Nissan Leaf hunts fares, and respect, in New York

Two years ago in New York, Carlos Ghosn, the charismatic chairman of Renault-Nissan, told an audience at the Tribeca Film Festival that the Franco-Japanese company would become the dominant player in electric vehicles.

This week, New York has again welcomed the film festival throngs, and with the introduction on 22 April of a pilot taxi programme involving the purely electric Leaf hatchback, Nissan has again asserted its EV leadership. But like a big film studio shopping a moody experimental feature, the automaker is still unsure whether the world will embrace its risky passion project.

Two years ago, when Ghosn delivered his remarks after a screening of Chris Paine's documentary Revenge of the Electric Car, the Leaf was reaching showrooms in a fiendishly controlled rollout, making a sighting of the hatchback as exhilarating as any involving an Italian exotic. Today, with gasoline prices holding stable in North America and a number of highly publicised safety and performance issues relating to battery packs in EVs, the Leaf has long since surrendered its celebrity status. Instead, it is locked in a perpetual promotional tour to prove its worth.

The Leaf’s latest whistle stop was midtown Manhattan, where Mayor Michael R Bloomberg exited a Leaf painted silver and yellow to stand with New York Taxi and Limousine Commission Chairman David Yassky, before moving on to his next appointment. The commission, which last year adopted the Nissan NV200 minivan as the exclusive next-generation taxi of the city, approved six Leafs to circulate within the fleet to learn whether drivers can make time to charge such vehicles during their shifts.

“The whole point of this is to show that a driver can integrate a charge into his or her day,” Yassky said. The commission says that a taxi driver may cover 70 miles in a typical shift – within the Leaf’s estimated maximum travel range of 75 miles but not sufficient to comfortably forego a charge. Using one of three so-called quick chargers (also known as Level II chargers) installed by Nissan partner AeroVironment around the city, a Leaf would regain 80% of its charge in less than 30 minutes, or about the time a driver would take to break for a meal, Nissan claims. Participating drivers receive special dispensations to deny fares based on length of travel if they are concerned a trip may deplete the vehicle’s batteries.

Though his third and final term is set to end in 2014, Mayor Bloomberg wants one-third of the city’s taxi fleet to be comprised of zero-emissions vehicles by 2020. As much as the city’s growing network of bicycle lanes and pedestrian plazas, the mayor’s early commitment to zero-emissions vehicles – and EVs in particular – is a legacy that he does not want blemished.

“You really have to drive one of these,” the mayor said just after exiting the Leaf taxi. It may have been a curious sentiment to express at a taxi’s unveiling, but it is a message Nissan is keen to hear, and echo, at every turn.