Last Thursday during CES 2017, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn took to the stage at the Westgate Theatre in Las Vegas, Nevada to give Nissan’s first ever CES keynote presentation. During it, a media presentation before the keynote, and a media Q&A session which occurred afterwards, he detailed some of Nissan’s future plans, which included advancements in its autonomous driving technology, connected car technology, and zero emission vehicle strategy.
Aided by colleagues from the Renault-Nissan Silicon Valley Research Center, Ghosn unveiled Nissan’s brand-new Seamless Autonomous Mobility (SAM) system, as well as detail a new autonomous vehicle partnership for commercial vehicle between Nissan and Japanese Internet Company DeNA, a working relationship between Microsoft and Renault-Nissan to bring Microsoft’s personal assistant technology Cortana to future vehicles, and a partnership with 100 Resilient Cities — a global non-profit pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation to help cities build resilience to physical, social, and economic challenges of the future.
And with the current Nissan LEAF now in its seventh year, the world’s best-selling electric car is undoubtedly looking a little long in the tooth, especially when it comes to range per charge. As such, Nissan has been expected to reveal the LEAF’s replacement some time this year, with a market launch date of late 2017 or early 2018 — just in time to cross shop against the upcoming Tesla Model 3 and recently-released Chevrolet Bolt EV.
Despite what you may have read elsewhere — including news sites which should have known much better — while Ghosn promised us the next-generation Nissan LEAF electric car would be coming in the “very near future,” (cementing everyone’s expectations that the next-generation LEAF will debut as a 2018 model year car) Nissan stopped short of giving us a full reveal, a fact that has upset plenty of Nissan LEAF fans and electric vehicle advocates alike.
But although Nissan hasn’t yet shared what a next-generation LEAF will look like, there were plenty of juicy hints dropped during Ghosn’s keynote presentation that, when added to what we already know about the next-generation LEAF, allow us to build a pretty decent picture of what we can expect from the next-generation car.
200-mile range: confirmed
If you’ve been following the development of the Nissan LEAF in any detail, this piece of news won’t be a surprise. Indeed, as far back as the end of 2014, Nissan has been openly demonstrating larger-capacity 60 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery packs that it has promised will end up in the next-generation LEAF.
In the press Q&A session earlier in the day ahead of Ghosn’s Keynote, Nissan’s senior vice president of research and advanced engineering Takao Asami confirmed that was still the case, commenting that while Nissan was debating different capacity battery packs and ranges for cars in different markets across North America, Europe and Asia, the next-generation LEAF would have a range “at or above 200 miles” per charge.
Given a Nissan LEAF prototype we saw on the CES show floor had what appeared to be louvered wheels — which would dramatically lower drag and improve efficiency — we suspect Nissan engineers are pulling all kinds of interesting tricks to eek out as much range from the 60 kWh LEAF pack as possible, suggesting that energy efficiency is as important to Nissan as overall vehicle range.
Talking of the requirements for other electric vehicle customers, Asami suggested larger battery packs could be used for higher-duty vehicles, such as taxi cabs or corporate fleet vehicles. He also noted — as other Nissan executives have — that for the highest mileage, larger fleet vehicles (presumably commercial vehicles rather than passenger cars), a range-extended drivetrain may be more cost effective to produce and more affordable for fleet operators too.
Autonomous technology: confirmed
Also confirmed for the next-generation Nissan LEAF is an implementation of Nissan’s ProPilot semi-autonomous vehicle technology. Although Ghosn did not go into specifics, we predict that while Nissan’s fully-autonomous Level 5 vehicle technology is now being tested around the world (Ghosn himself rode in a fully-autonomous car the day before the Keynote at Nissan’s Silicon Valley Research Center) the version we’ll see in the next-generation LEAF will likely be a next-generation incremental improvement on the ProPilot lane-keep assist technology debuted on the Nissan Serena Minivan late last year in Japan.
Referencing Nissan’s own oft-published timeline for autonomous vehicle technology,we think that translates to Level 2 or Level 3 multi-lane highway autonomous driving, where the car will be capable of merging onto and pulling off highways and freeways under supervision. Since this technology is expected to hit the market by 2018, we think this level of autonomy is most likely, at least initially.
While Ghosn didn’t promise over-the-air updates for the LEAF specifically, the subject was touched on when discussing the future of Nissan’s vehicle lineup. Indeed, SAM — Nissan’s new autonomous vehicle solution developed in collaboration with NASA — relies on an always-on Internet connection to make it possible for Nissan’s “Mobility Managers” to assist autonomous cars that have come across an unexpected situation, not to mention passing on information about road works and unexpected weather conditions to the rest of Nissan’s autonomous vehicle fleet.
Given that fact, we predict that Nissan’s next-generation LEAF will, like the Tesla Model S and Model X, ship with basic autonomous vehicle technology and then learn new feature as time goes on via over-the-air updates.
Faster charging, intelligent power transfer: confirmed
While Nissan didn’t detail specifics during its Keynote presentation, engineers present at CES confirmed to several news outlets that higher-power on-board charging technology will be coming with the next-generation Nissan LEAF, making it possible for Nissan’s new plug-in car to charge at 150 kilowatts of power versus the 50 kilowatts found in current generation LEAFs.
Why only 150 kilowatts when rival companies like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, and GM are eying power levels of 300 kilowatts or more? To answer that, there’s two specific details worth noting.
Firstly, 150 kilowatts is the current power limit of the CHAdeMO DC quick charge power preferred by Japanese automakers like Nissan, suggesting that unlike the rest of the automotive industry (which seems to be switching to CCS) Nissan will likely keep with an evolved variant of the CHAdeMO connector found on current Nissan LEAFs. Not only does this mean backward compatibility with existing CHAdeMO DC quick charge stations (the most widely-available DC quick charging standard in the world) but it also means that Nissan isn’t about to give up on the two-way power transfer capabilities of CHAdeMO in preference for charging speed.
Indeed, Nissan’s so-called “Intelligent Power” and “Intelligent Integration” goals — where electric vehicles become part of our home backup power and keep buildings running during major blackouts or natural disasters — paints a future where electric vehicle owners could even earn themselves money by selling power stored in their LEAF’s battery pack back to the electricity grid during peak hours in order to ease demand.
But there’s another very important reason Nissan may be looking to stay with a lower-power charging protocol: cost. With a 200-mile range, Asami hinted during one press Q&A session that faster charging really isn’t needed for the average customer, as most won’t want to travel more than 200 miles without a significant break anyway.
That might be true in the UK or Japan, where anything over 200 miles is considered a ‘long distance trip’. In North America or Continental Europe, where travelling 200 miles to visit family in the next big city is considered normal, that might not be the case.
Will it be worth waiting for?
During his Q&A with press after the keynote presentation, Carlos Ghosn said Nissan wasn’t willing yet to publicly state a timeline for the rollout of a next-generation LEAF. Doing so, he suggested, would hurt current sales (something Chevrolet found out to its peril when it announced the next-generation 2017 Chevrolet Volt months ahead of its official launch). Yet while the things we know about the next-generation LEAF sound promising, we can’t help but wonder if Nissan is hurting itself by not bringing the next-generation LEAF to market sooner.
In an electric vehicle market where price and range are prized above all else, Nissan risks losing out to longer-range cars from BMW, Volkswagen, Chevrolet, Hyundai and of course Tesla. Indeed, in the past week alone, we’ve heard of three Nissan LEAF owners who have traded in their car for the new benchmark in affordable electric vehicle range: the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV.
All we can say is that the next-generation Nissan LEAF — whenever it arrives — had better be worth the wait — or Nissan will lose the electric vehicle lead it has worked so hard to cultivate over the past six years.
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