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Electric is to vehicles what digital is to business

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The launch of the second generation Nissan Leaf electric vehicle signals the auto equivalent of digitalising business, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Businesses are besieged with warnings that they will not survive if they do not become digital organisations. That means ripping out traditional structures, styles and processes of business, and preparing for a world in which information flow is at the heart of operational activity.

The same thing is about to happen in the automobile industry, but replacing the word “digital” with “electric”. One after another, governments are beginning to set target dates for reduced or even zero emissions from new vehicles. Car brands have to change, or vanish.

However, merely replacing a petrol-driven vehicle with an electric version is the business equivalent of making digital versions of company documents and little more. By not adapting the way the business operates, this “digitisation” creates greater inefficiency by duplicating rather than replacing processes.

So it is with the electric vehicle (EV): merely putting these on the road without changing the ecosystem within which they operate, they have little impact on the environment, or on lifestyles. For this reason, numerous EVs that have taken to the road over the past 70 years have vanished not only from the roads, but also from our memories.

Suddenly, that is changing. The success of two brands – the Tesla and the Nissan Leaf – has acted as an On button for an EV revolution.

Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf

Tesla is still primarily an American brand, with a network of charging stations focused on California but beginning to spread across the country. Nissan has it heartland in Japan, where charging stations are almost as common as petrol stations. In South Africa, only a few dozen charging stations dot the country.

Globally, however, Nissan is leading the charge. The Leaf is the world’s best-selling EV, with around 300 000 sold in six years of production. That doesn’t sound like much, given that Nissan sold 5.63-million vehicles in total last year. However, it is becoming clear that the first generation Leaf was as much a proof of concept as a pioneering vehicle.

It’s by no means the first EV in production. That legacy belongs to the 1947 Tama, built in a post-war era when oil was scarce and electricity plentiful in Japan. With a top speed of 35km/h and a range of 96km, it was used mainly as a taxi for the next three years. The 1950 Korean war brought with it an oil boom, and electric vehicles became little more than a fanciful notion. Tama’s manufacturer, Tokyo Electro Automobile, became Prince Motors, and then merged with Nissan in 1966.

It was only in the 1990s that the conceot became viable again, when Nissan and Sony jointly developed the first Lithium-ion battery that could be used in a car. In 1997, it debuted in the Prairie Joy EV, which is famed for having been used for Japan’s Arctic Envoronment Research Centre at the North Pole for six years without a mechanical hitch.

An advanced version of that battery was built into the 2000 Hypermini, used for the world’s first vehicle-sharing trials in Yokohama and Ebina. The trials proved the utility of electric vehicles in urban areas, and persuaded Nissan to proceed with development of the Leaf.

Last week, the second generation Leaf was unveiled in Tokyo, highlighting both the evolution of EVs and of the thinking behind their role in urban environment.

Nissan Leaf charging

Nissan Leaf charging

The specs are, of course, the key selling point of the vehicle, and no spec is more important, at this stage in EV history, than range.  The limited range of many EVs has even resulted in a new phrase – “range anxiety” – to describe the stress people feel when they think their vehicle will run out of power before they reach a charging station.

That term may soon be considered quaint. Nissan has more than doubled the range of the Leaf, to 400km from less than 200km. This has required a more dense battery, which takes a little longer to charge than the previous version: 14 hours when plugged into a normal power outlet at home or work, compared to 12 hours before, and 40 minutes at a fast-charge station, compared to 30 minutes before. The trade-off for longer range will be welcomed.

At last week’s world premiere of the new Leaf, however, such improvements had equal billing to Nissans EV philosophy. Its thinking is framed in the concept of Nissan Intelligent Mobility, which rests on three pillars: Intelligent Power, Intelligent Driving and Intelligent Integration.

Daniele Schillaci, executive vice president for global marketing and sales at Nissan, summed up the pillars at the premiere:

“The first pillar is Nissan Intelligent Driving, which gives our customers more confidence through safety, control and comfort. This includes our development of autonomous drive technologies and advanced driving systems.

“The second pillar is Nissan Intelligent Power, which makes the drive more exciting but also cleaner and more efficient. This includes zero-emission and electrification technologies.

“The third pillar is Nissan Intelligent Integration, which connects our vehicles to our wider society.”

The Leaf’s autonomous technology, ProPILOT, is likely to capture headlines for bringing the self-driving vehicle closer to reality.

ProPILOT Assist technology, will be available to customers later this year. ProPILOT Assist reduces the hassle of stop-and-go driving by helping control acceleration, braking and steering during single-lane highway driving.

ProPILOT Assist technology, will be available to customers later this year. ProPILOT Assist reduces the hassle of stop-and-go driving by helping control acceleration, braking and steering during single-lane highway driving.

“Once activated, ProPILOT can  automatically control the steering, acceleration, and brakes using a speed preset by the driver,” said Hideyuki Sakamoto, executive vice president for product engineering. “It is a single-lane autonomous driving technology that you can use on highways.

“The ProPILOT park controls every operation required for parking including acceleration, braking, shifting, turning the steering wheel and applying the parking brake.

“The combination of the world’s first four omnidirectional cameras and 12 ultrasonic sensors enables you to park precisely wherever you wish in just three steps, at a press of your finger.”

However, it is Intelligent Integration which truly sets the Leaf apart from its growing roster of competitors.

N1216_LEAF_infographic2000px

It incorporates vehicle-to-grid and vehicle-to-home systems that allow the car to feed power back into the electricity grid, or to keep a home’s lights and appliances on during a power outage. In Nissan’s hometown of Yokohama, near Tokyo, it is being integrated into city planning.

The future potential is for smart buildings, smart homes and smart cars not only to talk to each other, but also to coordinate resources between them, automatically. Because it extends beyond the car and can have a massive impact on the urban environment at large, intelligent mobility may well represent an even bigger lifestyle shift than self-driving cars. The EV represents the beginning of that shift.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

2017 Nissan LEAF specifications (Japan model)

Specifications for other regions will be announced at the start of sales.

Exterior 
Overall length (mm) 4,480
Overall width (mm) 1,790
Overall height (mm) 1,540
Wheelbase (mm) 2,700
Track width front/rear (mm) 1,530-1,540/1,545-1,555
Minimum ground clearance (mm) 150
Coefficient of drag (Cd) 0.28
Tires 205/55R16 or 215/50R17
Cargo area (VDA) 435 L
Weight/capacity (kg)
Curb weight 1,490-1,520
Capacity 5 passenger
Gross vehicle weight 1,765-1,795
Battery
Type Li-ion battery
Capacity 40 kWh
Electric motor
Name EM57
Maximum output 110 kW (150 ps)/3283~9795 rpm
Maximum torque 320 N・m (32.6 kgf・m)/0~3283 rpm
Performance
Cruising range 400 km (JC08)
Charging time (normal charging) 16 hours (3 kW)
8 hours (6 kW)
Charging time from alert to 80% (quick charging) 40 minutes

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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