Nissan: We’re Debating Larger Battery Packs for LEAF Electric Car

Do customers want a longer-range Nissan LEAF? And how much would they pay for it?

These are two very important questions Nissan is trying to answer as it continues planning for its next-generation LEAF electric car, Nissan’s product Chief Andy Palmer has admitted.

Nissan's Andy Palmer says Nissan is having some 'intense internal debate' about extending the LEAF's range.

Nissan’s Andy Palmer says Nissan is having some ‘intense internal debate’ about extending the LEAF’s range.

Talking with Green Car Reports last week at the New York International Auto Show, Palmer spoke of an ‘internal debate’ in the company revolving around battery options for the next-generation LEAF. While careful not to set anything in stone or preempt any official statements on the matter, Palmer’s public comments on the matter give us what we think is the strongest evidence that we’ll see an increased-range option on the next-generation LEAF.

“Intense internal debate”

As GreenCarReport notes, it’s unusual for automotive executives to be so forthright about future drivetrains and fuel choices unless it’s already been decided on internally.

Yet Palmer describes the idea of a longer-range LEAF as being the subject of “intense internal debate” at the automaker.

Some people, he says, feel that the LEAF’s current range — 84 miles on the EPA test cycle, 120 miles on the overly-optimistic NEDC cycle — is more than enough for most people’s needs. But others believe that doubling — or even tripling battery packs together to expand range into three figures could have a major impact on the car’s market share.

Six-year cycle

In keeping with other auto industry practice, Palmer confirmed that the LEAF, like every other car it makes, will be kept on a standard five or six-year development cycle. This means any major revisions — which we’d assume would also include any changes to battery pack design or capacity — would occur five or six years after the car initially debuted.

Increasing range options for the LEAF could also help sell more examples in more remote areas.

Increasing range options for the LEAF could also help sell more cars to remote areas.

In the case of the LEAF however, there are more than a few complications at Nissan. First of all, Nissan’s original LEAF debuted in 2010 as a 2011 model year car. For the first two years of its production, all LEAFs were made in Japan at Nissan’s Oppama facility, but for the 2013 model year onwards, Nissan split production to three different factories around the world.

At the same time, it gave the LEAF updates to its motor and power inverter system, battery pack, and on-board charger, not to mention a drop in weight. These advancements improved energy efficiency, weight and manufacturing cost compared to the original cars, but they were also the kind of updates usually reserved for mid-cycle or even next-generation updates.

As a consequence, Palmer admitted, there’s some question as to when the next-generation LEAF will launch, although he did confirm it won’t be this year. As we’ve previously discussed, we’re still hopeful of seeing a freshly-designed LEAF some time in 2015 as a 2016 model year.

Hardly surprising

For those who have followed rumours of longer-range LEAFs, this latest news is hardly surprising.

Earlier this year, Nissan sent out a questionnaire to many of its existing LEAF customers, asking them how much they’d pay for a hypothetical 150-mile range LEAF. Last year, Nissan even let what appeared to be a sunkworks team from its Barcelona Technical Centre enter a double-battery Nissan LEAF into the 2013 EcoRaces.

Combined, these pieces of data suggest that we should now be looking to ask when — not if — a longer-range LEAF battery pack will be offered as an option for all new LEAFs. Moreover, we’re curious to know what other technological improvements would need to be made in order to make a longer-range battery pack viable.

Extended battery pack LEAF racing at 2013 EcoRaces (Photo ©Rafael Llandres, Ecoraces.net)

Extended battery pack LEAF racing at 2013 EcoRaces (Photo ©Rafael Llandres, Ecoraces.net)

For a start, charging would need to be revisited, with 7 kilowatt on-board charging the absolute practical minimum for overnight charging . Meanwhile, CHAdeMO quick charging would either take longer to accomplish, or Nissan would have to develop a next-generation set of quick chargers capable of pushing more than 62.5 kilowatts — the maximum currently defined in the CHADeMo standard — to charge a LEAF’s battery pack instead of just the 40-50 kW currently used.

A (short) waiting game?

For now, it looks like those who want a new Nissan LEAF will be faced with a tough choice: buy a new car today with an 84 mile range, or consider waiting a little while longer to see what Nissan produces for the next-generation car.

At the time of writing, we’d lean towards the latter. Given that Nissan is facing increasing pressure from rival automakers to increase the range of the LEAF, we’re happy to describe an increased battery pack as a logical, inevitable choice to help reduce the gap between high-cost, high-range cars like the Tesla Model S and more affordable models like the LEAF. It’s also something we expect happening sooner, rather than later in order to retain Nissan’s market share.

We just hope however, that whatever Nissan does, it continues to offer an entry level model which matches the current entry-level car in terms of price. While battery packs are dropping in price on an almost daily basis for the electric auto industry, doubling or even tripling the LEAF’s on-board battery capability will certainly increase its sticker price.

It’s important for Nissan — and for the adoption of electric cars in general — that price isn’t sacrificed to range across its entire EV family.

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