Will it be remembered as a landmark? Or as just a tiny footnote?
News that Nissan has started mass production of its all-electric Leaf in Japan could go down in history as the day that the car as we know it changed forever. Or it could be relegated to a footnote, the beginning of an industrywide misadventure with a technology that never quite reaches mass acceptance.
Which will it be? There are a lot of reasons to think that electric cars like the Leaf represent the future of the automobile. But there are also reasons to think that the hype won't be matched by the reality.
A big investment in an uncertain future
The technology may be novel, in other words, but the experience mostly isn't.
Contrast that with the experience awaiting Leaf owners: There's no conventional engine at all, just an electric motor. It needs to be recharged frequently -- if you come home tired after a long day at work and forget to plug it in, you might not be going anywhere tomorrow. Its range will probably vary quite a bit from day to day: A little zestful driving (or a cold snap) could mean the difference between a relaxed detour and a white-knuckled please-let-me-make-it-home drive.
Still, I don't think Nissan will have too much trouble selling the 20,000 or so Leafs it hopes to bring to the U.S. next year. Preproduction models made available to the media have received solid reviews, and with 20,000 "reservations" for the car already made, the company's chances of a successful launch look good.
Defining "success" carefully
Success, of course, is relative. Having 20,000 new electric cars on U.S. roads might seem like a big deal, but in terms of total U.S. vehicle sales, it's a drop in the bucket. It's expected that automakers will sell close to 12 million new cars and trucks here this year, and that's actually a low number by recent historical standards.
But Nissan, and the other manufacturers like Ford
Contrast EVs with hybrids, which over the last decade have become part of the automotive mainstream. Toyota's success showed the way, Honda
Purely electric-powered cars are still a different story. Until the Leaf, Tesla Motors
And while Tesla's management talks a good game, that's still a huge "if."
A boondoggle in the making?
Auto suppliers like Magna International
That's not exactly a revolutionary number. Like I said, I don't think Nissan will have too much trouble selling 20,000 Leafs next year. But the company expects to be able to produce as many as 500,000 a year by the end of 2012.
What do you think? Will the Leaf (or any all-electric car) ever sell in those kinds of numbers? Scroll down to leave a comment and let me know.
Ford may be wading slowly into the electrified future, but its latest blowout quarter shows it's selling plenty of cars in the here and now.