Gareth Huw Davies

Green Technology

100,000 Leafs blown by zero carbon driving’s wind of change

Out on the road I notice all-electric Nissan Leafs, and I can’t help keeping a running total in my mind. What particularly sad obsession is this, you ask.

There’s a more positive purpose. I’m keeping up with a story about business and the environment and what is likely to be a radical change to our lifestyle.

I was at the British launch of the Leaf in May 2010, and Nissan executives there spoke of their high hopes for the car. But when it arrived in Britain in 2011 it became quickly clear that this was a vehicle for eco-zealots only. Very few were sold, and Top Gear put a great big dent in the door of its advertising campaign when it it filmed the car running out of energy so that it had to be pushed home.

Sales in the first year or so were slow, with few public recharging points. The skeptics’ mantra, amplified by Top Gear, was “range anxiety”. Stray too far from home and you risked running out of charge. This was worse than an empty petrol tank, because while you can walk along the hard shoulder of the motorway bringing relief to your vehicle in a petrol can, there is no lead long enough to stretch to the nearest power point when you’re out of electricity.

So in that first year or so my running total of Leafs was only two. Most motorists would have registered a single one, as they weren’t even looking, so tiny was the vehicle’s profile. Electric cars were, more or less, invisible. The symbol of this floundering technology was the unused public charging point, standing there like an unloved robot with its cold blue light attracting no one.

Then something began to happen. The only real personality in the worldwide electric car movement, Elon Musk, brought out the Tesla, an elegant electric car with a much greater range, and he promoted it tirelessly. When a New York Times reporter managed to run out of charge while driving a Tesla, Musk fought back furiously in defense of his dream.

It’s possible, even likely, that the publicity for the expensive but very desirable Tesla encouraged people to look for an alternative in their price range. The Leaf, by now building a reputation for reliability, and for not conking out, out of charge in the middle of nowhere, was a strong choice.

In the next two years my running total rose to 6. It included the first one in my village – a symbolic moment akin to that time about 110 years ago when the very first car appeared here.

Now Nissan has announced that its just sold its 100,000th Leaf, worldwide. Sales of still low in the UK, but are rising briskly, albeit from a tiny base – 1,812 Leafs were registered in 2013, almost three times as many as in 2012.

In the U.S, 22,610 Leafs were sold in 2013. Some of the highest sales figures are in Norway, where, in 2013, it was the country’s fourth best-selling car. Norway has been called the friendliest place in the world for electric cars, due to favourable tax breaks and incentives such as free parking.

This is vindication for the company, which took a very bold step in introducing the first purpose-designed all-electric car, built from scratch and not in the framework of some existing vehicle. Its advertising now focuses on the low cost of motoring, together with the low cost of maintenance and insurance. Saving the planet through zero emissions doesn’t feature high on its list of benefits.

However, there is still a long way to go before electric cars even dent the supremacy of the internal combustion engine car. Running a quick online search I found that range anxiety is still a major concern.

The Chicago Tribune reported (Nov. 15, 2013) on a study of 3,700 plug-in car drivers in the US. It found that range anxiety remains the biggest barrier to mass adoption and that an infrastructure of Level 3 fast chargers (taking 20 to 30 minutes to recharge a battery to 80%) would lessen that anxiety.

Nissan Leaf drivers averaged only 96 miles for the farthest road trip. EV (electric vehicle) owners wanted increased range and a fast-charging infrastructure, such as the one now being created by Tesla.

The people polled wanted a battery range of 186 miles. The unofficial average range for battery electric vehicles  is still only 80 miles.

Seasoned Nissan Leaf owners are now experienced enough to negotiate themselves, via convenient charging points, across quite long distances. And, with 8,600 public charging points already in the UK, even the novice EV owner should be able to accomplish substantial trips with a bit of planning.

Fast charging points (20 to 30 minutes) are opening on Britain’s motorways, under the Electric Highway scheme. One of is the latest, free, charging point was installed at Pease Pottage services on the M23, powered with 100 per cent renewable energy from wind and sun.

Other motorway charging points include Reading, Fleet, Chieveley, Membury and Winchester services. The Electric Highway now covers 50 per cent of Britain’s motorway services and is set to pass 90 per cent by the spring of 2014.

In 2010 I wrote: “I tweeted that this or similar will rule the streets in 10 years.” Only six years to go. Rule? Perhaps not. But certainly share, to the extent that you won’t be able to miss them.