By Michael Kanellos
CHIBA, Japan -- If we can get drivers to behave like smelt, we can start cutting gas.
That was one of the messages from Nissan (OTCPK:NSANY) at Ceatec, the large technology trade show taking place this week outside of Tokyo. Fish swimming in schools maintain a relatively constant distance with the fish in front of it and any swimming on the side. As a result, they don't bash into each other and move along at an orderly pace.
By putting sensors in a car that can detect other cars around it and communicate with them, traffic accidents as well as jackrabbit starts, lane shifting and traffic jams could be reduced, said Minoru Shinohara, senior vice president in the technology development division at Nissan. Ultimately, it could also curb gas consumption.
"If we apply the rules of fish congestion can be avoided," he said. "There is very flexible movement in the group."
Those robots, called Eporo demonstrate the concept (see video). Nissan researchers applied observations of biomimicry in making them. Last year, Nissan showed off robots that were based on how bees avoid accidents.
Car movement, of course, is a little more challenging. Fish don't pull over for exits and the distance between cars would need to be dynamically monitored because their speed constantly changes. Still, the principle makes sense. You actually see it in Tokyo every day. Although it's the world's largest city, people walk at a fairly uniform, orderly pace. The people you see cutting and jumping from place to place (and bumping into others) are invariably Americans.
Nissan is gearing up for its big launch of the Leaf, the all-electric car coming in 2010 and Shinohara is one of the key executives behind it. He also likes to talk. In 2007, he told me in an interview that Nissan was going all-electric. A few months later, CEO Carlos Ghosn formally announced it. Last year at Ceatec, he told us how Nissan was looking at systems that could charge cars while they drove. Months later, Nissan began to discuss putting inductive chargers in roads to juice batteries.
There were no nuggets of that level this year, but other Nissan sources clarified how the Leaf might be priced. There will likely be several options: consumers could buy the car outright, buy the car but lease the battery, etc. In Israel, Nissan is working on battery swapping with Better Place (although it is working with other non-battery-swapping charging companies pretty much everywhere else).
Yokohama, where Nissan is now located, will be big proving ground. The city will try to create a zero car emissions zone in the city. Electric cars and buses, ride sharing and two-wheelers will be deployed. In a wider ring around the zero emissions zone will sit a low-emissions zone.
While standard cars will have to be continually improved, they won't be able to meet climate goals alone. A widespread push on clean diesel could cut emissions by 30 percent, he said. Massive adoption of hybrids could cut it by 50 percent. Cars counted for 28.7 percent of household emissions in 2007.
"We need to eliminate carbon dioxide from our vehicles," he said. "In order for us to reduce emissions by 90 percent, fuel cell cars and electric cars need to be introduced."
Fuel cells? Although hydrogen has many critics, Nissan, Toyota (NYSE:TM) and others continue to work on hydrogen cars and participate on research for clean hydrogen production.
Cutting the price of electronics, though, needs to be done. Electronics constitute about 30 percent of the cost of a gas car. They amount to 70 percent of an electric car.
"In the past, it took too many batteries," he said. "Now we have batteries with twice the performance and half of the size."