want a name they can rally around, with their own fan sites and discussion groups. They don't want to be some sub-group on a gasoline car forum. 

Ford's hybrid badge uses a leaf
Later after the name LEAF was announced I found out why they did not give us any hint at what the name might be. They wanted a single worldwide name for the vehicle and Nissan's various countries could not agree, primarily Japan and the USA offices could not agree. Japan would suggest something like "the Nissan Plug" and the USA office would point out how that name has no excitement and would be subject to ridicule. Other names ran into copyright issues in one or more countries.

Toyota's Prius marketing used a leaf
The name LEAF even had some trouble. First Nissan could not get the rights to use a leaf symbol. Check out their early marketing. They use a blue tree. Whereas both Ford and Toyota use a leaf symbol (see pictures to the right). The name LEAF is an acronym (or more likely a bacronym) of Leading, Environmentally-friendly, Affordable, Family car. The use of the name as an acronym likely cleared some final region's legal hurdle.

Gas Car Rental Partnership 
About one week before this meeting with Nissan, I was talking to another member of the Oregon EV Association about what he drives and I was surprised to hear that his only car was an EV, whereas in my household the EV was just one of three vehicles. When I asked what he does when he needed to drive farther than his EV would take him, he said he was a member of Zip Car and that there was a car that parked in a dedicated spot at his work and several cars were within EV range of his house. He could take the Zip car whenever he needed it. I found this model of EV ownership and ride sharing interesting.

I suggested that Nissan should consider a partnership with ride-share companies and car rental companies to give Nissan EV owners discounts on occasional gas car use. 

Roadside Assistance
Soon before attending this meeting with Nissan, I received an email from AAA of Oregon stating that they were adding roadside assistance for bicyclists. If you get a flat or bend a fork, you could call AAA and get repair help or a ride back home for you and your bike.

If AAA were willing to add bike assistance, what could they do for EVs? If you were to run out of battery power, could they bring a 240V generator to you and give you enough of a charge to get home or to the nearest charging station? It is unlikely that this service would be needed often, but the point of a roadside assistance program is peace of mind. Also, if this further alleviates range anxiety, it would be a good idea to work with road side assistance companies to support EV drivers.  

Under The Hood
As I have mentioned before, I show my EV a few times each year at various events. People often want to see under the hood. In a conversion EV there are usually interesting things to see, like where parts were mounted and how various wires were run. My EV, however, was factory build as electric by GM. It has a large heat-sink that covers most of the visible area under the hood. Frankly, it is boring. Yet, people are curious and so the hood is up and it leaves them underwhelmed.

I told them that early Nissan EV owners are going to be advocates for these cars. People will approach them and ask questions, and based on my experience they will want to see under the hood. So Nissan should consider adding a little more visual appeal here than they normally would.

I have written in this blog several times about LEDs. A couple months before this meeting, I changed the tail lights in my EV to LEDs because they illuminate faster and they are brighter. If a vehicle were designed for LEDs, they could also use less power. I suggested that the Nissan EV use LEDs wherever they could.

Regen Breaking Level
Many people that are into electric cars love regenerative braking, so much so that they want to feel it kicking in as soon as they lift their foot off of the accelerator. I prefer to coast when I can. Coasting maintains momentum and if the obstruction ahead clears or the light turns green, you can keep on going rather than stopping and starting. Even if you have great regenerative breaking, coasting is better than regening and then accelerating again.

My recommendation to Nissan was that this a "religious war" that they don't want to get in to. On one hand they might want the car to feel like most cars on the road today (light regen). On the other hand, they will want to have a heavy regen option to appease the many EV enthusiasts that think that there is no such thing as too much regen.

The best option is to have this be user settable. This would allow people to set the regen to the level that they like.

Solar Panel
My final item to them was to mention that they should consider adding a solar panel, but perhaps not for the reason that you think. Yes, I am a solar advocate, but I am an engineer first. If you want a solar powered EV, currently the best way to do that is with solar panels on your house, not on a car. There simply is not enough roof space on a car to make it practical today.

So if I know the math does not support it, why did I suggest that they have an option for a solar panel? Nearly every time that I am displaying my EV at an eco-event, someone will suggest that it would be great if I could add solar panels. I used to explain the available surface area and angle and efficiency details, often during this explanation their eyes would glaze over. Now I just say "Well, I have solar on my house. It works better there since I never park my house in the shade."

Nissan could avoid a deluge of email in their inbox from well intentioned, uninformed people by adding a solar panel; even if it is just a single small panel that is only offered as an over-priced accessory. It does not need to add any range it just needs a token function such as running a cooling fan. This gesture would make them happy.

Again, this is about selling to the customer that is there, not some ideal person. And explaining to someone that they have a bad idea is generally not the best way to start a customer relationship.

After the meeting, as we are leaving and shaking hands with the Nissan team, saying thanks and goodbye, Mark Perry from Nissan takes me aside. He said something like, "I really liked what you had to say today and I have made some notes to take back to the engineering teams". I am sure that many of the things that define the LEAF today would be exactly the same as they are even if I had not attended this meeting. And I am sure they don't make any decisions based on input from one guy in a customer roundtable session. But once the LEAF did come out, and I saw that it had many of the things that I had suggested, it felt good. It felt like they really listened and that I helped make this generation of EVs a little better.

To this day when I see a review of the LEAF and someone says "I really like this nav system. It shows me exactly how far I can go with this circle and it shows me all the charging stations around here," I think "That was my idea. I'm glad you like it."

Comparing the LEAF to my suggestions
So how did Nissan do with the LEAF compared to what I thought an EV should be? Some of that is covered already, but I'll do a point by point breakdown in another blog post soon.

C-Net Review of the LEAF


  1. Yeah, I support you in your thinking.
    Your feeling is perfectly correct about Nissan.
    After reading your awesome post, now I'm thinking to buy a new car to my home and this should be Nissan.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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