Hal was born on December 9, 2010 in Oppama, Japan – around 30 miles south of Tokyo. Hal is the name I chose for my 2011 Nissan Leaf (yes, named after the evil, but later redeemed computer character from 2001, A Space Odyssey). At the time he was designated to me, I received word from Ryan Fitzgerald, my Nissan customer service rep, that he could divulge the car’s VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) and, after naming my new car, he could get me started with the process of connecting Hal to the “Mother Ship,” also known as the Owner’s portal and a communication system called Carwings.
Carwings is an interactive cell-based in-car telematics system (think OnStar) that allows Leaf owners to plan driving routes, see driving history records, compare their driving behavior ranking to other owners, link the car to internet RSS feeds on the car’s navigation screen, and generally find ways to assuage their impending range anxiety with interactive maps and charging station icons. In the owner’s portal and matching iPhone app, I would be able to interactively start the charging mechanism on the car, or stop it, and prep the temperature in the car with either air conditioning or heat.
It’s a lot for a new owner to absorb, and Nissan knows it. Ryan tried to ease me in gently and only gave me the information I needed at the time – my user name and password.
The day finally arrived when Stadium Nissan called and said that my car would be arriving the following day, but would take two more days to prep for delivery. The anticipation had been building for so long, I was unable to wait and since the dealership was just down the street, I asked my dealer representative, fleet manager Mark Iannucci, if I could swing by and see the car in its current form.
He consented and also set up some time for me to spend with Julio Aguillon, the Nissan technician who was the only person at the dealership trained to perform service on the Leaf. Julio showed me the special garage that had to be set up for all prep and maintenance on the Leaf – and told me about the months of training (both online and in person) it took him to become certified. “It began with several hours of online training, a full week of on-site courses and several more online classes,” said Aguillon. He said that most of the training was about keeping the technicians safe in a high-voltage situation while dealing with large amounts of electrical wattage. Every tool used on the Leaf is unique to the Nissan service bay – even the hydraulic lift. Each dealership has invested $30 - $40 thousand for the special tools and set up – not to mention two 240 watt charging stations like the one I had in my garage.
When I first saw Hal, he was wrapped in protective plastics and looked like a new computer fresh out of the box. I was surprised to find that the center console was a bright blue design instead of the piano black surface I saw in the brochure. Although I didn’t remember ordering it that way, I liked it so much that I didn’t even mention it. When you wait a year for a car to be delivered, you become very flexible. I thought the blue made it look even more like a computer on wheels.
When the day finally arrived for me to pick up my new Leaf and the financing was settled, I was not prepared for the two full hours of training I would have to receive before Nissan believed I could successfully drive away with my new electric car. One of the main steps was to whip out my iPhone and enter my user and password to connect to the owner’s portal app. The signal went from Anaheim, California to Oppama, Japan and back again and Hal – with his name emblazoned on my phone app – came to life. I learned the basics of remote interaction with fear and trepidation, but even Mark had never seen the system working before since this was the first delivery Stadium Nissan had completed.
The entire system is single-mindedly focused on managing the 100-mile limit of range before a charge is needed. And looking back, I realized that I only retained about 50 percent of the information and would need to spend hours reading and understanding the manual to get my brain around the new world I was stepping into. A week or so into my ownership experience, and many phone calls later, my initial technical questions were answered and the confusion started to dissipate.
But first, I had to wait for the excitement of my new car experience to sink in. This was not just a car, it was an entirely alien machine to me. I found myself unable to stop using terms like ‘fill up the tank,’ ‘gas,’ and ‘gas peddle.’ This car had no tailpipe. Its motor made no sound. The ignition is like an ‘on’ button that lights up and makes a distinctly ‘computery’ sound – but nothing else. The car was now in my hands, so no looking back. I had made the leap and was finally ready to face my biggest fear – the dreaded range anxiety – with confidence and, yes, a heady feeling of technological superiority.
Next time: Hal and I go to the edge of the range, and back again.