The next few years will show whether the batteries in electric cars from GM and Nissan are safe and reliable.
By Kevin Bullis
Why: Mainstream use of electric cars could benefit the environment, especially where power is produced relatively cleanly.
Key innovation: Nissan's new electric car, the Leaf, has a reasonably modest sticker price of $32,000.
Late last year, Nissan began production on the Leaf, the first all-electric offering from a major automaker. The company partnered with NEC in 2007 to develop the lithium-ion batteries that power the car's electric motor. It can go 73 miles before it requires recharging.
CEO Carlos Ghosn has predicted that electric vehicles will represent 10 percent of the world’s automobile market by 2020. The company has already taken more than 20,000 orders for the Leaf, and the first models are now being delivered to buyers.
Nissan’s strategy is different from other companies’: it’s offering an all-electric vehicle, rather than a plug-in hybrid that still employs a small gasoline motor to extend its range. Though the large battery pack is relatively expensive, the company hopes to save money by producing them in large volume at its battery plants.
Challenges and Next Steps:
The main drawback of an all-electric vehicle is range: for long trips Leaf drivers will need dependable access to charging stations, which are currently rare in most places. The company is working with companies such as the Silicon Valley startup Better Place to speed the development of a charging infrastructure.