Nissan, CMU Already Working on How To Improve Next Leaf EVBy Michelle Krebs May 10, 2010
Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s first-ever fully electric production car to be sold in the U.S., the Leaf, doesn't go on sale for another six months, but Nissan's already working on how to improve the next-generation Leaf to make it more attractive to a constituency beyond early adopters - and to help maintain the company's electric-vehicle leadership.
Nissan repeatedly refers to being the first major automaker to bring a battery-electric car to showrooms as a game-changing initiative, so no particular surprise the company took an unconventional approach to generating ideas on how best to develop and market the unique attributes of EVs. Instead of relying solely on its internal product planners, Nissan solicited the help of multidisciplinary teams from the atypically intelligent student body of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Six teams from Carnegie Mellon's Integrated Product Development program were tasked to dream up features that promote the advantages of EVs and underscore their green feel-good factor.
The Integreated Product Development teams were comprised of six students in total, two from each of the school's engineering, design and MBA programs. The teams used their learning to conceptualize a new feature and design and engineer it - then also present a complete and rational business case for the innovation.
The CMU teams' final presentations last week presented Nissan with an range of unique ideas that utilize the Leaf's onboard electric power or underscore potential Leaf owners' quest to help improve the environment.
More Than Just Features
Mark Perry, Nissan's director of electric vehicle programs, told the teams the company expects improvements, upgrades and refinements for EVs to come at a quicker pace than with conventional cars -- at least for the first couple of generations. Perry told AutoObserver that is part of the reason why Nissan sought the input of the CMU students - they have a fresh perspective and also are generationally attached to environmental awareness.
But Perry also stressed Nissan is already trying to identify potential new EV features because it doesn't want to squander its first-to-market leadership.
"We're going to be one of the first in the market, and that's an advantage," Perry told the CMU teams, "but the window (to remain a leader) will be small," he reminded. Competition will increase exponentially as more automakers hurry to get in the game, he said, meaning the uniqueness of owning an EV is likely to quickly erode. If the company isn't perpetually identifying new EV-specific features and ideas -- then successfully marketing those developments -- any leadership advantage Nissan enjoys might just as quickly fade.
One team, for instance, conceptualized an in-car office, the "Nissan Productivity Package," that would deploy to optimize the 20 minutes or so of downtime expected when recharging the Leaf's lithium-ion batteries at a public charging station. Although we've been told most charging would come at home, Nissan planners figure many of the millennial generation to which the Leaf is expected to appeal don't own their own homes and so are more likely to rely on public charging stations several times a week.
Another team from CMU's Integrated Product Development course sought to underscore the need for physical and emotional well-being it assumed will be important to many Leaf buyers. The team's "charge up your health" suite of features envisioned a method for improving the healthfulness of a lengthy commute. It incorporated a shoulder-massage bar that also vibrates, an adjustable dead pedal for the left foot and a posture-improving seat that senses incorrect and painful posture and, with a visual display, gently reminds the driver to sit more correctly.
A different spin on how to improve "idle time" in a parked EV came from a team that developed a high-tech organic light-emitting diode windshield that transforms into an outsized screen for displaying all manner of multimedia content. The system also included a driver seat that slides far from the dash, a video-gamelike controller that emerges from the dash via a motorized tray and a cell-phone dock.
The team pointed to the growing use of onboard interactive systems leveraging the car owner's own mobile devices, such as Ford Motor Co.'s successful Sync.
Another team sought to leverage the Leaf's large amount of onboard electrical power to ease the task of grocery shopping, designing a cargo-area organizer, hidden under a weight-bearing sliding bamboo cover, incorporating a sizable refrigerator to maintain the temperature of cold or frozen foods. The refrigerator could be pre-cooled prior to the grocery store trip but also could come in handy if the Leaf driver needs to make an unexpected errand on the way home from the grocery store, preventing cold foods from spoiling.
Perry and other Nissan planners on hand for the final presentations from the CMU Integrated Product Development teams said Nissan intend to seriously consider the proposals to improve the Leaf and promote its eco-friendliness. But he cautioned that although each team's calculations demonstrated the potential for their innovations to deliver a profit, projections of hundreds of dollars in variable costs would lead to critical analysis in an industry that scrutinizes new investments costing just pennies per vehicle. -- Bill Visnic, Senior Editor
1 - Carnegie-Mellon University students tell Nissan how to improve the next-generation Nissan Leaf. (Photo by Bill Visnic)
2 - The Nissan Leaf goes on sale later this year. (Photo by Nissan)