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Nissan Futures HK: Cars have a future, drivers may not

Electric and autonomous vehicles will play a big role in future transport, according to the likes of Nissan. It's drivers that will be irrelevant.

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A Nissan Leaf electric vehicle providing electricity to power a model home. The Yokohama-based company says it is studying the idea with seven thousand households in Japan, as part of a project called Nissan Energy Homes.

Hong Kong

YOU might have heard of charging an electric vehicle (EV) from your household power supply, but how about powering your house with a car's batteries? Doing so would manage a household's energy needs more efficiently, according to Nissan.

The idea was presented to a gathering of industry stakeholders and government officials at the Nissan Futures conference in Hong Kong last month.

The Yokohama-based company says it is studying the idea with seven thousand households in Japan, as part of a project called Nissan Energy Homes.

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Tim Washington, the founder of JET Charge, an Australian car charging network, says EVs can now take up the role of mobile energy storage devices and feed power into the electricity grid. That helps to smooth out energy demand; charge your EV during off-peak hours, and sell energy back to the grid during peak demand.

That is just one of the ideas Nissan is mulling over as it, like other car makers, ponders what mobility will look like in the future.

Nissan regional senior vice-president for Asia & Oceania Yutaka Sanada says two-out-of-three people worldwide will be living in cities by 2050, compared to one-in-twelve today. That situation will have a huge impact on congestion and air pollution.

Frost and Sullivan, a consultancy, calculates that gridlock already imposes a cost burden of US$300 billion on cities around the world, and estimates that one fifth of vehicle-related emissions comes from city traffic.

Car makers see EV adoption as a ready way to shift pollution out of cities, but Leonido Pulido III, the assistant secretary for the Department of Energy from the Philippines, cautions against a one-size-fits-all solution. Different cities within the region "have to retain their own styles", he says.

Mr Pulido cites Manila as one place where EVs might not necessarily come from traditional car makers' factories. Jeepneys, the most popular form of public transport in the Philippines, are now being fitted with electric motors.

But the process highlighted another potential hurdle to EV adoption: bureaucracy. Mr Pulido says electric jeepneys couldn't be tested for emissions because they produced zero emissions, so they languished in regulatory limbo for six months, unable to hit the road.

Yet, cities across the region are taking concrete steps towards electrification. The Philippines is establishing a single plug system to standardise EV charging there, and later this year Malaysia will become the first country in Southeast Asia to produce the lithium ion batteries that EVs need. Sydney has set a zero-emissions target for 2050.

In fact, Nissan's Mr Sanada believes that EVs have established themselves to the point where cities no longer have to familiarise themselves with them, and can instead focus on how to build a wider ecosystem around them.

One key issue: what to do with EV batteries that are past their best. Some car makers envision "second-life" applications for them, where they retire from powering cars and instead are used to store energy for homes. Toyota operates a wind turbine that stores energy in a bank of battery packs from old Priuses and other hybrid cars, for example.

Klaus Frolich, the BMW board member in charge of engineering, says the batteries could actually be quite valuable in old EVs, in contrast to normal cars, which are nearly worthless when scrapped.

Nissan is also working out how to use old power packs from its EVs, but Mr Sanada points out that having to recycle old EV batteries isn't a large scale headache yet. There may be more Nissan Leafs than any other EV on the road for now, but even the oldest of them is only nine years old.

While a pioneer generation of EVs are already on the road, autonomous vehicles (AVs) are still years away. Maarten Sierhuis, chief technology officer of the Nissan Research Center in Silicon Valley, says: "AV progress will be slow".

The technology in its current form is too expensive, he says. "The sensors cost too much to be viably accepted by mass consumers", he explains. Instead, he expects fleet operators such as taxi and bus companies to adopt them first, as they can amortise the cost over a few years. That being so, Nissan is working on robo-taxis and driverless delivery vehicles.

But some see the widespread adoption of AVs as the best way for humans to live with cars in the future.

"Autonomous vehicles can simultaneously reduce road accidents to zero and bring down travel costs by 30 per cent by decreasing congestion and eliminating the need for human operators," says Franck Leveque, partner and mobility business unit leader at Frost & Sullivan. "Overall, autonomous vehicles can potentially lead to a 4 per cent savings in the gross domestic product."

It might not be clear exactly when that will become a reality, but one thing is looking increasingly likely: cars could only have a place in tomorrow's cities if drivers learn to let go.