Last week Nissan announced that the zero-emission Nissan Leaf electric car would be built in Sunderland, with production of 50,000 per year starting in 2013. Supplementing its green credentials with 5 seats, air conditioning and a top speed of 90mph suggests it will be a sure-fire winner. The only potential fly in the ointment is its maximum range of 100 miles between charges. So how much of a drawback will this be to prospective buyers? One useful source of information is the National Travel Survey, which provides detailed statistics on a whole range of travel-related matters. The most recent published report for 2008 suggests that the average car driver makes 410 trips per year, with an average trip length of 8.5 miles. So on the face of it, a range of 100 miles will be more than adequate. Of course, averages can hide a lot of interesting detail, so it’s useful to look at how the 410 trips are spread out.

Over 5% of our car trips are less than one mile (shame on us!), and less than 1% exceed the Leaf’s 100 mile range. So perhaps our concerns about range are exaggerated. Of course, much depends on where you live. According to the Ordnance Survey, the location in the UK which is furthest from the sea is just east of Church Flatts Farm, approximately 1 mile south-east of Coton in the Elms, Derbyshire. The 72 mile trip from here to the seaside in your Nissan Leaf would require a 30 minute boost charge or an overnight trickle charge before returning home. One of the areas in which the Operational Research team is investing more time and resource is Data Visualisation – presenting complex information in simple but informative ways. A fascinating example which is relevant to our travel investigation comes from research into population-weighted mapping at Sheffield University. The gridded cartogram of the UK throws up some interesting insights.

From this viewpoint, it’s clear that the majority of us live in major conurbations covering relatively small geographical areas. Since these are likely to be characterised by shorter journeys, our 100 mile range suddenly becomes less of an issue. The last high-profile entrant to the UK electric car market was the 1985 Sinclair C5 – one seat, 15mph top speed and 15 mile range – which quickly became something of a national laughing stock. With a bit of cleverly targeted marketing, it could well be Nissan who are laughing in 2013.