No need for subsidies. Higher volumes and better chemistry are causing costs to plummet
ABOUT three-quarters of the way along one of the snaking production lines in Nissan’s Sunderland plant, a worker bolts fuel tanks into the chassis of countless Qashqais—the “urban crossover” SUVs which are the bulk of the factory’s output. But every so often something else passes along the line: an electric vehicle called a Leaf.
The fuel-tank bolter changes his rhythm to add a set of lithium-ion battery packs to the floor of the Leaf. His movements are so well choreographed with the swishing robotic arms around him that he makes the shift from the internal combustion engine to the battery-charged electric vehicle look almost seamless.
Until recently, it was a transition that many found unthinkable. The internal combustion engine has been the main way of powering vehicles on land and at sea for most of the past century. That is quite the head start. Though Leafs are the world’s biggest-selling electric vehicle, the Sunderland plant, Britain’s biggest car factory, only made 17,500 of them last year. It made 310,000 Qashqais. And the Qashqais, unlike the Leafs, were profitable. Nissan has so far lost money on every Leaf it has made.
There were 750,000 electric vehicles sold worldwide last year, less than 1% of the new-car market. In 2011 Carlos Ghosn, boss of the Renault-Nissan alliance, suggested that his two companies alone would be selling twice that number by 2016, one of many boosterish predictions that have proved well wide of the mark. But if the timing of their take-off has proved uncertain, the belief that electric vehicles are going to be a big business very soon is ever more widely held.
Mass-market vehicles with driving ranges close to that offered by a full tank of petrol, such as Tesla’s Model 3 and GM’s Chevrolet Bolt, have recently hit the market; a revamped Leaf will be unveiled in September. The ability to make such cars on the same production lines as fossil-fuel burners, as in Sunderland, means that they can spread more easily through the industry as production ramps up.