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Nissan bets on electric cars, not biofuels

Your second car will run on electricity, says the automaker's Minoru Shinohara. Ethanol and biodiesel just don't have that cost/benefit equation going for them.

CHIBA, Japan--Nissan is going to come out with more hybrid cars and completely electric vehicles in a few years.

But it's less excited about ethanol and biodiesel.

Nissan's Minoru Shinohara
Nissan's Minoru Shinohara amid the Ceatec crowds. Michael Kanellos/CNET

Technically speaking, designing an ethanol or biodiesel car is fairly straightforward, said Minoru Shinohara, senior vice president and general manager of the Technology Development Division at Nissan, during a meeting at the Ceatec show here this week.

The problem is the cost of the fuel. Both biodiesel and ethanol cost more than regular gas, when changes in mileage and other factors are calculated.

"The most important thing is availability of fuel," Shinohara said. In the future, he speculated, biofuel cars could account for 10 percent to 20 percent of all cars sold. It's a large percentage, but nowhere close to a majority.

There are also the political and societal questions, he added. Do you have to use cropland that might be better used in growing food? Do you have to cut down tropical forests?

It's the opposite with cars that run on electricity. The societal questions are easy. The tough part is coming up with a battery that is small enough and cheap enough to put into a car.

Electric cars probably won't be replacements for current petroleum cars. Batteries can't provide a range that gas-powered cars can. Instead, manufacturers will tout them as second cars or town cars designed for ordinary, short commutes. Getting consumers to understand, and act on, the town car concept is going to take a lot of marketing and work, Shinohara said.

"They (electric cars) are not a replacement for traditional vehicles," he said.

Nissan's electric plans are already under way. The company currently sells some hybrid vehicles that rely on components and technology from Toyota. It will come out with cars based on its own hybrid system in 2010. (Nissan got a good share of the buzz at last month's Frankfurt auto show with its electric-powered concept car, the Mixim.)

The first mass-produced electric car from Nissan will then likely follow in 2011 or 2012, Shinohara added. It will likely be a city car. He's a lot less excited about the concept about plug-in hybrids--again, it's the price/benefit equation.

The basis of these future hybrids and electrics will likely come from batteries from a joint venture formed earlier this year between Nissan and NEC.