Nissan finds its future in the microwave

15 November 2008

Carlos TavaresGlobal problems require global solutions – so said Carlos Tavares, the 50-year-old, French-educated Portuguese gentleman in charge of product strategy at Japanese motor firm Nissan, during a speech made in the US last week. You can see where he gets his perspective. “Looking upon planet Earth, you see its characteristic colour is in fact blue,” he said, helping to explain the otherwise puzzling existence of environmental automotive brands like VW’s BlueMotion, Hyundai’s i-Blue, Mercedes’ Blue Hybrid, and Peugeot’s Blue Lion. “‘Blue citizenship’ is Nissan’s commitment to the planet,” added Tavares. “Blue citizenship should be our goal rather than green cars.”

So what does blue citizenship involve, other than turning down the central heating? We’re not exactly sure, but Tavares expanded his point by looking to microwave ovens for automotive inspiration – a technique we thought Toyota had cornered.

Microwaves rose from obscurity to ubiquity in less than 30 years, despite initially arriving as a technology push rather than a consumer pull. “Were consumers actually seeking a new way to cook food?” Tavares asked, pointing out that cooks can’t even fry an egg in one. Microwaves muscled their way into our kitchens anyway because of their convenience. “They are easy to use, easy to maintain, unobtrusive and affordable.”

Today’s cars, by contrast, are “easy to use, except when moving in reverse, parking, or sitting in a middle seat; easy to maintain, except for fill ups, oil changes and car washes; unobtrusive, except for noise, pollution and traffic; and affordable, as long as financing is available and gas prices are low”.

Nissan Pivo 2We’re not entirely convinced by this stretched analogy, but we like where Tavares is going. You only have to look at Nissan’s Pivo 2 electric car to see that this kind of thinking really is driving Nissan’s view of the future. And of course Nissan aims to be one of the first mainstream makers to attempt to sell electric cars in large numbers, as previewed by the Nuvu concept at the Paris motor show last month. “Our first pure EV will arrive in selected markets in 2010, followed by a mass-market rollout globally in 2012,” Tavares said, adding that this first EV will be “a real car” aimed at everyone, not just hair-shirted environmentalists.

There is a consumer perception hurdle to overcome, particularly with regard to range. People are used to the notion that a city commuter car can, if needed, cross a continent. “Our first generation battery will deliver 100 miles per charge,” Tavares said. “Through today’s lens, this looks like a sacrifice of convenience, especially in expansive countries like America. Through tomorrow’s lens, it could look more convenient.” He argued that overnight charging at home is more convenient than visiting a petrol station, and that running an EV plus joining a car club for those occasional long journeys is much more cost effective for consumers. Plus, the removal of the conventional drive-train opens up yet-to-be-exploited options in cabin layout. “An EV could well become the mainstream just as microwave ovens found their way into our kitchens,” Tavares said. “Range may not be the stumbling block that many people claim it to be.”

Nissan NuvuAnd Tavares had one more remark, which leaves us wondering exactly what he’s getting at: “Advanced technology may help us overcome challenges with charging. For example, do we know for sure that the vehicle cannot be charged while driving? Think about it.”

We have thought about it, and we conclude he was hinting at one (or perhaps a combination) of three things. Firstly, you can slap a solar cell on the roof of your electric car. Second, you can put wires in the road or overhead and use them like a small railway engine or giant Scalextric car. But there is a third option. Tavares talked a lot about microwave ovens, and it’s a little-known fact that the same principles that heat up a ready meal can be used to transfer electrical power from one place to another. Might Tavares be suggesting that power might be transferred wirelessly from the roadside to a moving electric car? We’re not sure, but it’s certainly an intriguing possibility.

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