“A lot of people underestimated just how big a commitment the Leaf was from Nissan,” says Tom McCabe, a senior engineer who’s been working on the world’s best-selling electric car for the past six years.
He’s right: here is a major car manufacturer that didn’t just flirt with electric car technology with an out-there concept car at a far-flung motor show, but went out and made a full global model built on three different continents.
“It was a huge commitment to move the game on and change the conventions of the industry,” McCabe adds. “Competitors are now realising this is something that needs to be done properly. More people are following now.”
Nissan is approaching the fifth anniversary of Leaf production, and it is the sixth anniversary of the model’s appearance at the 2009 Tokyo motor show after its debut earlier that summer. At this year’s show, the next-generation Leaf is being previewed with a new concept car that also introduces autonomous technology to the model.
It feels fitting, then, to look back on the impact the world’s first mass-produced electric car has had on the industry – and, autonomous tech aside, just what the future has in store for the Leaf.
The Japanese manufacturer has now sold close to 200,000 Leafs globally and 10,000 in the UK, almost 3000 of which were in the first half of this year alone, an achievement that was good for a 63.3% market share of electric vehicles.
Of course, the sales represent a tiny proportion of the almost 1.4m new cars registered in the UK in the first half of the year, but the pure electric segment almost doubled in the period to not far off 5000 units. Hybrids bolstered the sales further, with almost 35,000 of those sold in the first six months of 2015.
So while the market for low-carbon cars remains in its infancy, be in no doubt that demand is increasing rapidly.
The Leaf remains the flag bearer for the EV in this country. Sales started at the end of 2010 with a Japanese-built model, and in early 2013 a redesigned and re-engineered European version of the Leaf went into production at Nissan’s Sunderland plant, using 42% UK-sourced parts. Development was led by the Cranfield-based Nissan Technical Centre Europe, where McCabe and his team are based.
Conscious of how a big a step it was for a consumer to buy an electric car, McCabe’s team set about to ensure the Leaf was as normal to drive as possible. The EV segment’s growing sales figures suggest range anxiety is diminishing; although they won’t suit all customers, some find their needs can be fully served by a battery-powered vehicle.
McCabe says he had “no doubts” about whether the model would be a success, knowing the Leaf’s significance as the first high-profile EV would always count for something.
“We knew it would be a bumpy road, but this is only the start of a journey to a completely different automotive world,” he says. “With a growing global population, increasing demand from emerging economies, and the geopolitical landscape, we knew that something needed to be started with EVs.”
The potential benefits of electrified motoring have been recognised and explored for as long as motoring itself but are only now coming of age. Indeed, so fast has the recent development of electric vehicles been that engineers such as McCabe are already looking at traditional internal combustion engine technology as ultimately limiting and inefficient.
“Internal combustion technology is very well developed, but at its core it’s a crude device, a pump in reverse trying to be efficient. From a pure engineering point of view, accelerating a car with a combustion engine is a rather stupid thing to do.
“Electric powertrains are, at their worst, 95% efficient, while a diesel engine is at best 40% efficient. The electric powertrain is also more controllable on its responses, and the emotional control can come in time.”
For being packed with such new technology, the Leaf has proven remarkably reliable and robust. There have been just three reported battery pack issues with the Leaf in Europe, so a programme Nissan set up to look after such issues has remained largely dormant.
A major part of what’s being looked at now is what to do with battery packs when their automotive use is behind them. “Static storage is something we’re investigating,” says McCabe. “In Japan, there is already the ability to power your home with your Leaf if the mains electricity supply fails.”
McCabe notes the impact Tesla boss Elon Musk is having on this question. Tesla is starting to sell its car batteries as stand-alone units called Powerwall that can store energy and power your home. “Musk is a clever guy and a formative thinker," he says. "Going outside of cars, storing electricity is a problem mankind needs to solve.”
Nissan is going one step further with a new ‘vehicle to grid’ project with Spanish utility company Endesa. The pair have developed technology that will allow an electric car to send power back to a digital ‘smart grid’ at times of high demand and high cost, recharging itself at times of low demand and cost times, thus making money for the car owner.
“In this digital age, we are all reliant on electricity,” says McCabe, “but man has no way to store it. Electric vehicles are in this discussion because they immediately have a big source of static electricity.”
While the future direction of electric vehicles continues to excite, the fact that there are more of them on the market is motivating McCabe and his team. “There is nothing like generating competition," he says. "We have that now and have to respond.”