How damage from March's earthquake, tsunami taught Nissan invaluable lessonsThe 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in March taught Nissan some valuable lessons about its electric vehicle model, the Leaf, The New York Times reports.

Japanese carmakers were significantly impacted by the natural disasters, as the majority of the nation's automobile manufacturing plants are located in the hard-hit Northeast. Nissan officials affirmed that its production facilities were walloped by the tsunami and earthquake, but none of the electric vehicles caught fire.

Moreover, the cars' batteries remained fully intact. Nissan uses hundreds of individual battery packs to power the Leaf, and company engineers designed a sophisticated – and multi-layered – encasement that proved pivotal in preventing damage in the wake of the natural disasters.

Nissan North American product safety director Bob Yakushi asserted that how well the Leaf models held up underscores how safe they are for drivers.

"Considering how they were tossed around and crushed, we think that is a very good indication of the safety performance of that vehicle," he said.

The natural disasters prompted Nissan and other Japan-based carmakers to overhaul strategic sourcing and supply chain management, but it also instilled invaluable lessons about their manufacturing and product lineups, experts say. Unlike Nissan's Leaf, General Motors' electric vehicle offering, the Volt, has come under heavy scrutiny for possible fire hazards.

The Volt's battery system is encased in a steel tray, but it has a plastic covering that some safety advocates contend could spark fires. The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) acted to investigate such claims, concluding that its testing "had not raised safety concerns about vehicles other than the Chevy Volt."

Plastic is cheaper than steel, and Nissan likely spends more money developing its protective battery technology than some of its competitors. However, GM, which is aggressively seeking to implement business cost reduction measures as it eyes increased profits, might have to change the design of the Volt's battery if the fire hazards prove true.

"Whenever you come out with an alternative vehicle, there will be problems with it," Center for Auto Safety executive director Clarence Ditlow said. "But when you have a significant portion of the company's success in the future based on a particular technology, you want to make sure you get it right, and they didn't. Nissan clearly was ahead of GM in this."
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