Test Driving The Nissan Leaf
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR NEWS. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
I'm Robert Siegel with an automotive take this week on All Tech Considered.
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SIEGEL: The other day, Carlos Ghosn, the president of Nissan, talked with me about his company's one-year-old plug-in electric car, the Leaf, and about the federal tax credit of up to $7,500 for people who buy one. Carlos Ghosn let me take a test drive.
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CARLOS GHOSN: Good. OK, so yeah, with pedal on the brake. Put on the brake.
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GHOSN: Here we go. Ah.
SIEGEL: And I had an important vocabulary question for the Nissan CEO.
One of these cars is called a Leaf. What do you call two of them?
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GHOSN: One of these cars is called Nissan Leaf.
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GHOSN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
SIEGEL: Excuse me, yeah.
GHOSN: Very important, it's the Nissan Leaf. Two cars are two Nissan Leafs. You know, Leafs. You cannot use leaves.
SIEGEL: It's not Nissan Leaves.
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SIEGEL: I drove the Leaf around Washington for about 20 minutes with Carlos Ghosn selling me on it from the passenger seat. Ghosn is spelled G-H-O-S-N. He describes himself as a Brazilian-born Frenchman of Lebanese origin. He's the boss of both Nissan and Renault. And he's very proud of the Nissan Leaf which, unlike the Chevy Volt, has no internal combustion engine at all.
And also unlike the Volt, the Leaf's battery isn't so big that it divides the rear into bucket seats. It's a five-seater. It has great acceleration. And, of course, it's very quiet.
GHOSN: And the pleasure of driving electric cars is something unique.
SIEGEL: A fully charged battery delivers 100 miles on average. Ghosn said he had Nissan engineers drive as inefficiently as they could - up hills, air conditioning on high - and they still got at least 50 miles to a charge.
GHOSN: Depending on how you drive, you're going to be between 50 and probably 110 or 120, because some people beat the 100 miles also.
SIEGEL: Charging the battery is supposed to take 17 to 20 hours on ordinary household current, seven hours if you attach it to the 220-volt outlet that you plug a washer or dryer into. And as you'll hear, something a lot faster is on the way.
Carlos Ghosn told me when we sat down in the studio that most American Leaf owners - and there are about 8,000 of them - recharge the battery long before it loses all of its charge.
GHOSN: Which is normal, it's like the portable phone. You don't charge the phone when it's empty, you charge it at night when you come back. You just recharge it. You want to make sure that the second day when you wake up, everything is ready for you.
SIEGEL: You raise an interesting comparison because if I owned a plug-in rechargeable car, and I forgot to recharge it as often as I forget to recharge my cell phone, I'd be in a lot of trouble.
GHOSN: Yeah, you'd be in a lot of trouble if you completely use the battery potential, which today from everything we're seeing is not the case. You know, on average, people using the battery at probably 40 percent of its potential, which means even if you forget one day, it can run another day without having to charge it.
SIEGEL: But does your experience show so far that the system of active recharging is sufficient? Or at some point do you have to develop some way to passively recharge the car?
GHOSN: We have a lot of research taking place. We have a fast-charging system that we are developing where you'll be able to recharge the battery up to 80 percent of its potential in 26 minutes. On top of this, in our labs, we are looking at a completely different way to recharge the cars.
SIEGEL: Is it clear to you that today's Leaf buyers are early adopters or are they the market, period? Are they environmentally conscious people who are going to spend 30,000-plus for a car?
GHOSN: You know, the profile so far - and we're talking about 55 percent of the owners are males, 80 percent of them never owned a Nissan before.
SIEGEL: First - this is the first Nissan that they're buying.
GHOSN: This is the first Nissan. A lot of them used to have a hybrid before, so they are moving up the chain. A lot of them also are buying the car not only because it's environmentally friendly, but also because the total cost of ownership is very attractive. The total cost of ownership takes in consideration the price of the car, but also the cost of electricity compared to fuel, in order to run the car.
SIEGEL: How critical to sales of the Leaf is the federal tax credit or, for that matter, our state tax - tax benefits?
GHOSN: Oh, well, I think the consumer incentive which is offered by federal government or by the state government extremely important. Because what we want is kind of jumpstart the sales in order to get, as fast as possible, the scale that would allow us to cut the cost of the cars and of the battery. So, we think this is going to be important in the midterm.
But I don't think we need it for the long term, because when we get a level of scale that we estimate between 500,000 and one million cars a year - globally, not in the United States - we will be very competitive without the incentive offered by the government.
SIEGEL: How long will it take you to reach that point, do you think?
GHOSN: Well, we hope that within the next five years this volume will be reached.
SIEGEL: Until Nissan reaches that point, where it's seeing half a million vehicles sold worldwide, is it losing money per unit that it's selling? Is it treading water? How close-run a thing is this?
GHOSN: No. No, it's not losing money. But we're saying when the system will be able to sustain itself without government incentives.
SIEGEL: Would you be losing money though without those government incentives?
GHOSN: Yeah, exactly. That's what I'm saying.
SIEGEL: You would.
GHOSN: But without government incentive, yes, that we will not have even have launched the technology.
SIEGEL: I don't have to tell you, there are furious arguments in the country right now about whether the government should be in the business of picking winners and encouraging particular technologies as opposed to others. What would happen if the government said, look, the auto companies, they're doing all right. They have profits. They can invest them in new projects. Let them go ahead.
GHOSN: Yeah. Well, I think in this case, you'll have electric cars in other countries and not in the United States.
SIEGEL: But you know what their critique is. Their critique is you start by helping young industries in need of some assist - or young projects - and then it's not too long before you're protecting old industries from foreign competition in one way or another. When - is this really something that one phases out as quickly as, say, five years?
GHOSN: I think one of the good roles of governments across the planet is to facilitate the emergence of technology that are considered as for good for the countries. Because in the case of the electric cars, not only you are cutting on oil imports, not only you are reducing the emissions, but also you're creating jobs. Because, in fact, what you're doing here is you are substituting oil imports by creating battery plants in the United States.
You're creating a new technology. We're going to be creating 1,400 jobs into the battery plants in Tennessee. And all the oil that would have been consumed by, you know, combustion engine is being in a certain way replaced by jobs and by technology in Tennessee. So, I think the trade off is an interesting one.
SIEGEL: Carlos Ghosn, thank you very much.
GHOSN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Carlos Ghosn, the president of Nissan and Renault, on the electric plug-in the Nissan Leaf. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.