Nissan Turns Over a New Leaf

NISSANAfter running for several years in stealth mode, Nissan reached out to Plug In America two years ago revealing their plans to build an EV for the average consumer, something that would serve the daily driving needs of the vast majority of the world’s drivers.

Fast forward to March 29th when, in a breakfast meeting, Nissan disclosed the price of the Leaf, $32,780 – news that crystallized the reality of affordable EVs for the masses.

Topping it off, this past week Nissan invited eight members of Plug In America’s board to visit their Tennessee headquarters, meet with the key members of the Leaf program and finish with a tour of their giant Smyrna, TN plant.

Our first night there, we had dinner with key members of the team, including Brian Carolin, Senior VP, Sales and Marketing, Scott Becker, Senior VP, Administration and Finance, Eric Noziere, VP, Corporate Planning , Katherine Zachary, Manager, Corporate Communications, Scott Stevens, VP, Corporate Communications, Jeannine Ginivan, Manager, Mid-Atlantic Region Corporate Communications, Mark Perry, Director of Product Planning and Advanced Technology and our local SoCal contact, Tim Gallagher, Corporate Communications Western Region – all outstanding people – and to a person, passionate about their Leaf program.

The most senior member of the Nissan team was Chairman & Executive VP of the Americas, Carlos Tavares. Marc Geller and I had the fortune to sit next to Mr. Tavares at dinner, giving us the opportunity to share everything we knew about electric cars with top brass of the world’s fourth largest car maker. We gladly took advantage of this remarkable opportunity.

Tavares, a native of Portugal, proved worthy of his title as he absorbed everything we threw at him. After spending years trying to convince car makers to build EVs, it was refreshing to find that a company as prestigious as Nissan shares our vision. Much of what we discussed, Tavares knew already, but we gave him information based on our long-time use of EVs that should help shape their plans. I asked Mr. Tavares what EV models would follow the Leaf and he said they are making good progress on a small delivery truck similar to the Ford Transit Connect as well as an Infiniti model. Both are great choices since fleet operators will find the small truck useful in reducing operating costs and the market for a luxury EV is quite large.

I asked Tavares if he’d driven a Tesla Roadster and found that he had not. I told him to let me know the next time he was going to be in LA and I’d make sure to get him some time behind the wheel of one. Turns out, Tavares races in the open-wheeled class, so he’s no stranger to speed.

It was a great dinner on a balmy night in small town central Tennessee, and as we arrived back at the hotel and shared the conversations we’d had, it was very clear to us that Nissan’s intent is to dominate the market in electric vehicles.

The next morning, we gathered in the Infiniti Theater room of their headquarters where Marc presented a brief overview of Plug In America’s history, our current work in promoting plug-in cars, and what we intend to do in the future to help prepare the market for the coming EVs. After Marc’s presentation, we fielded questions from the room in a lively Q&A.

At the end of the questions, in recognition of Plug In America’s diligent effort to bring plug-in vehicles back into the market, Scott Becker presented us with a grant for $25,000. We are most grateful to Nissan for these funds as they will allow us to further our work educating the public about these important cars.

The rest of the day was spent in a series of meetings with Nissan’s marketing and advertising, zero-emission mobility and dealer network teams. They were forthcoming with a lot of detail on the car and how it would roll out. They even showed a sample design of where the various chargers would be located at the dealer, including one that may be for the public, a nice touch. I was impressed that they would share so much information, some of which will remain embargoed to protect their competitive edge.

If you want to get one of the first Leaf EVs, you need to sign up on the Leaf site to let them know you’re interested. Those who sign up will receive an email on April 20th with a link that will take you to a page where you deposit $99 to hold your place in line. Some time in August, you will be contacted to begin working with the Nissan dealer of your choice. (*Important… Nissan strongly recommends that the price be held at the MSRP of $32,780, but the dealers are independent companies that can charge more if they so choose. If a dealer decides to ask for more, you may take your business to another dealer. Doing so will ensure few dealers will add to the price.) Delivery of the first cars will begin in December and grow throughout 2011 as production allows.

The initial delivery locations are mostly on the West Coast, AZ and a few other sites. Nissan will bring other dealers into the program based on demand, so start calling your local Nissan dealers and let them know you’re interested. But definitely sigh up online, too!

Our trip ended on Thursday with a tour of the Smyrna, TN Nissan plant, which coincidentally opened on my 31st birthday in 1983. According to the plant’s super bright operations manager, Susan Brennan, VP Manufacturing, the building covers 5.4 million square feet and is the largest auto manufacturing plant in the U.S. At capacity, the workers and robots can’turn out a new truck, SUV or car every 27 seconds, over 500,000 per year!

I think most of us have seen footage of robots welding car bodies together, but seeing it in person was amazing! The entire operation was like a giant machine that worked like a fine watch. Very impressive.

This fall, the first Leafs will roll off Nissan’s assembly line in Japan. Susan Brennan will lead a team of engineers from Smyrna to Japan to learn as much as they can about building the Leaf before returning and developing the line that will, by 2012, be manufacturing up to 150,000 Leafs per year in Tennessee.

American made cars using 100% American made electrons.

Next month, Nissan breaks ground on their battery manufacturing plant immediately adjacent to the car factory, eliminating expensive shipping costs for the heavy packs. They are so close, they’ll be able to deliver them by forklift.

All of the Nissan employees we met were friendly. From the top executives to the men and women building the cars, they all seemed to know they were about to make history. Twenty years from now, I believe it will be difficult to buy a car that isn’t capable of plugging in. Looking back at 2010, it will all seem so obvious in hindsight – non-polluting transportation that runs on domestic renewable electricity made from sunlight and wind.

Paul Scott (photos, too)

Plug in & get connected!

Join the EV movement