Special Coverage

Management Briefing Seminars

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – With the clock ticking down toward the rollout of its first electric vehicle in fall 2010, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. is kicking into overdrive to make sure the launch and lifecycle of its upcoming Leaf model hit their targets, says a top U.S. executive.

“Like any new technology we have one shot to do this right,” Larry Dominique, vice president-product planning for Nissan North America Inc., tells media here at the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars. “We’re going to invest a lot of time, a lot of energy to make sure every facet of the sales and service process is set up.”

Nissan plans to begin leasing the car to public and private fleets in the U.S. late next year. It also will offer the vehicle for sale to customers who live in cities where there is expected to be sufficient electric-charging infrastructure.

Availability of the car, which it says will have a 100-mile (161-km) range on a single charge, will expand more widely throughout the U.S. by 2012.

This week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a grant that will help fund a program undertaken by Electric Transportation Engineering Corp. to make available up to 1,000 Leaf EVs in five markets: Tennessee, Oregon, Seattle, San Diego, and the Phoenix/Tucson area.

The Leaf will be built at Nissan’s plant in Oppama, Japan, initially, but will be added to the mix at its Smyrna, TN, assembly plant later.

About six weeks ago, Nissan held a 2-day EV seminar with all NNA employees at the Smyrna plant, Dominique says. Nissan Executive Vice President Carlos Tavares also was present as the staff brainstormed ideas on how to sell, finance and service the Leaf and make sure customers are satisfied now and in the future. Employees also discussed marketing concepts and dealership-training plans.

“The ideas I’m seeing on paper are people thinking out of the box. It’s pretty exciting,” Dominique says. “(The Leaf) will be a paradigm shift that will benefit us in other things we do in business.”

One of the proposals under consideration is to set up free charging stations at every Nissan dealership. Another calls for allowing the car to “talk” to the dealer to let it know when service is due. Dealerships then would email the lessee or owner to set up an appointment.

Nissan is thinking of approaching mass-retailers such as Target Corp. about installing charging stations in their store parking lots as a way to increase their business.

The Leaf moved into Nissan’s product-development arm a little more than a year ago. “It’s a shorter development time than many of our vehicles,” Dominique says.

However, Nissan has been working on lithium-ion battery technology for 17 years and elements that made it into the production model are taken from existing vehicles.

For example, the Leaf’s platform is borrowed from the Versa B-car, though Dominique says the EV is a “true, C-segment car,” about the same size as Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn had more involvement with the Leaf’s development than is typical, helping to trim design proposals down from three to two to one, Dominique says. Usually, Ghosn is on hand only to make a decision on the final design.

The Leaf is just the first EV Nissan is planning, and while he won’t disclose how many models are in development, Dominique says an EV for the luxury Infiniti marque is under study.

“Certainly we’d like to have an Infiniti EV also,” he says. “We think it fits in with the technology slant that Infiniti’s got. The important part is to develop the right Infiniti EV. Our goal is not to have a one-hit wonder.”

Nissan predicts 10% of total industry volume will be EVs in the 2016-2020 timeframe. “I want at least 10% of my portfolio based on sales to be EV,” Dominique says.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com