Japanese automakers were among the first to mass market fuel-efficient hybrids and are ahead of most competitors in electric car technology. Toyota, now the world’s largest automaker, has early realized that alternatives to conventional cars using (only) gasoline for power could become big business. With a whole lineup of hybrid cars, Toyota is leading this market segment and its flagship hybrid, the Toyota Prius is quite successful with more than one million sales so far.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Toyota Prius is the most fuel-efficient car currently sold in the U.S. Part of Toyota’s philosophy is long-term thinking. The company plans to offer its entire product lineup with hybrid technology by 2030. This however, might turn out to a bet on the wrong horse in the long term. Hybrid technology will only be a transitional solution. Sure, conventional gasoline-driven cars and especially gas-guzzlers will slowly but surely disappear. Just take a look at the latest U.S. car sales and it becomes obvious that the age of the conventional car is over. But hybrids are not the perfect alternative. First, hybrid cars are expensive as the technology is sophisticated and one conventional engine, a battery and an electric motor are needed. Second, the extra motor and the battery as well as the extra drive shaft add a lot of weight to the vehicle which outweighs a lot of the efficiency benefits. To sum up, hybrid cars combine the disadvantages of both technologies and they’re only cost-effective when used in large cars and SUVs and not in compact cars. The lifetime of the nickel-metal hydride batteries is limited and their performance is not sufficient. It’d be much cheaper and easier to make smaller cars more efficient to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and save gasoline. The Chevy Volt, General Motor’s hope for the future, has the advantage that the electric motor will generate the power to move the vehicle forward and there’s only a small combustion engine to resupply the batteries to extend the driving range. Thus, a lot of weight is saved and the technology is less complex and less fragile.
Nissan which is lagging behind in hybrid technology is now focussing on electric cars. Together with its French partner Renault, Nissan will provide the electric vehicles for Project Better Place in Israel and Denmark. Renault-Nissan has also signed a contract with the Portuguese government to introduce the same concept as in Israel and Denmark in Portugal. The start of the mass production and mass distribution is set for 2010 in Japan, the U.S., Israel and Denmark.
Nissan will equip the electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries that are twice as powerful as conventional batteries currently used in hybrids. The electricity from the batteries will power an 80 kilowatt electric motor. The Nissan electric car is not based on any existing Nissan vehicles, but has a unique bodystyle. This is absolutely right as cars designed to be driven with electricity are much more efficient than electric versions of cars originally designed for combustion engines.
Today, Nissan showed a test model of an electric car that will use batteries developed by Nissan. However, the batteries contribute with 300 kilograms to the total weight of the car. Nissan says that the all-electric car accelerates more qucikly than comparable gasoline-driven cars and driving it is comfortable and extremely quiet.
Even if Nissan appears to be willing to take the lead in zero-emission vehicles, I doubt that Nissan has a chance to become the market leader in this segment. GM, Toyota, Ford, Mitsubishi and Honda are strong competitors and will all start selling electric cars on a grand scale in 2010. Though Renault-Nissan could initially benefit from government cooperation in Israel, Denmark and Portugal, where an infrastructure with battery swap stations is being built and establishes a kind of standard, this system might not be attractive to other parts of the world. The Chevy Volt and most other plug-ins won’t necessarily require such an infrastructure.
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