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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Nissan May Offer Optional Longer-Range, Higher-Power Batteries

The typical new car buyer has a myriad array of options to chose from, covering everything from paint color to the quality of the sound system, but one of the most substantial choices usually concerns engine size. Do you want that fuel-efficient inline-four or a high-performance V-8?

But what happens when the industry begins the conversion to electric power?

When Nissan begins rolling out its new Leaf battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, next year, there’ll be just one powertrain package: using lithium-ion batteries, it will deliver 100 miles of range, 0 to 60 times of less than 10 seconds and a top speed of 90 mpg.

But a senior Nissan planner says that the company will eventually give BEV buyers the electric vehicle’s equivalent of choosing engines, offering an array of different battery packs. That would allow a motorist to choose between a lower-range, lower-cost pack, or batteries delivering perhaps twice the mileage, at a higher price. And, as battery technology improves, motorists might also be offered batteries that would add a bit more muscle to their green machines.

While today’s hybrid-electric vehicles, like the Toyota Prius, rely on time-tested nickel-metal hybrid batteries, manufacturers will be switching to more powerful lithium-ion, technology for the plug-in hybrid and battery-electric vehicles that begin rolling out in surprisingly large number over the next several years.

There are plenty of uncertainties about Li-ion chemistry, despite it being near-ubiquitous in today’s laptop computers and cellphones. So, initially, makers are playing it safe. With the Chevrolet Volt, for example, General Motors will only use about half the total energy its T-shaped Li-ion pack could hold. Nissan will use a bit more, somewhere around two-thirds, hints Mark Perry, product planning chief for Nissan’s advanced technology programs – though he declines to provide hard numbers.

Nonetheless, Perry says, “We expect to see the technology improve” as Li-ion batteries go into higher-volume production. That should not only drive down the cost of lithium batteries, but drive up so-called “energy density.” In lay terms, that means more electrons into a given battery mass, which translates into longer range between recharging.

Nissan battery researchers have suggested that within a few years it will be possible to nudge Leaf’s range up to 150, perhaps even 200 miles. Other automakers have confirmed similar targets. Tesla founder Elon Musk says his company’s roadster might eventually get 400 miles on a charge, nearly double today’s range.

Since batteries are the single most expensive part of a BEV, makers like Nissan could simply downsize the battery pack to maintain the same range at a much lower cost. But there’s another option Perry says Nissan is “looking at.”

Greater range would be a big advantage in the marketplace, Perry acknowledges. While studies show 100 miles range would be enough for more than 90% of Americans on a typical day, that doesn’t eliminate so-called “range anxiety,” the fear that you may not have enough power in the pack to race to school to pick up a sick child and then rush to the doctor.

So, Perry says, Nissan might offer customers a variety of different battery packs with, say, 100, 150 or 200 miles range, much as they can choose V-6 or V-8 upgrades today. And

And the choice might not be limited to range, said another well-placed source. A manufacturer like Nissan could alternatively offer batteries with significantly higher “power density.” This is a measure of how quickly energy can be piped into or out of a battery pack. Higher power density batteries can recharge faster – and deliver more power to a vehicle’s electric motors.

That’s good news for muscle car fans, because unlike an internal combustion engine, which builds torque as it revs up, an electric motor develops maximum tire-spinning torque the moment it starts to turn.

“This is obvious,” says Stephanie Brinley, auto analyst with AutoPacific, Inc. “Ultimately, people will want varied levels of performance. So, with an electric vehicle, instead of upgrading from a V-6 to a V-8, you’ll get a different battery.”

Nissan, as part of its aggressive move into “electrification,” has formed several dozen ventures with energy suppliers, governments and other partners, including Better Place, a company that will provide a network of recharging stations in Israel. Nissan customers in the tiny country will be able to either recharge their batteries or quickly swap them out for fresh ones.

What’s to prevent an outside manufacturer from coming along and eventually offering its own batteries to a Nissan BEV customer? CEO Ghosn sidestepped that question during the kick-off of a 22-city Leaf launch tour, but he said that “without a doubt,” Nissan would be open to working with such a vendor “if (one) comes along with batteries better than ours.”

The battery cars coming out in the next couple years will deliver relatively limited range and modest performance. Initially, makers hope that between eco-guilt and government incentives — such as a $7,500 tax credit — there’ll be reasonable demand for the vehicles. But Nissan’s Ghosn believes that BEVs could make up as much as 10% of the market by the end of the next decade, and the automaker is backing that up with plans to launch not only Leaf but three other BEVs — while its French affiliate, Renault, will introduce four battery cars of its own.

To make the equation work, analysts like Brinley believe, makers like Nissan will have to appeal to a broader array of consumers with better range and improved performance.

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