Nissan launched its 2011 Leaf, the world's first modern mass-production all-electric vehicle, more than three years ago. The first U.S. delivery was in December 2010 in California.

But sales have not met Nissan's goals, for a variety of reasons. And now Nissan has two competitors in volume electric cars: Tesla, and more recently BMW.

So Nissan is doing a smart thing: It's talking to Tesla owners about their cars, presumably in hopes of understanding better how to compete with the German technology brand and the Silicon Valley upstart.

More competition

Nissan hoped to sell upwards of 20,000 Leafs a year while it had the U.S. market to itself. Now, with a more competitive market, the next-generation Leaf and other Nissan and Infiniti electric and plug-in vehicles will have to compete in a tougher environment.

Infiniti LE Concept at New York Auto Show, April 2012

Infiniti LE Concept at New York Auto Show, April 2012

Already, the Infiniti LE electric vehicle is on hold indefinitely, despite rave reviews when it was shown as a concept. The causes included both Infiniti's greater global challenges--it needs a luxury compact line far more than it needs an electric car--and the LE's limited range.

Built on the Leaf platform, with a range of less than 100 miles, the Infiniti LE may have competed with the Tesla Model S--which offers three times the range.

And the elegant, expensive Infiniti Emerg-E plug-in hybrid disappeared after an embarrassment  at the Goodwood Festival in England.

Quiet interviews

But Nissan is learning from its experiences, and continuing to conduct market research on future battery-powered vehicles.

In the summer of 2012, Nissan very quietly conducted a series of focus groups to evaluate a unique three-person seating format for a hybrid or electric coupe.

More recently, the company suggests that its unusual BladeGlider electric sports-car concept foreshadows a upcoming production car.  Could this be the production version of the car on which Nissan sought focus-group feedback in 2012?

Then, within the past few weeks, reports have emerged of Leaf owners being asked by Nissan about how much a "150-mile range Leaf" would be worth over the price of the current model, rated at 84 miles of range for 2014.

2014 Tesla Model S

2014 Tesla Model S

Now: talking to Tesla owners

Now Nissan is quietly gathering additional "intelligence" about satisfaction, details, and features from Tesla Model S owners. The following e-mail went out a few weeks ago to Sacramento-area Model S owners:

We would like to conduct a survey of Model S owners in Sacramento area. 

The survey will be composed of the following elements (target timing):

1)  Participant selection –Owner Name & contact info, Tesla Model Spec, Purchase month/year & current ODO, and home charging station info (Jan 9-17). 

2)  Web-based survey (Jan 20 week) 

3) Owners will keep a ‘driving diary’ for approximately 1 week documenting driving/charging of their vehicle in normal use (Jan 20 week) 

4) In-person interview (~1hr) with Nissan staff (week of Feb 3)

2013 Tesla Model S at Supercharger station in Springfield, Oregon, Nov 2013 [photo: George Parrott]

2013 Tesla Model S at Supercharger station in Springfield, Oregon, Nov 2013 [photo: George Parrott]

Actual Model S use

During the interview stage, a Detroit-based Nissan representative led the process, with a focus on how the Model S was actually used: where it was charged, how often it was plugged in, how far typically the car was driven per day, and whether the full range was actually used. 

Several questions covered features that were most appreciated on the Model S--and, of course, the researchers asked about any features or details that were lacking. 

These Nissan surveys and interviews may just reflect the normal needs of a company seeking feedback on its marketplace and competition.

Or, taking a more hopeful perspective, perhaps Nissan is considering offering a battery-electric car with considerably longer range.

Could the company be planning to expand its plug-in range upscale, to challenge Tesla's total control of the upper end of the plug-in electric car market?

Stay tuned!

NOTE: Most marketing feedback surveys similar to this one require participants to sign a nondisclosure agreement; there was no such requirement for participation in this study.


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