Posted by: Kenji Hall on December 12, 2008
The world’s biggest car makers are racing to add non-polluting electric vehicles to their fleets. But few have a solution to one thorny issue that has long plagued electric cars: ensuring the vehicles have enough battery power to travel long distances.
Nissan is taking a different, holistic approach. It’s examining how electric cars might fit into a car-sharing program for short-distance hops around town. For an eco-friendly products conference in Tokyo this week, the Japanese car maker created a miniature mock-up of what that might look like in a heavily populated urban district in Japan.
On a 3-D model the size of a large dinner table, matchbox cars puttered around office building-lined streets, occasionally stopping in front of a train station, shopping mall or convenience store to recharge in parking spots marked “EV.”
The invisible glue that would keep the entire system flowing smoothly: car navigation technology. Already, these dashboard gadgets equipped with Global Positioning System technology help motorists with maps, directions, real-time traffic information and emergency services.
But Nissan wants to take it a step further. Its idea is to wed the car navigation technology with online train and subway scheduling information. Commuters in Japan already use this info to find the fastest train or subway routes. Kazuhiro Doi, general manager in Nissan’s technology development division, says Nissan is in talks with two local governments in Japan—Yokohama city and Kanagawa prefecture—to conduct a pilot program. “What we’re talking about with officials is how to set up a small-scale study so we can experiment with different ideas,” he says. “The technology is not far off.”
Here’s how it would work. You want to go shopping at a mall across town but the closest station is several miles from the mall. You go online and find out the fastest train route. The search also gives you the option of picking up an electric car that’s charging at a stand in a train station parking lot. “We have the data servers to do this kind of thing already,” says Doi.
To make this a reality, though, will require a lot of coordination. Electricity companies would have to supply the energy to or set up wind turbines or solar panels to generate electricity at recharging stations. Railway companies and local governments would have to create convenient, electric vehicle pick-up points. Nearby shopping malls and convenience stores would have to offer park-and-charge spots. Automotive shops would need mechanics and backup batteries on hand to help when the electric vehicles malfunction. And none of that would make any sense until local governments offer incentives that bring down the costs of buying electric vehicles.
All that has to develop at the same time or the program won’t work. “The problem isn’t the technology,” says Doi. “It’s setting up the infrastructure to support this type of system. How do you persuade shopping malls and convenience stores to set aside parking space or recharging space? They would have to accept the risk that those spots might be empty a lot of the time. Everyone has to be willing to take on a little bit of the risk at some point. So finding a common goal for everyone will be key. There’s also a sizable investment needed.”
Nissan has a few proposals based on data it’s collected from several small-scale car-sharing experiments in the past. Earlier this year, it completed the SKY project, a 2,000-vehicle study in Yokohama city, west of Tokyo. That study aimed to develop a two-way car-navigation system to help reduce traffic and prevent accidents. Such a system would also come in handy for an electric vehicle sharing program because it could manage and schedule vehicle pick-ups and drop-offs, the way transport companies already do for freight and package deliveries. Of course, there are different challenges in every market, and customizing will take time.
BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.