Nissan takes early lead with Leaf

Global heavyweights are revving up for a share of the electric vehicle market in New Zealand.

Nissan, Toyota and Honda pitched their plans for next generation vehicle roll-out at the 2010 EECA Biofuels & Electric Vehicles conference in Wellington this week, to an audience including local government representatives and the motor vehicle industry.

Given the limited size of the New Zealand market, competition for government and consumer support is likely to be fierce and, in terms of purely electric vehicles, Nissan’s Leaf hatchback appears to be leading the fleet.

The Leaf will hit the Japanese and US markets this northern winter and selected European companies in 2011, with an NZ launch scheduled for 2012. The company announced yesterday that pre-orders in Japan have reached 3754 units, over half of the company’s sales target for the 2010 financial year.

Expected retail price before tax credits will be US$32,780 (NZ$46,082).

Early market darling
Nissan has won considerable public sector support for the Leaf since the vehicle’s launch, including part of an $US99.8 billion US government trial incorporating 4700 Leafs as sole vehicle of use in the states of Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington.

The Victoria state government has pledged SA5  million (to a four-year electric vehicle trial from 2010, and has a memorandum of understanding for Nissan to promote the technology in the state. New South Wales and the federal territory of ACT have signed similar agreements.

In New Zealand, Nissan has memorandums of understanding with city councils in Wellington and Christchurch to study the necessary requirements for field trial implementation.

The interest generated by the Leaf has caused competitors to reconsider the market viability of the purely electric vehicle, previously shelved as too expensive to become popular.

“Now I have to become a little more positive,” Yutaka Matsumoto, Toyota Japan project general manager, joked in Wellington.

Toyota’s latest launch darling is the Prius plug-in hybrid (PHV), introduced to the market in December last year with sales starting at US$22,800 (NZ$32,083) to begin in 2012. A small urban commuter battery EV is scheduled for launch in the same year.

Honda Japan environment and safety general manager Michio Shinohara’s presentation also focused on hybrid rather than purely electric technology. Flagship hybrid middle-class vehicle Insight has sold 150,000 units in Japan since launch, and will be introduced to NZ this year with a suggested starting price of US$19,800 (NZ$27,866).

Not a silver bullet
Battery EVs are marketed as specifically short-distance commuter vehicles, and public infrastructure investment and further developments in battery technology are likely to be necessary before commercial success is guaranteed.

Consumer range anxiety is of particular concern. The Nissan LEAF is able to cruise for around 160km before a recharge is needed, but this may be reduced by hilly terrain and air-conditioning and heating use.

Michael Hayes, Nissan’s general manager for EVs in Australia and New Zealand, was quick to agree that the LEAF is not a “silver bullet” answer to next generation transport.

“One of the things we have to be up front with is that we’re not looking at changing 100% of the fleet to electric vehicles,” he said.

Mr Hayes told NBR that while he recognised the importance of developments in modern diesel technology, LPG technology, hydro technology and, at some point in future, hydro-electric vehicles, electric vehicles are the only feasible technology that can deliver zero emission motoring over the next three to five years.

He believed cost parity with the normal internal combustion engine car could be achieved by around 2018.

“We want to get there first,” he said.

Testing the NZ market
Meridian Energy and Mitsubishi ran a national trial of two i MiEV electric vehicles from January to April last year, allowing the “average Kiwi” to touch, drive and experience the cars.

Nigel Broomhall, technology partnership manager at Meridian, calculates that around 35,000 experiences of the i MiEV occurred during the trial, including 7500 physical experiences.

Subsequent consumer research results indicated that around 62% of participants would use the car for commuting, shopping and errands, and 39% would be willing to use an electric vehicle for one day trips.

Mr Broomhall said that Kiwis typically struggled to understand car design for a specific purpose, which is why “we use great big SUVs to drive our kids to school.” The survey showed customers were able to quickly understand how an electric vehicle could be used.

“They got the fact that it wasn’t going to get them to Taupo for a ski.”

With indications of positive consumer demand and a national policy statement targeting world leadership in electric vehicle use, the next step for manufacturers is to lock down field trial commitments from local government and secure a piece of market share.

Nissan is off to an early start with the Wellington and Christchurch City Councils, but the race for the credibility and loyalty of the Kiwi consumer has only just begun.

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