Commentary

Nissan is making a bold gamble to corner the global electric-vehicle market. Taking a page out of Toyota’s hybrid-electric vehicle playbook, it plans to be the “firstest with the mostest” among the major auto makers with affordable EVs.

Toyota did this with HEVs. Ten years after it introduced the Prius in the U.S., Toyota still commands about 75% of all HEV sales.

But unless EVs really catch on with consumers, both Nissan’s and Toyota’s efforts may go down as the most expensive public-relations boondoggles this industry has ever seen. Even after a decade, with seven different brands selling more than 20 different HEVs, only 2.5% of U.S. vehicle buyers purchase hybrids.

Nissan is pulling out all the stops to break down resistance to EVs. It’s pricing the upcoming Leaf at $33,000. That puts it within reach of many buyers and it’s much less than the $40,000 price tag Chevy is talking about for the Volt. Interestingly, the Leaf is priced at more than $40,000 in Japan.

Governments around the world are so enamored with EVs they are pitching exorbitant incentives to entice buyers. The U.S. government is providing a $7,500 incentive. In Japan, it’s $8,500.

California’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Project offers up to $5,000 for the purchase of a zero-emissions vehicle and $3,000 for a plug-in hybrid on top of federal incentives.

That will help bring in a lot of purchasers, but is it enough? And what happens when incentives go away?

Electric cars can be a joy to drive. They’re quiet and relatively clean, as long as you don’t burn coal or oil to generate the electricity that goes in the batteries.

They also provide a new and different kind of driving experience. With instant torque, they’re quick off the line. And with regenerative braking, you can handle a lot of driving situations without ever taking your right foot off the accelerator pedal. The electricity generating brakes will slow the car on its own. Very nice in stop-and-go traffic.

Many EV owners will have to put $2,000 charging stations in their garages, although there are more incentives to help pay for those. Buyers also are going to learn about “range anxiety,” that nagging worry about whether the batteries have enough juice to get you where you’re going.

Public charging stations conveniently located in shopping areas are not likely to be plentiful for quite some time.

So, if after a decade, HEVs can capture only 2.5% of the market, it seems likely EVs will have a slower growth curve. That means the EV pie will get sliced mighty thin.

Mighty slim for all but Nissan, that is. With four different EV models (including the Leaf, a van, an Infiniti luxury sedan and a yet unnamed car) and by sharing its technology with Renault, Nissan is going to be the EV market leader.

However, unless EVs develop into a significant segment, Nissan and Renault will have flushed about $6 billion in development costs down the most expensive rat hole in the history of the automobile. I sure hope the green image is worth it.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit, and “Autoline Daily,” the online video newscast.