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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Business

Jonathan Serrie

Atlanta, GA

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Trading the Pump for a Plug

December 23, 2010 - 9:40 AM | by: Jonathan Serrie

Nissan’s first all-electric cars are rolling out this month to consumers on a wait list of 20 thousand.

Nissan officials said consumer interest in the “LEAF” exceeded their expectations. The company has temporarily stopped accepting new reservations for the car until it can finish processing the initial 20 thousand requests sometime next year.

“It’s a niche car in the first year simply because Nissan won’t be able to build enough to satisfy all the demand they’re projecting,” said Marty Padgett, editorial director for High Gear Media. “But they’re building five different factories to build the LEAF and the batteries that go with it. They’re investing somewhere around $6 billion to make this happen worldwide.”

The LEAF is perhaps the most ambitious electric vehicle venture since the 1990s, when several major automakers went into limited EV production in response to California zero-emissions mandates.  Electric cars, such as the General Motors EV1, Ford Ranger EV, Honda EV Plus and Toyota RAV4 EV were discontinued shortly after a group of automakers successfully challenged the California requirements.

Padgett said the LEAF is a “game changer” for Nissan, which is operating on the assumption that American consumers are ready to trade the pump for a plug.

“The absolute most unique feature about the Nissan LEAF is you never have to go to a gas station ever again,” said Jennifer Picheco, Nissan’s Southeast regional manager for electric vehicle operations.

But doing away with the gasoline engine comes at the cost of range. The LEAF requires recharging after driving 100 miles.

Its competitor, The Chevy Volt, runs only 35 miles on an electric charge, but has a gasoline engine that can carry it for an additional 340 miles.

Don Francis of Atlanta decided to take Nissan’s all-electric route.

“One of the things that’s important to me is the reduction in the use of foreign petroleum,” Francis said.

As a coordinator for Clean Cities Atlanta, a public-private partnership to reduce petroleum consumption in transportation, Francis is working to establish a nationwide network of charging stations at workplaces, schools, shopping centers and even fast food restaurants. He believes the stations would help consumers overcome any “range anxiety” they may have with electric cars.

But until such infrastructure is in place, the LEAF will be limited to daily work commutes and errands, rather than out of town trips. And car experts believe most charging will take place overnight at home.

“Nissan expects that people will have a second car on hand,” said High Gear Media’s Padgett. “They’re capitalizing on the fact that Americans tend to own multiple vehicles.”

The LEAF’s all-electric power system does allow for some new conveniences, including remote connectivity. Using an iPhone, Blackberry or other web-enabled device, drivers can monitor the LEAF’s battery charge or turn on the air conditioning/heating system so that the cabin reaches a comfortable temperature by the time they return.

While the LEAF handles like other cars, its electric motor is considerably quieter than a standard internal combustion engine.  The car is so quiet, Nissan has installed an artificial noise generator, which kicks in when the car goes below 18 miles per hour. to alert pedestrians.

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