Nissan to turn over a New Leaf?
Rumours abound in the auto blogospere that Nissan will imminently announce that the electric Leaf model will be produced in the UK at Nissan's Sunderland plant. The latter often features as one of the most productive plants in the world in global rankings.
This has yet to be confirmed by Nissan but an announcement may indeed be imminent. Nissan anyway intends to start selling the car in Europe later this year and will want to produce somewhere in Europe in the near future.
With Micra assembly shifting to India in the future, Sunderland will have the capacity to build Leaf cars.
When the Leaf was unveiled last year, Nissan did not disclose the price, but just said that it would be priced similarly to other cars in the same segment. That would work out at around ÃÂ£10,000-ÃÂ£15,000 excluding the cost of the electric battery.
Batteries are still expensive and either drivers would have to buy one (not attractive at several thousand pounds) or lease it.
Leasing cars has never really taken off in the private markets in the UK as it did in the US, and it will be interesting to see whether Nissan sells Leaf cars with a leased battery or lease the whole package (maybe including a certain amount of energy?)
Nissan has already said that it will make the lithium ion batteries in Sunderland, increasing the plant's chance of grabbing Leaf assembly in a bidding war with Nissan and Renault plants in France, Spain and Portugal.
Nissan has been in discussions with the British government on financial support, and has been supported by a European Investment Bank loan of Ã¢ÂÂ¬400m (ÃÂ£340m) to build green cars in Europe, which will need a British government loan guarantee.
Nissan sees the car as the world's first mass-market family electric car. It has a range of 100 miles and a top speed of about 90mph. The Leaf is in effect the first fruits of Renault Nissan's huge multi-billion euro investment in electric cars.
Current electric cars are niche models and of limited practicality given their short range and low speeds (think of the tiny GWiz) or are hugely expensive in luxury mode (think Tesla).
The Leaf's battery can be charged to 80% capacity in about 20 minutes with a fast charger, although Nissan reckons that most commuters will charge at home overnight or at work using a conventional charger.
How quickly we take up electric cars remains the big question. The infrastructure to recharge cars needs to be developed on a huge scale, and the cost of batteries needs to come down and their performance to improve before the market really takes off.
The risk of battery owning needs to be shifted away from consumers and tax breaks will be needed to get prices of electric cars down (the government has rightly announced a ÃÂ£5000 subsidy).
We will actually see a variety of different powertrains in use depending on how we use cars and our commute patterns (petrol/diesel, hybrid, electric and maybe even hydrogen down the line).
There won't be one technological fix. Using an electric car may work well in compact cities with lots of charging points, but less so if you're doing extended trips until battery life and range are extended.
But if Leaf production comes to Sunderland, it will represent a major coup for business secretary Lord Mandelson, who recently unveiled a 'low-carbon economic area' in the North East (including a research and development centre) in the hope of making the UK the "green car capital of Europe".
With Burnaston about to start hybrid car production, and Mandelson also wooing GM to bring Vauxhall / Opel Ampera electric car production to the UK, the UK car industry may be set for a green renaissance.
Add in major green R&D by Ford, world leading firms like Modec in Coventry making electric vans, and Jaguar Land Rover's push to begin hybrid production next year under a ÃÂ£800 million green investment programme, and you get the idea.
Many of us have been saying for some time that the industry is developing some of the key technologies needed the tackle environmental challenges and to ensure energy independence. Thankfully that has been recognised by the government.
Mandelson's 'active interventionism' may yet help his green plant sprout a 'leaf'.
Professor David Bailey works at Coventry University Business School