[Greg Moran is a new contributor for The Transit Pass.  He develops energy power projects for International Power.]

Twenty years from today, we may just look back on 2010 as the year that electric cars hit the mainstream and put the world on a path toward widespread vehicle electrification.  While niche electric cars such as Tesla and Think are already in limited production and available for purchase today, no major automobile manufacture has to date released a plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) on the market.  However, that will change later this year with the introduction of the LEAF from Nissan.  The LEAF will be the first automobile produced by a major global automotive manufacturer that will not rely on an internal combustion engine fueled by gasoline.  Instead, the vehicle will be fully reliant on a 24 kWh lithium polymer battery developed jointly by Nissan and NEC (other hybrid and electric manufactures use more standard lithium-ion chemistry).

While critics of electric vehicles have voiced numerous objections to the PEV in general, perhaps the most frequent criticism has been on the topic of price competitiveness with traditional gasoline-fueled vehicles.  To this point, Nissan largely puts this issue to bed by starting the LEAF at $32,780.  After factoring in a federal tax credit of $7,500, the price drops to nearly $25,000.  This makes the LEAF competitive with traditional, non-electric automobiles in its class.  In certain states such as California, the LEAF would be eligible for an additional $5,000 in tax credits, thereby dropping the price to approximately $20,000.  Seeing California is chalk full of early technology adopters, Nissan figures the LEAF will sell well in the San Francisco and Los Angeles market (both markets also happen to be hotbeds for battery and electric car company start-ups).

Range anxiety is another consistent fear expressed by PEV critics.  Despite Americans propensity to drive more than our global counterparts, the vast majority of Americans drive less than 40 miles per day.  Nissan officially claims that the LEAF will get approximately 100 miles on one charge.  However, recent test drives have indicated that even this number is conservative and the range will likely be higher.  This 100 mile range will likely satisfy over 90% of Americans driving needs.

Nissan is currently working on fine-tuning its vehicle charging strategy.  At present, the LEAF will be able to reach a full charge in approximately 8 hours by simply plugging the vehicle into a standard garage power outlet.  However, Nissan is currently in discussions with numerous electric utilities and third party charging station technology providers.  In foreign markets, Nissan has signed an agreement with Israeli start-up Better Place to manage the vehicle’s battery by swapping the battery out at swapping stations when it becomes depleted.  Nissan is expected to test this model in the United States by 2012.  The holy grail of vehicle charging is clearly the uber-fast 3 minute charge, which would be akin to a trip to the old gas station.  This is currently technologically unfeasible, however certain fast-charging stations are becoming available that can charge a vehicle in 30 minutes.  Stay tuned for more progress on this front in the coming months as this issue has been grabbing the attention of prominent VCs.

Much of Nissan’s progress on the electric vehicle front can be traced to its Brazilian born CEO, Carlos Ghosn, one of the most dynamic visionaries in the auto industry today.  I would liken him to Apple’s Steve Jobs (although I think Mr. Ghosn has a general disdain for black turtlenecks) with respect to his charisma and ground breaking ideas.  Mr. Ghosn predicts that over 10% of the global vehicle fleet will be electric by 2020.  No small feat since today that figure stands at less than 1/1000th of 1%.  It remains to be seen whether Ghosn will be as successful of a marketer as Jobs.  This ability to communicate with the public will surely be absolutely essential to the nascent industry’s development going forward.

Currently, Ghosn is already seeking out solutions to some of the most pressing current issues pertaining to electric vehicles such as extended range and secondary usage of the battery after it is no longer capable of working in an automobile.  These are two fundamental issues that will require dynamic innovation going forward and will both be addressed in subsequent posts.

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