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VOL. 38 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 08, 2014

Electrics, hybrids continue to gain fans, sales

By Hollie Deese

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Nissan sold more than 3,000 Smyrna-made LEAFs in July, the second time it has topped that number, according to Tony Weeks, senior manager of LEAF marketing for Nissan.

-- Photo Courtesy Of Nissan

When JP White bought his Nissan LEAF three years ago this month, the admitted tech geek was drawn to electric cars first – and foremost – by the technology.

But the appeal of bypassing gas pumps was not insignificant.

The Hendersonville resident considered buying the Chevy Volt, but it was $7,000 more than the made-in-Smyrna LEAF.

“It has exceeded my expectations in terms of saving money, so that is a good thing,” says White, 55, who has been diligently maintaining a blog devoted to his LEAF experience ever since, providing tips to fellow electric car owners about where new charging stations are going in, and even posting pictures of SUV’s parked in charging stations.

“I have been very pleased in its reliability. Being new technology, I anticipated being in the dealer every few months, but I have had virtually no trips to the dealer at all except for regular maintenance.”

Each year, there are more electric models available, as well as a wide range of hybrids, which also show no signs of slowing in sales.

Carmakers, experts say, are not ready to invest in just one technology over the other, and instead are happy to offer consumers a mix of products. Plug-in hybrids and electrics are not in competition.

In the past 12 months, carmakers have sold 232,788 hybrids and only 64,877 all-electric and plug-in hybrids.

“Obviously we have traditional internal combustion engines, which are getting better and better in terms of the economy,” says Tony Weeks, senior manager of LEAF Marketing at Nissan.

Sample prices for all-electrics

  • 2014 Nissan LEAF, $28,212-$33,892
  • 2014 Ford Focus, $32,797-$35,263
  • 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV, $25,618-$27,269

“We have some hybrids in the lineup. Out of the alternative fuels, Nissan is committed to zero emissions across the board, but heavily invested in electric. We are pretty much seen as the leader in electric vehicles right now.”

Sales support growth

White doesn’t get as many questions from strangers about his LEAF on trips to Publix like he did during the first few months after he purchased it, and it could because it is no longer such a novelty.

“Our sales month ended yesterday, and we had over 3,000 sales, which is only the second time we’ve done that, and that is a very big deal,” Weeks explains. “We have had 17 straight months of averaging 2,000 sales a month, which we are very happy with.”

Weeks says Nashville is in the top 15 overall markets for LEAF sales in the U.S.

“We are real happy with how Nashville is doing, and Tennessee in general,” Weeks adds.

In 2006, Nissan relocated its headquarters in Franklin and ramped up electric vehicle production in Smyrna.

“A few years ago we localized our manufacturing to Smyrna, so now all the LEAFs, and all the batteries, all of for our low emission vehicles are made in Smyrna for the entire U.S. That was a big deal for us, because when we did that, we were able to shave off some costs, and having that price reduction really allowed us to open up the market.”

Aaron Miller represents product communications for Ford’s electrified vehicles. He doesn’t speak to Nashville sales directly, but says July was the best sales month for the Focus Electric ever, plus five of Ford’s best hybrid vehicle sales months ever came in 2014.

And since the introduction of the Ford C-Max in 2012, Ford’s hybrid sales have grown every year. In 2011, hybrid sales were 32,645, and then slightly higher at 39,554 in 2012. A huge leap came in 2013 when hybrid sales jumped to 102,975.

The Tesla Roadster blows away several traditional arguments against electric cars with its styling, the ability to go from zero to 60 mph in 3.7-seconds, and a range of 245 miles between charges.

-- Photo Courtesy Of Tesla Motors

“Even though we started our electrified vehicle lineup back in ’09, 2012 is when we really started to see more product come out,” Miller says. “And if people question any OEM’s commitment to electrified vehicles, then looking at the sales is a good indicator both of how well we are performing in the space, but also how serious we are.

“Because if the company wasn’t serious, you wouldn’t be seeing them sold or on dealer lots.”

Solid infrastructure

People with electric cars can access EV [electric vehicle] chargers installed at home, work or in the public domain, with DC fast chargers offering an 80 percent charge in about 20 minutes. Not all stations are free, and White says he averages spending about $7 per month to charge his car.

As an early adopter, White was able to get an at-home charging station at no cost for buying one of the first 1,000 LEAFs in the state.

Also, at the time White purchased his auto, the state was offering a $2,500 rebate for cars and a $7,500 federal tax credit to electric car buyers.

“I do about 75 percent of my charging at home and have had good luck with it,” White says. “In the early days, they had some software issues, the software was a bit unreliable, but they fixed that over time and now it is fine. Solid.”

Carla Nelson, a senior engineer with the Nashville Electric Service, says more and more people are asking about charging stations, and installation has steadily grown over time with a bulk being put in when the stimulus money was reimbursed.

Interest is growing, if email volume is an indication, at ev@nespower.com, with inquiries about the placing charging stations.

“A lot of times someone will buy an EV, and their neighbor sees is and gets interested in it,” she says. “So far, even though some of our neighborhoods have been quicker to adopt than other neighborhoods, we have not had any problems with our feeder loads or our transformer loading. We have some that are pretty heavily loaded, but they were that way before adding any EV chargers.”

Nelson says there have been no issues so far with customers installing EV chargers at home.

“People want to make sure that our infrastructure is in place and secure enough to handle an EV charger, especially in the older areas where you have smaller homes, where an EV charger is about the equivalent to the load of half a house,” Nelson adds. “So far the capacity has been fine.”

One of the reasons for strong local LEAF sales, Weeks explains, is the area’s ability to handle the increase in electricity.

“We’ve noticed that different pockets of the country lead in infrastructure development, and Nashville is pretty far along,” Weeks says.

All-electric luxury carmaker Tesla has made it a goal to serve 98 percent of the U.S. population with Supercharger stations nationwide by 2015. It recently opened a service center in Brentwood, and is planning to open a store in Nashville soon.

Neither location is a traditional dealership, since they are company owned and operated.

And Nissan is now offering a “No Charge to Charge” program, and the company has worked with different groups to create a network of chargers all accessible with one card, called the E-Z Charge Network. This program gives new LEAF buyers two years of free charging.

Limited range

Weeks says one misconception is that an electric car’s limited range – less than 100 miles between charges – is a deterrent for some people, but that the average American only drives 33 miles a day anyway.

“For 90 percent of people it would work just fine,” he says.

When White bought his LEAF, he had only a 28-mile round-trip commute between his Hendersonville home and Gallatin for work – no problem for an electric. But then things changed, and he now works at HealthTrust in Cool Springs.

“Right now I am doing about 73 miles round trip and go through the middle of Nashville every day,” he says.

Fortunately for White, there are plenty of charging stations – many quick charge – near his work, thanks to the nearby Nissan headquarters.

And despite White stating on his blog that his battery has degraded 20 percent in the last three years, reducing the time needed between charges from 73 miles to 58, his commute has not been a problem.

He recently turned over 50,000 miles in his LEAF, and has calculated he is on target to save $14,000 in gas by the time he reaches 100,000.

Plus, he’s never run out of juice while in his LEAF, using an app to accurately show him how much energy is left. He doesn’t like to push it since roadside assistance doesn’t really exist in Middle Tennessee yet, although a call to Nissan’s 1-800 number will get drivers a tow to the nearest lot.

White plans on driving his LEAF for another two to three years, which is when he anticipates the next big technology leap will take place. But he also is hoping for a more brisk second market for electrics than there is now.

“The car depreciates very quickly,” he explains. “Even though they are low mileage and in perfectly good condition, like any other car [that] would go right on their lot, they don’t take them in Nashville. There are some markets like Atlanta where they will take them off the lot, and they will sell quickly there.

“It is a real slow second-hand market, and because of that I have kind of hung on to it.”

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