Can Nissan Quell EV Anxiety with Technology?

Are you ready to trade the gas pump for a power cord?  Over the next few years, drivers will have to contend with that question when a handful of new electric cars take to the road.

Nissan’s as-yet unnamed electric vehicle (EV), which the automaker plans to debut this weekend in Japan, is already aiming to make it easier for consumers to answer “yes.”

The car will begin populating U.S. fleets in 2010, but general availability isn’t expected until sometime in 2012. While its design is still under (slowly retreating) wraps, statements made by the company are already revealing Nissan’s plans to leverage technologies like GPS, wireless communications and the Internet to win over EV skeptics – not an easy task.  That’s where EV-IT comes in.

EV-IT is Nissan’s name for the IT system that encompasses some the car’s most advanced, consumer-facing functions.  It monitors the battery’s charge and interfaces with GPS to determine the vehicle’s range, which Nissan estimates is 160 kilometers (roughly 100 miles) at full charge with regenerative braking.  This information is then mapped out on the navigation screen, providing drivers with a driving radius that updates on the fly.  EV-IT will also fetch information on charging stations within that boundary so that drivers can top off along the way.

Unlike gas-powered cars and hybrids, the first of these mass-produced EVs won’t be able to rely on the safety net that the vast networks of gas stations in the United States provides.  EV-IT, much like On-Star, is meant, in part, for peace of mind.

Speaking of OnStar, EV-IT shares some similarities to one of GM’s bright spots.  Both, for instance, relay diagnostic data via wireless transmitters.  Yet plans call for EV-IT to augment that data’s utility by enabling customers to manage and monitor their cars’ charging times online using a web site or iPhone app. Owners can set their cars to charge late at night, when some utilities provide lower rates, and receive a text message when the cycle is complete. Also promised are neat convenience features like the ability to cool or warm a car’s interior just before a trip while the vehicle is still plugged in, to avoid a drain on the battery that can diminish travel time.

In fairness, OnStar isn’t standing still.  GM has expressed interest tapping the service to help future Chevy Volt owners to map out the most efficient routes and lower emissions by minimizing the frequency with which its gas motor kicks in.

However, Nissan’s EV ambitions (nor those of other electric-car hopefuls for that matter) won’t gain traction if the issue of at-home charging isn’t addressed. Fortunately, evidence emerged that the automaker has planned well in advance when it posed a telling question in an online survey. Nissan hinted at the possibility of home-charging equipment options at the time of purchase — an encouraging sign.

One of those options might be based on the carmaker’s experiments with wireless charging. However, same technology that juices the Palm Pre faces potentially costly scale-out issues — to say nothing of the inherently slower charging rates of wireless inductive charging.  A plug will have to do for now and the near future, it seems.

What form these systems will take, and their costs, are pure speculation until they are officially revealed and previewed. Nissan, at least, appears to be taking positive steps in addressing the looming concerns of potential customers and communicating details about some of the technological solutions the automaker is pursuing to alleviate them.

And it’s important to address them early.  Until super capacity batteries and a widespread network of fast-charging stations are commonplace, EVs will be a tough sell for the majority of Americans. Employing technology that makes maintaining EVs as easy as checking bank balances online or texting friends and family could help put electric cars into garages sooner.

Question of the week

What features would you like to see in an electric car?
Relevant analyst in wireless communications
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2 Comments Subscribers to comment

  1. Josie Garthwaite Friday, July 31, 2009

    I’m not convinced that home charging will be the biggest infrastructure hurdle for EVs. Installing a charge point at home will be relatively simple compared with the task of rolling out a comprehensive network of charge points in public areas and at workplaces. Those public access points could be critical for mass market adoption, keeping drivers from feeling tethered to their home charge point, or being locked out of the EV market because they rent an apartment or rely on street parking.

  2. Pedro Hernandez Monday, August 3, 2009

    Good point! (As an apartment dweller I can relate.) Credit to Nissan though for at least broaching the issue with potential customers. Their questionnaire asked what type of home you lived in. On a semi-related note, the car was officially unveiled and it’s name is Leaf.

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