Nissan's Leaf Starts Electric Car Race

Nissan Leaf
Nissan Leaf

It may be another 6 months before the first electric Nissan Leaf rolls into showrooms, but the electric car race is kicking into another gear.

Today in Smyrna, Tennessee, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn will be on hand for the start of production for the battery packs that will power the Leaf.

It's one more tangible marker that electric cars are going from the planning board to the assembly line, and ultimately out on the street.

That's welcome news for the 20,000 people who have put down a deposit to buy one of the first generation of Leaf models. Skeptics will roll their eyes (or send me an e-mail) and say, "big deal, in a country where more than 11 million cars and trucks are sold, it doesn't mean much that 20,000 people are buying an electric car." I disagree.

The significance of the Leaf, the Chevy Volt, and electric models planned by nearly every other major automaker is that they are expected to be in demand. The Leaf is not like the Tesla Roadster. This is not a limited production luxury car. It's targeted for the mass market. And at least on paper, it looks like the mass market wants it.

Ghosn's announcement in Tennessee comes two days after Ford said it is spending $135 million and hiring another 220 peopleto design and build battery packs and transmissions for hybrid electric models coming in 2012. And just two months ago, GM Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre Jr. opened an electric battery plant. You get the point. The pieces are being put in place to build and sell electronic cars here in the U.S.

What remains to be seen is whether this initial round electric cars sparks a surge in demand for this next generation of vehicles. I don't expect sales to take off right away. That's mainly because the cost, lack of comfort with driving an electric car, and worries about limited range per charge will limit electric car sales to early adopters. I could be wrong, but I see the ramp of electric cars to take time.

That said, make no mistake: the electric car race is kicking into gear.


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