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Nissan rolls out the Leaf / 2nd mass-produced electric car heralds dawn of a new era

Nissan Motor Co. began sales of the Leaf, its first mass-produced electric vehicle, on Monday, marking what industry experts called the advent of the EV age.

Nissan's rivals, including industry giant Toyota Motor Corp., are set to roll out zero-emission electric models soon, while peripheral businesses are gearing up to provide service to the next-generation cars, anticipating a boom in the field.

Speaking at a motor show in Guangzhou, China, Nissan Chief Operating Officer Toshiyuki Shiga said the company had surmounted a mountain of difficulties in developing the Leaf. "I'm moved to have finally seen the day we will offer this car to our customers," he said.

The launch of the Leaf is expected to have a major impact. A Nissan dealership in Chofu, western Tokyo, for instance, was deluged with calls over the weekend from people hoping to test-drive a model. Dealership chief Kenichi Shimizu said, "We're confident our EV will grab the attention of a wide range of people."

The low-end Leaf carries a price tag of about 2.98 million yen after a government subsidy for low-emission vehicles. Powered by a battery, the EV travels quietly compared to gasoline cars, and it travels cheap. Fuel costs can be as low as 1 yen per kilometer if the vehicle is charged at night when electricity costs are low, Nissan said. This far outperforms even the most efficient gas car, which gets about 30 kilometers per liter, or about 4 yen per kilometer, according to the carmaker.

The EV is equipped with an array of high-tech features, such as an air conditioner that can be turned on by cell phone. The driver can also use a cell phone to check on how far the battery has charged or how long the car can be driven with the charge remaining. The navigation system will show the nearest charging facility, Nissan said.

Honda Motor Co. announced Monday it will soon start testing an EV for release in 2012 at the firm's plant in Saitama Prefecture. The tests will focus on the car's battery. Mitsubishi Motors Corp., which has already released an electric vehicle called the i-MiEV, has been working with major home appliance retail chains Bic Camera and Yamada Denki in marketing the model by displaying the car at some of the retailers' stores.

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EVs spawn support businesses

As the EV age dawns, new companies and partnerships are sprouting up to profit off the car of the future.

Video game giant Namco Bandai Games Inc. and leading electronics manufacturer NEC Corp. will cooperate on experiments involving a car-sharing service where an EV is shared among a group of people.

Major condominium builder Daikyo Inc. has said each condo complex it builds will be furnished with a charging system for electric vehicles, starting in April this year.

Long-life batteries developed for EVs are expected to play a significant role in helping develop next-generation smart-grid electricity networks able to handle the fluctuating power generated by solar power and other renewable energy sources.

Both Nissan and Toyota have begun experiments on their batteries in cooperation with electronics manufacturers, local governments and other entities.

Nissan has established a joint venture with major trading house Sumitomo Corp. to study the feasibility of recycling spent EV batteries commercially.

Industry experts say these technologies could eventually lead to cooperation between the public and private sectors to export Japanese smart-grid technology.

(Dec. 22, 2010)
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