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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Nissan works the pedals of change with its new Leaf

Japanese firm's upcoming version of its electric car features a single pedal option for drivers - and it's probably the future, near term

A Leaf at showroom at the global headquarters of Nissan, in Yokohama, south of Tokyo. The 2018 Leaf will feature a single pedal option. Kimimasa Mayama / EPA
A Leaf at showroom at the global headquarters of Nissan, in Yokohama, south of Tokyo. The 2018 Leaf will feature a single pedal option. Kimimasa Mayama / EPA

It wasn’t so long ago that most people used to drive cars with three pedals – accelerator, brake and clutch.

History moves quickly, though, and the two pedals most of us have since become used to are about to merge, and that’s a good thing.

Nissan’s upcoming 2018 Leaf does indeed have both accelerator and brake pedals, but it’s the first car – electric or otherwise – in which you will really only need one of them.

The Leaf’s so-called e-Pedal combines the two functions, so that stepping on it speeds up the car while easing off means slowing down. Taking your foot off entirely ultimately stops the vehicle.

The brake pedal is there right next to the accelerator, but it’s only for what Nissan calls “aggressive braking situations”, or emergency stops.

The single-pedal system sounds completely counter-intuitive and runs against everything that any driver’s lizard brain innately understands, which is why I was so surprised by how quickly it won me over.

I had the chance to test drive the electric Leaf recently on the streets of Yokohama, the Japanese city where Nissan is headquartered.

Initially, I thought I was going to hate using the e-Pedal because it seems like such an unnecessary thing, like change for the sake of change. But it turns out I was very wrong.

It’s actually easy to use and quite intuitive, possibly more so than the idea of using two pedals, which almost seems illogical now in hindsight.

Easing off does indeed slow the Leaf commensurately to how much pressure you give up. Stopping – and staying stopped – is great, since you can take your foot off the pedal entirely.

It feels odd to be at a red light without your foot actually doing anything, but it’s also relaxing.

That’s part of the whole point of the e-Pedal, according to Nissan. Not having to constantly switch pedals and giving your foot a break every once in a while decreases the stress of driving. After my test drive, I’m inclined to agree.

On that front, less stress from switching pedals can also help with reducing accidents. The company says 7,000 accidents happen in Japan alone each year because of drivers misapplying pedals. In the United States, that number is estimated to be around 16,000 preventable crashes annually.

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If you drive, chances are good you probably understand this particular problem. Many drivers experience that moment of horror when you accidentally step on the accelerator when you meant to hit the brakes, or vice versa.

Fortunately for me, and hopefully most of us, it’s never happened in a situation where it ultimately mattered. Not having to quickly switch pedals should help with that, so that we don’t have to rely on dumb luck.

Nissan’s e-Pedal also has a practical function as far as the vehicle itself is concerned because it allows what car makers call regenerative braking.

With conventional brakes, a set of pads clamp on to metal discs that then slow the speed of the vehicle. The process creates a lot of friction and wasted heat.

In an electric vehicle, laying off the accelerator means power stops flowing to the motor and therefore the wheels. The wheels keep going, but they’re now turning the motor, which makes it a generator that then recharges the battery.

Keeping your foot off the accelerator thus gives the car a small shot of extra juice every time you do it.

Other EVs, including Tesla cars and the Chevy Bolt, let drivers select their preferred level of regenerative braking, or regen. In a Tesla, more regen means faster braking as you take your foot off the gas.

And since regen and the pedals are computer controlled, the likelihood of more user inputs becoming available over time are good. Pretty soon, we’ll be able to customise our car pedals – or pedal, as it were – by adjusting their sensitivity and resistance levels to our liking. No more one size fits all.

Nissan’s e-Pedal is optional and can be turned off, which reverts the accelerator-brake combo into just a plain accelerator pedal. But with the benefits being numerous and obvious, I suspect other drivers are going to like it too. It won’t be surprising to see other car makers follow down this path over the next few years.

Ultimately, when cars drive themselves, we won’t need to do anything with our feet at all. But until then, I’m betting it’s going to be pedal-to-the-metal for the single-pedal car.

Winner of the Week: Online shopping. The Black Friday shopping holiday in the United States pulled in an estimated US$5 billion in sales, up almost 17 per cent from last year’s totals, according to Adobe Digital Insights.

Loser of the Week: Net neutrality. As expected, US Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai has tabled his motion to repeal rules that prohibit telecom companies from blocking and slowing down websites and services. Scores of internet users, consumer advocates and technology companies are protesting ahead of the regulator’s December 14 vote on the motion.

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