In some ways, Tesla might be winning the race for the headlines, even though the technology race is actually more evenly balanced than it might seem.
The competition doesn’t stop at range and price issues. The new Leaf involves three new technical innovations.
First, there is ProPilot, a sophisticated set of driver assistance and autonomous driving systems which offers following-distance controls, mitigation of "cutting in" problems and which helps drivers stay in their lane.
There is also an auto-parking system called ProPilot Park, although it seems to be reliant on accurate road markings.
The big technical innovation is called e-Pedal which allows the driver to control the car using a single pedal. You accelerate normally, but braking is initiated by lifting your foot off the accelerator and it’s possible to stop the car using the accelerator pedal alone. The system is designed to make driving an easier and safer experience and will be useful in traffic jams.
One big problem with electric cars remains charging, mainly because it’s hard to beat the five-minute refuelling typical of a petrol or diesel-engine car.
The new Leaf has two plug-in points, one for normal power and one for rapid charging. The first-generation Leaf took seven hours to charge from zero to full on a 6kW plug-point, and the new version takes about an hour longer for 40% more output.
Do the maths. It’s obvious the new batteries are more efficient per kilometre travelled, but only a hyped EV fanatic would not recognise that even the new generation is not exactly a convenience breakthrough.
Quick-charging from "alert" to 80% takes about 40 minutes, but then you need a quick-charging station. Car makers are frantically installing them and pleading for government help to do so to offset the expense of launching the new technology.
In Japan there are now more EV chargers than petrol stations, although it’s not an apples-with-apples comparison because it takes longer to charge an EV.
The upside is that it is cheap. Even using comparatively expensive Eskom power, the cost-per-kilometre of electric cars is typically half of a Toyota Prius and a third of a comparable petrol engine car.
Put this all in a bag and shake it about and what you have is a tipping point looming. Nissan has been monitoring customer feedback on the first-generation Leaf and that has been excellent, which is partly why the Leaf is being positioned at the centre of the range.
The cars are turning out to be cheap to run, reliable and early problems are disappearing. Depending on how the electricity is produced, they can be environmentally friendly.
The long-term consequences of electric cars that drive themselves makes your mind boggle; will we be sending our cars home to park rather than going around the block for hours? Will we co-own cars? Will we share cars with others?
The new Leaf will be sold in 60 markets worldwide, starting with Japan in October. It will most probably be available in SA late in 2018.