We are joined by Nic Thomas, the global director of EV for Nissan. He's a Briton based in Japan who's visiting Australia for the Leaf’s local launch.
CA: For those out there who aren't completely across the plan, how many electric vehicles does Nissan plan to offer over the next few years around the globe, not specific to Australia's shores?
Nic: We've committed that by 2022, within our mid-term plan, we'll introduce eight fully electric vehicles around the world, and then a further eight e-Power models.
CA: Nissan is one of the very early adopters of EV, but it's safe to say that other companies have made a bit more noise in that space, perhaps have permeated the mainstream a little bit. I'm obviously thinking about Tesla, and the marketing guru that is Elon, for all of his other flaws. To your mind, where is Nissan's place within that ecosystem? Does Nissan still have a claim to being not just a pioneer, but an EV leader?
Nic: Yeah, I think in terms of pure numbers, the Nissan Leaf is the most sold electric vehicle around the world. There are more Leafs on the road than any other type of battery EV. So we can claim a leadership there.
Others are now bringing their cars to market. Good for them. Anything which charismatic leaders or other people do to popularise EVs is great for me. That makes my job that much easier if I can show people that EVs are sexy, EVs are fun to drive, EVs are great to own, EVs are convenient, and you get all of these other benefits from you know, battery storage and cheap energy and these things, then that makes my job so much easier.
And at the same time I've this benefit working with a brilliant team of engineers who've got ten years of experience under their belt. And all this customer feedback to build the next generation of cars.
CA: One of the real game changers of the Leaf, is its ability to do V2G – vehicle to grid – to send onboard charge back into the grid. Can you explain why this is important? And will businesses and people need to change their current behaviours to leverage this in a more effective way?
Nic: The most important thing is customers don't need to change their behaviour. At all. Customers buy a car, and they should use that car for everything they want to use that car for.
But whenever they're not using that car, whenever the car’s sitting outside your house, sitting in your garage, sitting at your place of work, or sports centre or wherever, we can use that battery to store energy, and the world desperately needs storage.
There's a huge investment in renewable energy, which is a great thing. Solar, wind, tidal, it's all part of reducing our overall emissions. But unless that energy is specifically generated at the time that we need it, which it never is because the time that we use energy is different, you need to invest in big batteries. You need storage.
So the energy companies are spending huge amounts of money investing in what they call flexibility. Which is either energy that they can turn on or off quickly, like gas turbines or in battery storage.
What we're saying to them is, don't spend hundreds of millions on great big battery packs. Just come and talk to our customers... When you have an excess of energy which often happens, what we call off-peak tariffs, you could sell the customer some cheap energy. And actually the energy companies need to get rid of that energy, you can't store electricity unless you've got a battery. So they want to sell that energy cheap.
And then the unique opportunity we have in Nissan, is that actually we can discharge that energy from the car. It's only the Nissan Leaf that can do that. And we can actually sell that energy back to the grid, so you could use it at home.
So imagine you could charge from the solar panels at home during the day, you could charge your car up and then in the evening when you come home, the sun's not shining, you can power your house when you use most of your domestic electricity, you could use that with the energy you've stored in the battery.
It might only be 10 per cent, 20 per cent of that energy you've stored in the battery, so you've still got all, everything you need for your driving, but you can essentially live electricity-free in that sense. Or you could do that at a business level. So an office could charge up a fleet of cars overnight and then power the building during the day using that stored energy again. Small percentages of each battery.
...You're literally transporting energy around, and by aggregating and by bringing all of those batteries together, if we had a thousand cars, ten thousand cars and we bring them all together and operate them as one, using mobile phone apps and computer control, we can go to the energy company, and say to them ‘here's megawatt hours worth of storage’, which is exactly what they need and they will pay our customers for those benefits.
We do everything with the customer’s full consent, we do everything as I said to ensure the customer can use the car whenever they want to, but we can provide extra money, extra value to the customer by using their battery whenever they're not.
CA: Nissan wants to reduce the use of new materials by 70 per cent, by 2022. Battery recycling and repackaging is obviously a major part of that. We're coming up to the point where that first generation Nissan Leaf’s batteries will be ready to be either recycled or reused. Nissan's got some plans for what it's doing with these old car batteries?
Nic: We reckon that the average car might last 15 years. And then people will want to recycle the car itself. We're committed to that, but then the battery still has a very usable life.
So you take the battery pack out of the car, and you can use it for stationary storage to absorb some of the renewable energy of example, in a big pack like it is, or repurpose it as batteries. Things like electric forklift trucks. Or some types of public transport which want a cheap battery, and don't have the same demands on it as a brand new car do. We can reuse batteries in those ways.
So we've got a few companies around the world which we're working with, to do exactly that. To repurpose and reuse these batteries. Some of them are telling us the batteries could have extremely long lives themselves because they're so durable.
We've even got some examples of people in, in particularly California where they were looking at buying a battery pack to screw into the wall that might cost them 10 thousand dollars. And then they looked at the seven-year old Nissan Leaf which has got a battery twice the size of that power pack that costs half the price, and they get a car that still works very well to run them around when they've got a short trip to do.
There's all sorts of things you could do even without taking the battery out of the car. But then once you take it out of the car, you've got endless potential.
Ultimately, of course, we're going to recycle the batteries. We have a responsibility to do that and we will. And again that technology is developing very quickly as batteries start to become available. We don't recycle them ourselves, but we're committed to working with partners and they reckon, well they're demonstrating to us, that between 95 and 98 per cent of the valuable materials can be recovered from that battery pack, and put straight back into the cycle chain to make new batteries.
CA: The magic time in EV will be when there is price parity between EV and ICE. Morgan Stanley, other projections, Nissan's own projections are 2024, 2025 there'll be cost parity between the two.
But I'm a little bit curious – clearly as more companies, be they in tech or cars invest in studying batteries, the cost will come down. As production scale increases, cost will come down. But also the demand for these batteries is skyrocketing, and obviously increasing demand means increasing prices...
Nic: Well, the prices are coming down because of the advances in chemistry.
Because there is so much demand for these things, Nissan and plenty of other companies, mobile phone companies, all sorts of people who use batteries are investing very heavily in new technology and in new chemistry which is driving that down.
So when we started this business we were paying well over $500 per kilowatt hour for a battery. Now it's down to certainly well under $200, and... it'll get to about $100 by about 2024. At which point a 60 kilowatt hour battery in a Leaf Plus will be $6000, so you can get the cost of the car way down from where it currently is.
There's battery packs themselves, they're getting bigger because people want longer range. So the cost of the pack is not necessarily coming down that fast. The cost per kilowatt hour is coming down. But the cost of the overall pack is mainly staying constant. So when we launched the original Leaf it had a 24kWh battery, now we've got a 40 kilowatt hour battery with roughly the same price.
So the future isn't a $19,990 Nissan Leaf. It's a similar price to what the current one is, just with a far longer range.
And at the same time you're going to see an escalating price of petrol and diesel vehicles, because of the emissions regulations which are driving increasing technological requirements on those and rare Earth materials into catalysers and those sorts of things.
So you're going to see a crossover somewhere around the middle of the next decade, where EVs start to become on a total picture much more affordable than petrol or diesel vehicles.
And that is also a consideration of the operating costs. So because you're not paying 200, 300 bucks a month for your gas, and because the maintenance is so much lower because you have fewer moving parts, overall the operating cost will be significantly lower.
CA: One thing that has been spoken about quite extensively in Australia and then we've seen in other markets, Norway comes to mind, China comes to mind is some form of incentivisation from the public sector, whether it's direct incentives like a subsidy, whether it's dedicated driving lanes, free registration, tax breaks, whatever it may be.
We don't have a lot of that in Australia, in fact we have virtually none, which is why the take-up of EVs has been so slow. What is Nissan's position on what role a government in a country should play to incentivise the rollout of electric vehicles? Is there a sort of unified view that the company takes?
Nic: It's not for me to tell governments what their policy should be. That depends on their own desires, their own circumstances. What we have seen is where governments have offered subsidies in you mentioned Norway, there's big tax breaks on EVs there. China has big restrictions on registrations of new petrol and diesel vehicles... And that causes a massive uptake of EVs, and suddenly it's like a switch.
People realise the benefits of EV, there's no compromise to it and so they adopt it very, very quickly. We've talked already about the cost of EVs coming down rapidly, we're not quite at parity with petrol/diesel yet, so if governments want to advance the speed at which we switch to EV, then we need some subsidies. Quite simply.
But it doesn't have to just be financial. There are other incentives that they put in place. Such as access to bus lanes or high occupancy vehicle lanes, so you get preferential treatment, free parking, free charge, provision of charging infrastructure. Those kind of things can be hugely beneficial to people and attractive and can really advance the uptake of EVs really quickly.
CA: One of the things that can't be overstated and I haven't talked about it much here, but you've sort of alluded to it, is that EVs actually are fun to drive.
We talk about them in a less romantic entertaining sense, because we are interested in some of the other aspects, but to actually put your foot down in an electric car the instantaneous response, the instantaneous torque which you get from that electric motor is something to behold, and I think it's pretty clear and I'm sure that Nissan's research does the same.
Once somebody actually tries an electric car, they rarely move back to the ICE world. It's sort of a one way trajectory.
Nic: Yeah, it's the favourite part of my job when I get a new customer into an EV, into a Nissan Leaf. They turn it on, and there's no noise, and it's like starting up your smartphone. And then they press the accelerator and it takes off and their face just lights up cause they weren't expecting it and people still have this impression of EVs as being a bit of a compromise, but they're not. They're just brilliant cars.
They're great fun and then you get all these other benefits. So the more I can popularise that, the more I can share that with people, the better. And as you say, once people move to EV, we've never had one back.
We never, we've never had a customer come back and say ‘no, I want to go back to my petrol car’. They love them. They're the cars our customers love the most. We have a brilliant passionate owner body and that's a great job to have.