Nissan Smyrna TennesseeEnlarge Photo
It's one of the most radical cars ever to be built in this country, the first all-electric vehicle to go on sale in many decades.
So you'd expect that when the Nissan Leaf enters production in Smyrna, Tennessee, late in 2012, it would have its very own production line, right?
Nope. Not at all. Far from it, in fact.
2011 Nissan LeafEnlarge Photo
It turns out that Nissan plans to build 2013 Leaf models on the same production line it now uses for the Altima and Maxima sedans, both of which come with gasoline engines. (There's also a low-volume Altima Hybrid model.)
This intermingling of different models is increasingly common in the auto industry, and lets automakers adjust their product mix without having to slow down or speed up individual assembly lines for a specific vehicle.
2010 Nissan AltimaEnlarge Photo
The secret to making it work is ensuring that the build process for each model, no matter what size or shape it is, remains the same. The sequence of steps has to take place in the same order to make it work.
Thus at the point where the Altima and Maxima have their gas tanks fitted into the floorpan, the Leaf will have its 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack inserted.
2011 Nissan MaximaEnlarge Photo
And where the engine and transmission units are dropped into the gasoline models, the electric drive motor and its associated electronics will be fitted into the Leaf.
Other than that, the Leaf comes with doors, seats, carpets, an instrument panel, and so forth, just like a regular car. Those items are fitted just as they are on the other two models, and in the same sequence.
In other words, building a revolutionary car isn't necessarily all that different from building the same old stuff. All you need to do is to plan it that way.