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Detroit Auto Show: Nissan Details "Smart" Home Charging for the Leaf EV

Nissan announced at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit that it had chosen a supplier to provide home charging capacity for its new Leaf battery car (which will be delivered to its first customers late this year), and that company is AeroVironment. Although not as well known as other players in the space, such as Better Place, ECOtality and Coulomb, AeroVironment is probably the largest, with $260 million in annual sales, and an interesting history, too.

Aerovironment was founded in 1971 by the late Dr. Paul MacCready, a polymath and a certified genius (Time called him one of "the greatest minds of the 20th century") who dabbled in many things, including high-altitude ultra-light planes and the Impact, a precursor of the EV-1 electric car. Energy-efficiency systems (as well as unmanned aircraft) are its stock in trade.

"We beat them all!" said Kristen Helsel, director of EV Solutions at AeroVironment. "I think what sold Nissan is that we're an established company, not a start-up. And they liked not only the design of the charger itself but that we had the whole package: The installation, plus the customer service piece. It is our intention to actively work with every Leaf buyer."

According to Mark Perry, a Nissan spokesman with responsibility for the Leaf introduction, "Some companies had manufacturing, others had customer care, but few had all of that. AeroVironment's two sides include a long history of work for the Department of Defense, and we found them to be a very capable company with a depth of experience."

AeroVironment will be Nissan's preferred customer for all home charging. The charger itself, a lovely shade of green, will be badged as a Nissan product. "We didn't want to say, 'Here's your car, now you're on your own,'" said Perry. "We want to be able to point people to a one-stop operation for putting a home charger in their garage, and then following up with reliable customer service."

The process starts, said Helsel and Perry, with "handraisers" on Nissan's website. The car is gaining higher visibility through the ongoing 22-city Leaf tour, which is crossing the U.S. and will reach New York in February. In the spring, Perry said, Nissan will start the process of converting the 35,000 people who've signed up at the site to reservation status. Entry onto that list will trigger a visit by a certified electrician installer, who will evaluate their utility service and prepare a report on a charger installation. Perry estimated charger cost at $700 to $800, plus installation. A $2,000 federal tax credit for plug-in vehicle charging infrastructure could make such installations cost-free for many early adopters.

Nissan says that its working on "smart" charging, which means that customers will be able, through software in the car, use their cell phones and office computers to schedule, start and stop charging sessions, and even to heat or pre-cool their cars.

"Some 80 percent of EV charging is at home at night," Perry said. "Though there's a lot of media attention to public charging, it's really important to get the home part done right." A full home charge of the Leaf takes seven hours. Perry said that an emerging fast-charging network would allow a Leaf to reach 80 percent of charge in 26 minutes.

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