Electric Road Trip

What surprised us at the Nissan factory

SMYRNA, Tenn. — This small town outside Nashville is home to Nissan's busiest auto manufacturing plant in North America. The Smyrna plant churns out 2,500 vehicles each day, or roughly 640,000 vehicles a year.

We got to tour the facility today and witness the production of the Nissan Leaf. One of the first compact full-electric cars made for the mass market, it started production years before other automakers and was priced at around $25,000, more affordable than the Tesla Model 3.

After meeting with some plant executives, we donned clear plastic safety goggles and hopped onto a golf cart that whizzed around the factory floor. The golf cart was necessary, as the factory floor is 6 million square feet — the length of 114 football fields.

Prior to the tour, we had expected the Leaf to have its own assembly line. But to our surprise, we discovered Leafs and sedans roll down the same assembly line at the same time. To denote the difference, vehicle engineers place on the Leaf a distinctive green panel, while other cars get one in yellow or orange.

Furthermore, all models are assembled by the very same workers.

"The process of building an electric vehicle is really not that different," explained Ryan Fulkerson, director of new model engineering at Nissan Smyrna. "Instead of installing the fuel tank in a gasoline engine, you're just installing a battery."

To be sure, workers at the plant receive some special safety training before handling the high-voltage batteries, Fulkerson added. They're also required to wear the clear plastic safety goggles at all times.

After leaving the plant, we drove two hours along Interstate 24 to Chattanooga, Tenn. That's when we had our first failed attempt at charging our Kia Niro electric vehicle. The charger outside the Chattanooga Choo Choo, a historic downtown hotel, refused to accept any of our credit cards.

So it goes. We're signing off now to grab coffee with a representative from the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority, which pioneered an EV car-sharing program. Stay tuned for another update after our next (hopefully successful) charging session.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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