TOM HUDSON: Gasoline prices in the U.S. are now about $3 a gallon. That’s the environment as the first mass-produced all-electric car goes to market next month, Nissan’s Leaf. The Leaf is the starting point as well for our new collaboration with Planet Forward, solving energy and climate challenges. And those challenges will be shaped by you, our viewers. Frank Sesno is an award-winning journalist. He’s also professor at George
Washington University, where he leads the Planet Forward project and he joins us tonight from Washington, DC. Frank, welcome to NIGHTLY BUSINESS REPORT.
FRANK SESNO, PROF., GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERISTY: It’s great to be here Tom and great to be working like this on invention and innovation.
HUDSON: Lots to talk about here. Let’s begin with the Nissan Leaf, lots of buzz here going on. Tell us about the car and what drivers think of it.
SESNO: Sure well, Tom, it’s got people thinking, that’s for sure. You know the purpose at Planet Forward is to hear from scientists, students, advocates, entrepreneurs and experts as they make their case for energy
innovation. Well this car clearly has some folks considering whether it’s time to turn over a new leaf.
The commercial is slick, the message is clear — if you buy the Nissan Leaf, you’ll not only save polar bears, you’ll be saving the planet. But will this car gain traction? At Planet Forward, we’re asking people to
send innovative ideas that can affect our energy future. And this new set of wheels, which will be in showrooms in December, has drawn considerable attention.
MARK PERRY, DIR., PRODUCT PLANNING/ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY, NISSAN: What you’re looking at is our production ready, pure zero emission vehicle.
SESNO: Dan Gray uploaded a video to Planet Forward after talking to a company rep at the DC auto show. And because of his video, Planet Forward went to test drive the Leaf.
BRIAN VERPROSKIS, CORP. PLANNING & INFRASTRUCTURE, NISSAN: So as you accelerate, you can see you power meter increase.
SESNO: What makes the Nissan Leaf unique? There’s no internal combustion engine — that means zero emissions. There are all kinds of apps so you can monitor the car and its performance. And the biggest deal of all
— you get up to 100 miles on a charge, Nissan says. That’s a significant leap in battery technology.
VERPROSKIS: So the battery is underneath the seats. So it starts at the front of the front seat right here and it goes to the back of the back seats. And the battery is composed of cells and modules, so you have four
cells in a module, 48 modules make up the pack. So you have 196 individual cells in this battery pack.
SESNO: What is it in this battery that’ different? What kind of progress do we see here?
VERPROSKIS: We’re the first manufacturer to put a lithium ion in a vehicle. So this generation battery, the change is it’s a different chemistry. So we go from a lithium ion cobalt to a lithium ion manganese.
And we switch from a cylindrical cell battery to a laminate cell battery. And what that gives us is twice the energy density in about half of the package size.
SESNO: Nissan estimates driving this car will cost about $0.025 a mile, compared to $0.12 to $0.14 a mile for a gasoline-powered car. Are you saying that this is going to put the internal combustion engine out of
VERPROSKIS: I think it’s going to give it a run for its money.
DANIEL INDIVIGLIO, BLOGGER & EDITOR, THE ATLANTIC: I think it’s a hugely important paradigm shift.
SESNO: Dan Indiviglio has been writing about electric cars for “The Atlantic Monthly.” But he knows full well that the leaf costs about $25,000, thousands more than similar sized cars, even with the $7,500 tax credit. And it takes hours to charge to go those 100 miles.
INDIVIGLIO: If electricity prices stay relatively low and gas prices rise a lot, then the Leaf becomes obviously a lot more attractive. These cars are really going to be attractive to the sort of the green yuppie type, right, the type of person who really cares a lot about the environment and has money to spend on an expensive car, because these cars are relatively expensive.
SESNO: So do you buy an electric car, even though it costs more than gas-burning economy cars? Is it an innovation whose time has finally come? Planet Forward member Dan Gray says just maybe.
DANIEL GRAY, MPGOMATIC.COM: I just got back from driving the Nissan Leaf for the first time and you know what? It’s a real car — real smooth, real quiet. A lot of folks doubt electric cars. But in the right situation, if you commute less than 100 miles a day, it’s tough to beat.
SESNO: The car has certainly generated a lot of buzz and Dan’s video has drawn a number of comments. The world will change when this car is released, says one. When you buy a really efficient hybrid or electric
vehicle, you’re putting money into the future of the technology, says another. Dan’s response is he’d love to have a Nissan Leaf, but would never want to fuel it with coal. Well why coal? Coal, because where the
electricity comes from actually matters if you’re counting carbon. And we’re going to need charging stations. People are going to need to be willing to adapt. So there area a lot of obstacles Tom to this vehicle
becoming truly marketable. Nonetheless, it’s a gateway technology. It’s a beginning technology and we saw with those batteries, that’s in many ways the most important thing to take a look at. This is a significant leap in
HUDSON: How is it to drive?
SESNO: It is fun, you know, that’s what Dan said. The thing about when you drive electric cars and if you have ever driven a golf cart, presumably you don’t go 60 miles an hour with it, but you touch that pedal
and you go right off. It’s got total pick up. There is no kind of rumble and delay. It’s very nimble and of course it’s totally silent so that takes a little getting used to.
HUDSON: Let’s talk about cost here, Frank. Because we mentioned a little bit the difference between electricity and gasoline cost per mile, but does the Leaf pay for itself?
SESNO: This is of course where the rubber meets the road right. I mean, at the end of the day, it’s sort of about dollars and cents. No it doesn’t pay for itself. It is not for those who are looking for bargains.
We did some math and if you take a look at what you actually pay for the Nissan Leaf, even where what that government tax credit, you pay about $25,000 or so even with that credit. Now compare that to the Ford Focus, a
comparable small car, a gasoline engine, that is going to cost you about $16 grand. So the difference there, about $8600. Take that $8600, buy enough gasoline for the Ford Focus, you’ll be able to drive more than
100,000 miles so bottom line, dollars and cents, not there yet.
HUDSON: Significant difference. As we mentioned, we are beginning tonight this new collaboration with your organization, Planet Forward. Tell us a little bit more about this and the project.
SESNO: Well, Planet Forward is meant to hear from people out in the communities, citizens, scientist, experts, entrepreneurs, the like. They come to us with the ideas then we look for the best ideas, the ones in
particular that focus on energy innovation and invention and we will highlight those. We will highlight them on planetforward.org on the web site itself and the best ones we’re going to bring to you here to NIGHTLY
BUSINESS REPORT to see what are the game changers out there? What really can be happening and who can tell us things we don’t already know.
HUDSON: The wisdom of crowds are tapping into that, we saw some of that in the piece just in terms of the comments and blogs but also adding videos as well online.
SESNO: And we are getting videos from scientists and from students as I say and from business people who were doing things in some remote places but now with the magic of a video camera and uploads they can tell the
whole world about.
HUDSON: A new way to cover innovation and invention. You can go to our web site to upload your ideas, NBR on pbs.org and just look for the Planet Forward button right there on our home page. Frank, we’re looking
forward to this collaboration in the months ahead. Thanks for joining us. Ours guest this evening is Frank Sesno, with Planet Forward.
SESNO: Thanks, Tom.