YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) -- Nissan Motor Co. made its first electric vehicle, the lead acid battery-powered Tama, in 1947 and now with the launch of the Leaf, the company is the first automaker to begin producing a mass-marketed EV.
The five-seater Leaf hatchback is expected to cost just under 3 million yen after subsidies in Japan, and about $20-$25,000 in the U.S. In comparison, General Motors' Volt, a plug-in hybrid that will compete with the Leaf, will be about $41,000.
But what Nissan and its French partner Renault SA are doing is something no other automaker has attempted before: getting governments and infrastructure providers involved on a global scale from the start, to create, for the first time ever, a sizeable market for zero-emission vehicles.
Green car revolution
The automobile industry has long vacillated about what the ultimate green car would be. After collectively giving up on marketing EVs in the last decade due to prohibitive costs and shoddy battery technology, major automakers such as General Motors, Toyota and Honda became convinced that fuel-cell vehicles, which run on hydrogen fuel, could be the winner.
But the prohibitavely high price of the cars didn't help.
With little hope of selling them in significant numbers, the infrastructure for hydrogen fuelling stations that automakers waited for never came. Fuel-cell vehicles were put back in the garage.
As the top carmakers in the U.S. market eventually abandoned the EV experiment that had been ignited by California's Zero Emission Vehicle mandate in the early 1990s, the main culprit was the cost and performance of the batteries.
Storing and discharging energy at the rigorous pace and frequency required in a moving vehicle was a technically formidable task.
Toyota knew that all too well. It had to recall all of its first-generation Prius hybrid cars for battery failure. But with 18 years of advanced battery development behind it, Nissan had a long lead, engineers and executives said.
Japan's oldest car company had begun working on lithium-ion batteries, considered the best match for rechargeable cars today, before any other automaker, in 1992. It has also brought development of the electric motor and inverter, the two other key EV components, in-house.
Not a car for 'zealots'
Many people may be surprised by the coming green car revolution. Nissan is not the first to roll out electric vehicles, which plug into an electric outlet to charge the battery and have an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine.
Mitsubishi Motor Co. came out last year with the egg-shaped i-MiEV, while niche newcomer Tesla Motors Inc. put its Roadster hot-rod out in 2008.
But sales of those cars are still in the thousands. To enter the mainstream, the Leaf had to be on the shopping list of the average buyer, and not just the "eco warriors" that would buy a zero-emission car at any cost.
This isn't a car for "zealots," a term Nissan-Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn often uses to describe owners of other EV niche models, such as the Tesla.
Nissan says the central concept for the Leaf was to make it seem like a "normal" car, right down to the faint but audible humming sound that engineers programmed into it to make sure pedestrians hear the car approaching at low speeds.