Saturday, January 1, 2011

Turning Over A New Leaf in 2011: Nissan LEAF Innovations

With dozens of patents to my name, I consider myself an innovative person. I enjoy looking to the future and wondering how it will be different. So while watching the Lance Armstrong commercial for the 2011 Nissan LEAF, when I heard the tagline "Innovation for the Planet. Innovation for all." it commanded my attention. Searching for LEAF innovations I found a quote from Jon Brancheau, Nissan N. America Marketing VP. He said the LEAF is the "poster child of innovation". Beyond a slogan and marketing guy's word, what innovations does the LEAF really have?

The obvious first thing that someone might call innovative about the LEAF is that it is all-electric. However, I would argue that point. My simplistic definition of innovation is the "introduction of something new". All-electric cars are not new. Production EVs were on the road in the early 1900s, in the 1990s, and there are EV conversions, forklifts, golf carts, the Tesla Roadster... The new thing about the LEAF is not the electric motor.

Innovation: Little Things
There are many small LEAF innovations such as noise reduced wiper blades and wiper motors, the shape of the headlights to move air around the mirrors to further reduce wind noise and the navigation system that shows the vehicle's driving range based on the current battery charge. These are things that make the vehicle more usable. They are not enough in themselves to label the vehicle as a poster child for innovation, but they are nice icing on the cake.

Innovation: Price and Availability
Nissan claims the LEAF will be the first freeway-speed electric car with 10,000 vehicles on the road. Worldwide Nissan is building five factories for the LEAF and its batteries. They're investing around $6 billion into this vehicle's production.

In Oregon, the after-incentive price is $23,780. In Cali, the after-incentive price is $20,280. That is a price that new car buyers can afford.

Before the LEAF, the options for freeway-speed EVs with more than 70 miles of range were limited to the few RAV4 EVs, expensive DIY or professional conversions, or an expensive sports car. The big innovation in the LEAF is the affordability and availability of an all-electric but otherwise very "normal" car. The LEAF is the first affordable, mass produced, EV with the size, speed, and range performance to meet a large percentage of people's driving needs.

The price of the LEAF is a game changer for the would-be EV industry. It will force the makers of vehicles like the Mitsubishi iMiEV, Wheego Whip, Smart ED, and others to reconsider their pricing. There is no significant market for a 100% electric vehicle that performs worse than the LEAF without that vehicle being priced notably cheaper. A smaller EV with less range cannot have a price tag equal or higher than the LEAF and expect to sell many vehicles. Even the Chevy Volt team needs to consider the LEAF when they price the 2012 model year Volt. How much of a price premium is an on-board generator worth? Far less than $9,000, IMHO.

Innovation: Batteries(1)
For innovations, the batteries of the LEAF are a must mention. One of Nissan's advantages is that they make their own batteries. Nearly every other auto manufacturer that is coming out with a PEV in 2011 or 2012 is getting their batteries from someone else. This means that those manufacturers have to share their profits and/or charge a higher price for their vehicles. Nissan has been developing Lithium batteries since 1992 and they are the only company that used Lithium batteries in their 1990's EV (the Hypermini). Just as the biggest LEAF innovation was the business model for affordability and availability, again, in the batteries I assert that there is innovation in the business model. Nearly two decades of lithium powered vehicle experience and their own lithium battery production is unique in the industry.

Let's look at the battery tech itself. Nissan is not babying their lithium manganate packs in the LEAF. Whereas other EVs give the batteries better environmental conditioning than the passengers, Nissan says their batteries can take whatever Mother Nature dishes out anywhere but the worst corners of the globe. The batteries are not liquid cooled or heat pump conditioned. Others in the EV industry have said the lack of an active thermal management system makes it "under engineered" and that relying on a simple passive cooling system is "primitive". It may be but this passive system further reduces the vehicle's price. Will the gamble pay off? The batteries are covered by an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty, so we'll find out. And if this turns out to be "under engineered", Nissan will pick up the tab, not the customer.

Innovation: Connected Car
Next on the innovation list is the "connected car" or CARWINGS features of the LEAF. With this, your car becomes a smart phone accessory. The LEAF's smart phone app connects you to your car so you can check the charge, or turn on the heater or air conditioning. When the car is plugged-in, this feature allows you to use grid power to precondition the cabin. This way you can jump into a nice temp car, ready to drive and while you are driving, little or no energy is taken from your range to condition the cab.

Another connected car feature allows you to set the time that the car starts to charge at night. This allows you to plug it in as soon as you get home, while still paying off-peak rates (if you are on a tiered rate).

This communication path can go both ways. You can have the LEAF email or text you if it is not plugged in by a certain time such as 10PM. This is a little reassurance that you won't walk out to the garage in the morning to find an uncharged car.

And if you want to compare your driving efficiency with other LEAF owners, you can upload your data and see if you rank in the platinum, gold, silver, or bronze category. A little hypermiling social competition can help encourage efficient driving.

Innovation: LED Lighting
Nissan LEAF LED Headlight Assembly
In a traditional gasoline vehicle, the alternator is a small drag on horsepower that is always there. In return it provides power to recharge the starter battery and to run the accessories. In an all-electric vehicle the accessories such as the headlights are powered by the same batteries that are used to propel the car. So it is important that the accessories be efficient.

The LEAF's headlights use two LEDs per headlamp in normal (low beam) operation. This uses only 50 watts of power. This is significantly better than Halogen bulbs that use about 130W. And still better than the 90W LED bulbs that are used in other new vehicles today.

Do these low power lights mean that you won't be able to see the road? At 500 lumens and 5500K color, these wide beam lights ranks very similar to other production HID lamps.

Innovation: Recycled Materials
Last on my innovation list is the extent to which the car is both designed for recycling and made with recycled parts. The seat fabric is made from recycled water bottles and other interior plastics come from recycled material too. The majority of early LEAF adopters will be eco-minded, so this is good marketing, but it is more than just that. It is a smart way to get material for more cars.

Nissan claims that when a LEAF has reached the end of its life, it has a recoverability rate of 99%(2). That is that to say that only 1% of the car will go to a landfill. The other 99% will be reused or recycled. Sure the metals and plastics can be recycled but what about the batteries? There are 600 pounds of them. What happens to them?

To address the batteries, Nissan has formed a new company called 4R Energy Corp. 4R will accept defective and worn-down batteries. Batteries that are no longer sufficient to power a car can still have a long "stationary" life such as storing renewable energy for the grid. 4R will examine each battery that arrives and, depending on its condition, it will be resold, repaired, or recycled. (That is 3 Rs, what is the 4th R?) The LEAF batteries are a combination of lithium, manganese and graphite, which means there are no toxic materials in the batteries making them easier to recycle than some other battery chemistries.

To anyone that is concerned that EVs trade foreign oil dependency for a lithium dependency, I must point out one significant difference. The lithium in a battery is not consumed. When the battery is no longer useful, the lithium can be made into new batteries. This means that not only will the next generation of lithium batteries be lighter and hold more energy, but they will also be cheaper because there will be a steady supply of 'used' lithium. Let's compare this to something a little more familiar. When was the last time that you had a can of soda? If it was recently, than that aluminum can likely included metal that had been an aluminum can hundreds of times before, and possibly some aluminum that was last year's iPod case and yet more that was an old airplane structure. My point is that metals like aluminum (and lithium) can be reused indefinitely.

Again Nissan's innovation is not the technology (they didn't invent recycling), but it is the business model that takes advantage of it in a way that allows them to deliver an affordable product profitably. In 4R, they have established a source for recycled lithium to be used to manufacture their next generation battery packs. This will help them maintain a profit and price advantage compared to other EV manufactures that are buying batteries from 3rd parties or mining for virgin material. 

Nissan is uniquely positioned to be able to deliver an all-electric car in volume, at an affordable price, while still making money on the transaction.This is primarily due to planning they have been working on for decades. They knew the time for EVs was coming and they were not going to miss the critical technology inflection point where market leaders and laggards are determine.

As an engineer, I assume everyone from marketing is a Dilbert caricature and I hate to agree with them. However, this time I will say that I do agree with Nissan's Jon Brancheau that the LEAF is a "poster child of innovation". Nissan has ambitious production goals, new ways to get materials, make cars, and price EVs and the LEAF has many new features that make it easier to use than previous generations of EVs. Nissan is "all in" with their bet on EVs. They have the technology and the innovative business plan, to make that a winning bet.

1) Nissan Batteries
2) LEAF Recoverability Rate


  1. This will be a great peak for Nisan this time after the invention of great Nissan Leaf. My liking is also this future model EV.
    I hope the great Nissan Leaf will cross over all the ways of other car selling.

  2. It is an amazing creation from a leading car manufacturer, NISSAN. A car with no gas but uses electricity is really something. It is an innovative state of the art creation that benefits the environment. Good to know about this eco-friendly car.

  3. Yeah Man.. I too wish to buy one of these...
    Vinyl cladding

  4. The new invention of Nissan leaf looks more innovative than previous model of leaf. In this you could find some new things, like great battery, nice led lights and many more.

    Lone Mountain Truck Leasing


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.