EV nor not? Nissan tiptoes around Le Mans question

YOKOHAMA, Japan -- Nissan Motor Co. just announced it will return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race with a car sporting the brand's signature "electric powertrain."

But is it really a pure electric vehicle, such as the Leaf -- boasting the technology Nissan has staked its reputation on?

Obviously a car such as the Leaf, with its limited range, won't be able to power through 24 hours of high-performance racing. The Leaf gets about 73 miles on a full battery. At Le Mans, competitors typically top 3,000 miles in the 24-hour period.

"No, you're absolutely right," Global Motor Sports Director Darren Cox said when asked if a Leaf-like EV could hack it.

Indeed, when announcing the car, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn seemed deliberately evasive. He called the technology an "electric powertrain that will deliver zero emissions on demand."

It sounds like he is talking about an electrified powertrain, as opposed to a pure electric one, one that can run for stints on all-electric power. Much like a plug-in hybrid.

The car most likely will need two power sources: Electricity from the battery and possibly gasoline, hydrogen or some other fuel to power the car when it's not running emissions-free.

Yet Nissan contorted itself to avoid the h-word, for hybrids.

Shoichi Miyatani, president of Nissan's Nismo performance and racing unit, quickly zipped his lip when asked if the car would use some sort of plug-in hybrid technology.

Yet Cox dangled a couple other possibilities, including a range-extender system, like the Chevrolet Volt, or even a hydrogen-based drivetrain, such as those based on fuel cells.

"What we call zero emissions on demand means that the driver is in control" of choosing the driving mode, Cox said. "If you're in the city, you have an electric vehicle. If you're out of the city you can use that for longer range stuff as well."

Wouldn't using two propulsion power sources thusly qualify it as a hybrid according to the Society of Automotive Engineers?

"Not quite," Cox says, before adding: "Yeah, if you want to call it a hybrid in the widest sense."

Back to pure electrics for a minute. Recharging at pit stops seems out of the question, even with fast chargers. But here's an intriguing possibility to chew on: swappable batteries.

Swapping out used batteries -- along the lines of Better Place, the struggling battery-switching start up -- could be quick way to get Nissan's electrified Le Mans racer back to full charge.

And it would be "on demand."

In any case, Nissan's pit assignment will be Garage 56, the Le Mans entry reserved for innovative concepts cars. It will be interesting to watch what innovations Nissan brings to the race.

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