In a world where resources dwindle and carbon emissions must be curbed, Nissan and the city of Yokohama have come up with “smart city” mobility solutions

Loadshedding. It’s a dreaded word that, when inflicted on South Africa, literally plunges the country into the Dark Ages. Surely a glut of electric vehicles will
just tax our delicate electric grid further?

We visited Japan, which had to deal with its own electricity shortages following disruptions at its nuclear power plants, most notably Fukushima Daiichi, caused by a major earthquake and resultant tsunami in 2011, to observe and document the future of city mobility in Yokohama.

Nissan, in partnership with the local authorities, is establishing efficient mobility solutions in the city, which itself has pioneered efficient technologies in building infrastructure, households and mobility. What can South Africa learn from Yokohama’s approach?

The electric vehicle solution

Air and noise pollution generated by congested urban traffic pose major challenges to city centres across the globe. One of the remedies to the problem, therefore, is the electric vehicle (EV), which emits zero carbon emissions, while near-silent operation is one of its key attributes. In terms of energy consumption, this technology is also far more efficient than fossil-fuelled vehicles, especially in a stop/start environment. Running costs per kilometre are on average up to five times less than an equivalent turbodiesel vehicle and, from an environmentally friendly point of view and true zero CO2 production, the source of electricty charging the vehicle would need to be “clean” – in other words, generated from a renewable power source.

The vehicle-to-house (V2H) concept

Nissan launched the Leaf-to-home system in Japan in 2012. When an electric vehicle is plugged in to charge, electricity will usually only flow from the house to the car. The V2H system allows electricity to also flow back from the vehicle to the house during the following scenarios:

•    During power cuts: a fully charged Leaf battery can supply close to 24 kWh of electricity – that’s enough to power a small house for two days.
•    To limit peak-time electricity use (and limit cost if a time-of-day tariff is implemented by the electricity supplier).
•    To sell electricity back to the grid if supported by the electricity supplier (charge off-peak and sell during peak times).

The system can also include solar panels for the roof of your house and a storage battery if the generated power cannot be sold back to the grid in order to build up credits.

The vehicle-to-building (V2B) concept

New buildings in Japan are designed to be ultra-efficient and incorporate LED lighting, reflective glass, eco air-conditioning systems, solar panels and energy-monitoring systems. One such office building we visited also installed V2B systems that included dedicated parking spaces for two Nissan Leafs with fast-charging capability. These vehicles are offered as lease vehicles to the building’s tenants and can be booked out through an online system. The Leafs then also form part of the backup electricity supply to the building in case of a power disruption.

Ultra-compact electric-car sharing initiative

To facilitate short-trip, personal commutes, Nissan, in collaboration with Yokohama’s authorities, launched a pilot project featuring the Choimobi EV (based on the Renault Twizy). A fleet of 50 vehicles is available at 60 locations throughout the city.

As a user, you first need to register and download an app to your mobile phone or tablet that will tell you the closest location of an available Choimobi. Once booked, the vehicle will allow you to drive it anywhere in the city as long as it stays within the city limits.

Charging is calculated on a per-minute-of-use basis from activation, and terminates when the vehicle is parked in any other dedicated location (a very reasonable R0,20/min). Each vehicle is linked to a control cloud that monitors position and state-of-charge. When the battery charge falls below 20% by the time the Choimobi docks, the vehicle is taken out of service until it’s fully recharged. Statistics show that most vehicles are used for fewer than five km (for about 20 minutes) at a time.
We had a quick spin in this fun little vehicle at Nissan HQ’s car park. It does not feature side windows (or air-con) and is quite basic – think of it as a scooter with four wheels.  It is very easy to drive and the compact dimensions make city driving a cinch. The 13 kW motor moving only 500 kg provides enough punch to stay with the traffic. Although the Choimobi can carry a driver and a passenger behind them, the rear space is compromised.

What we need in SA to make electric mobility happen

•    Launch buying incentives (including import tax deduction) to make EVs more affordable.
•    Quick charging infrastructure in city centres (at dedicated parking spaces), with grants for land owners to help with installation costs.
•    Pilot ultra-compact mobility projects in city centres.
•    Peak and off-peak electric tariffs available to both residential and commercial properties.
•    The ability to sell power back to the grid.
•    Renewable power generation.

Tama in Zama

We visited Nissan’s Heritage Centre in the city of Zama. It houses a magnificent collection of more than 400 passenger and sportscars that were produced by Datsun/Nissan since 1935. One of the most noteworthy exhibits was Nissan’s first electric vehicle, the Tama E4S-47 (pictured above) that went on sale in 1947. It was powered by lead-acid cells and its electric motor delivered only 3,3 kW. This meant that the performance of this 1 100 kg vehicle was less than spirited (top speed was 35 km/h), but it still managed a 65 km range on a single charge.