"His other concern was the batteries themselves. Thorne had selected the new lithium-ion batteries from Nissan, which were extremely efficient on a weight basis."
The above quote could easily be from a government official at a pitch for a future fleet of zero emission vehicles. In reality, the source is a scene from Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel – and later blockbuster movie – Jurassic Park.
Nearly two decades later, Nissan is still an industry leader in lithium-ion battery development. However, the real story of Nissan's history of Electric Vehicles starts much earlier, though not quite in the Jurassic era, in 1947. It was a unique period in the auto industry and the development of electric vehicles. Due to the post-World War II energy shortage at that time, the Japanese government encouraged entrepreneurs to produce EVs to cope with the crisis.
"Tama Electric Car" was created by Tokyo Electric Cars Company – one of the ancestors of Prince Motor Co., Ltd., which later merged with Nissan. Developed by military aviation engineers who lost their jobs at the end of the war, the Tama utilized replaceable lead-acid batteries and generated 3.3kW power and a top speed of 35 km/h (22 mph). With a cruising range of 65 km (40 miles), they were used mainly as taxis. A compact pickup version was available as well.
Legend has it that the Tama marked a maximum speed of 35.2km/h (22 mph) and cruised for 96 km (60 miles), far better than the brochure specifications, in a Ministry-conducted test. The car was sold until 1950, when Japan’s post-war recovery was well underway and oil supplies were stabilized.
Today, with oil futures again uncertain and the eco-system under stress, it goes without saying that the evolution of battery technology corresponds with social need and an entrepreneurial spirit – both driving forces behind the development of Nissan EVs. The lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries had been developed in 1990 by Sony Corporation. Just a day after Sony’s official announcement, Nissan began to study the automotive application, and later in 1992 started collaboration with the company
The first fruit of their efforts was in 1995, when Nissan launched the "Prairie EV," the world's first electric car with Li-ion battery power. Although the Prairie EV was limited to fleet sales, around 30 units were sold to various entities.
"The majority of the industry, even our colleagues, were skeptical about the Li-ion system," recalls Hideaki Horie, Expert Leader at EV Technology Development Division. "We chose the Li-ion battery because we believed in its potential and possible applications for vehicles, much higher than the nickel hydride batteries that were common at that time."
One of the most unusual applications of the Prairie EV was the years it spent under extreme polar conditions as a support vehicle for the Japanese National North Pole Exploratory Team. In 2000, when the Prairie EV was undergoing cold weather testing at Nissan’s Hokkaido Proving Ground, the owner of the inn where the evaluation group was staying told them that the International Arctic Research team was looking for an EV to use at their research station in Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, Norway – which at 79°N is the world’s most Northerly settlement.
Nissan engineers thought it would be a great opportunity for an extended extreme cold test – which they themselves could monitor from warmer locations. It was arranged to loan the arctic researchers a Prairie EV fitted with a cylindrical Li-Ion battery. The Prairie EV, with no Nissan support or maintenance, served as the daily transportation from the base research station to the town and airport and, most importantly, while conducting meteorological observations. Zero emissions vehicles are critical for such use in order to not contaminate the research data with CO2 emissions.
“The Nissan EV became a symbol of our pledge at the International Arctic Research Village that the environment would not be damaged by the execution of research activities,” recalls Dr. Hajime Ito, Chair NySMAC. “VIPs visiting our village were welcomed at the airstrip by the Prairie EV, which transported them to town without the slightest noise or exhaust gas. It was also an excellent vehicle for scientific purposes, such as the observation of wild animals, which you could approach without sound or smell.”
In 2006, after six flawless years of service, the Prairie EV stopped running. Since Ny-Alesund, with a permanent population of just 35 residents, lacked a Nissan dealership, the vehicle was returned to Nissan for investigation and evaluation. When the car was examined, Nissan engineers were delighted to find that the problem was simply a disconnected condenser. Once repaired, the Prairie EV started right up (though cell performance had degenerated slightly but within projections), proving the feasibility and durability of the Li-Ion battery under extreme conditions.
In 1997, two years after the introduction of the Prairie EV, Nissan revealed the lithium-ion battery equipped Altra EV (called the R'nessa EV in Japan). This award-winning electric minivan (honored as one of the "greenest cars" by Green Guide to Cars and Trucks in 1999) was sold both in Japan and the United States, though only an estimated 200 units were produced.
The initial units were delivered to utility companies, including Southern California Edison Company, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. They were even used as "meter maid cars" (parking enforcement vehicles) by the Santa Monica Police Department. For a brief period, you could also rent an Altra EV at the Los Angeles International Airport.
Part minivan, part SUV, part station wagon, the Altra EV had a relatively long wheelbase of 2,799 mm (110.2 inches) and 4,869 mm (191.7 inches) length – nearly identical to the 2010 Nissan Maxima’s 2,776 mm (109.3 inches) wheelbase and 4,841 mm (190.6 inches) length.
Charging was by a proven, safe, user-friendly inductive battery charging system through an electromagnetic paddle inserted into a charge port located in the front grille. The 83-horsepower (62 kW) synchronous motor utilized a high-performance Neodymium-Iron-Born alloy internal magnet rated at an approximately 89 percent operating efficiency. The Altra EV’s 12-module Li-Ion battery pack was located under the passenger compartment floor and offered a “real world” driving range (combined city/highway) of 130 km (80 miles). It also offered a 4-wheel Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), regenerative braking, a 120 km/h (75 mph) top speed and an 800-pound passenger/cargo capacity. Altra EV drivers were treated to amenities such as air conditioning, power windows and door locks, a premium audio system and dual supplemental air bags.
Shortly after the introduction of the Altra EV, Nissan challenged itself to develop a more compact and less utilitarian dedicated EV. The result was the legendary Hypermini, which debuted in 1999.
Hypermini featured a lightweight, highly rigid aluminum space-frame and was fitted with a neodymium magnet synchronous traction motor and high performance lithium-ion batteries. It took about four hours to recharge the batteries using a 200-volt non-contact inductive AC charger. Hypermini's driving range was 115 km (72 miles) on a single battery charge and it had a top speed of about 100 km/h (62 mph). The car was widely used in Japan and U.S., including at the University of California, Davis and a car-sharing project in Yokohama.
At just 2655 mm (8.3 feet) in length and 1550 mm (5 feet) tall, the dramatically styled two-seat Hypermini garnered attention wherever it went. It even appeared in two U.S.-produced movies, The Princess Diaries 2 and Sleepover, and a Japanese TV animation series, Shigofumi.
The turn of the century was a turning point for battery systems as well. Nissan took a major step forward and started developing compact laminated Li-ion batteries together with NEC, replacing the cylindrical cell used up until then. The newly developed laminated batteries are able to store double the energy in the same size. In other words, same amount of energy packed in the curry sauce, instead of a magnum bottle of champagne.
The evolution of battery development has accelerated in the last decade thanks in large part to innovations in home and personal electronics, especially cellular phones.
"We can even say that battery innovation owes a debt to the high school girls in the streets of Shibuya, who are extremely demanding, heavy cell phone users," said Horie. "They are eager to have more chat, more emails, in less charging time. The boom of cell phones definitely accelerated the enhancement of battery technologies."
The impact of the ongoing reduction of batteries size has been felt not only in cell phones and computers, but also in designing cars.
"You'll be unleashed from various constraints if you choose an electric powertrain," said Shiro Nakamura, senior vice president, Design, Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. "For example, it allows you to make the hood very low, contributing to the vehicle’s aerodynamics and style. You can make the center of gravity very low by putting the battery under the floor, or you can even place the motor in the wheel. And ultimately, you can separate the cabin and the platform – thanks to the x-by-wire technology. We wanted to show examples of this freedom of design and mobility for the future with the Pivo and the Pivo2. These concepts feature rotating cabins and the ability to make the four wheels move individually."
The original Pivo was one of the stars of the 2005 Tokyo Motor Show, a feat followed by the next generation Pivo2 two years later. Continuing Nissan’s tradition of exhibiting advanced EV concepts to the world’s top motor shows, the Nissan Mixim electric sports car debuted at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show, followed by the Nissan NUVU (literally a “new view” of the urban transportation vehicle) at the 2008 Paris Motor Show. NUVU incorporates a witty representation of Nissan’s green credentials, including solar panels across its all-glass roof and the use of organic and recycled materials within the cabin.
Looking ahead after more than 60 years of EV leadership, the year 2010 will mark the transition from of the era of conventional mobility to true zero-emission mobility, led by the introduction of the next generation Nissan EV.
Cars like the Nissan EV will take us another critical step closer to the day when Nissan lithium-ion battery-powered vehicles will drive cleanly and efficiently through urban amusement parks filled with Raptors and T-rex clones – and not just in novels and movies.
And, where the real dinosaurs on display may just be internal combustion vehicles.