Small electric cars, made to travel short distances, are bound to take over the world’s cities in the next few years, according to Nissan.

The Japanese car maker argues that 55% of the world’s population will live in cities five to seven years from now, and that an urban gridlock can only be avoided through the increased use of small cars.

“We did a great deal of research into how people use their cars in the city. We found that for 90% of the time, the driver was alone,” says Nissan Motor Company exploratory and advance planning department, product strategy and product planning division GM François Bancon.

“For 5% of the time, there was one passenger, and for 4% of the time, there were two passengers. You can do the math to find out how often four or more people were in the car.”

In other words, why four seats, when most people travel alone?

Nissan’s Nuvu (or literally, New View), which was on show at last month’s Johannesburg Inter-national Motor Show, provides some guidance on where the company is heading in its thinking on urban movement.

At just three metres long, the zero-emissions Nuvu is a concept vehicle with unique two-plus-one seating.

This means the vehicle has two regular seats and a third occasional chair that can be folded down when required. When not in use, the space serves as a luggage compartment.

Nissan describes the Nuvu as a moving oasis in the urban jungle.

As a witty representation of its green credentials, a dozen or so small solar panels are spread across the Nuvu’s all-glass roof. Shaped like leaves on a branch, the power they generate is fed to the vehicle’s battery, using a ‘tree trunk’ within the car as a conduit.

This ‘energy tree’ rises from the luggage compartment floor to the roof behind the driver’s seat.

It is estimated that the power generated through these solar panels will save the equivalent of one full overnight plug-in charge every month.

In general, a quick charge from empty to full should take between 10 to 20 minutes, while a full charge should take between three to four hours from a domestic 220-V socket.

Nuvu also uses natural, organic and recycled materials within the cabin.

The floor is made from wood fibres pressed into laminate sheets, and is studded with rubber inserts made from recycled tyres for grip.

There are two pedals (for stop and go), stalks for minor controls, and a digital instrument panel with dials for speed, distance covered and battery range.

Two screens on the dashboard display the view behind the car – there are no door mirrors to disturb the airflow, but rather small cameras – and they also double as monitors for the around- view camera, which give a bird’s-eye view of the car when man- oeuvring or parking.

The electric motor used in the Nuvu is mounted at the rear of the vehicle and drives the back wheels, though neither its exact specification nor the power and torque figures are being released at this stage.

However, it is known that the vehicle’s driving range is 125 km, with a top speed of 120 km/h.

Nissan has already announced plans to introduce an all-electric car in Japan and the US in 2010, and to market it globally by 2012.

The Nuvu is not that car, even though it does share some of the technology that will feature in the planned production vehicle.

Rather, it is a concept of how a Nissan electric vehicle may look in the near future.