Nissan to reach out to LEAF owners

by Ernie Hernandez on September 30, 2012

Silver LEAF being driver

Nissan’s parent company takes an interest in LEAF owner’s concerns

Many Nissan LEAF owners and potential owners have been tracking the battery capacity loss situation that has shown itself to be a concern of the Nissan LEAF electric vehicle (EV). While this issue developed initially in the desert of Arizona, car owners in several states, Hong Kong and Spain have now reported a capacity loss. We have previously written a multi-part article regarding the issue (which starts here). With this news starting to work itself into the mainstream media, Nissan inserted a high level executive from Nissan Motors in Japan into the equation. More on that later.

While the battery capacity loss issue is real, there is more to the matter, according to Executive Vice President Andy Palmer. Mr. Palmer was quoted on The Canberra Times (Australia) website saying “We don’t have a battery problem.” That same article referred to Mr. Palmer saying that there was a faulty battery level display. As it turns out, it seems that there is a battery problem, but it is being exacerbated by an incorrect battery level display.

A group of LEAF owners with affected vehicles gathered in Tempe, Arizona earlier this month to determine how much range was actually lost by their vehicles. As it turned out – not as much as was expected based on the displayed information. It should be noted though, that varying degrees of battery capacity loss did occur. The most severely impacted of the vehicles had lost four battery capacity segments of its original 12, the number of battery capacity segments found on a new LEAF (the short segments found to the right of those blue and white bars outlined below). Based on information found in Nissan’s own Technical Service Bulletin NTB11076 , the expected range would have been as little as 60 percent of that of a new LEAF for this car based on the displayed information. However, in this test, this particular car traveled 70 percent of what would have been expected in a new LEAF. In fact, every LEAF exceeded the high end of the expected range, except for the two cars that had not lost any battery capacity segments. These two relatively new cars both achieved 95 percent of the expectation of a new LEAF.  So it would seem that, yes – these cars with lost segments did experience a battery capacity loss. But also, the distance covered was greater than the instrumentation would lead an owner to believe.

We have our own suspicion as to why this might be. Pictured below is the Battery Available Charge Guage (the long blue and white bars outlined below):

Battery available charge guage

Back in the beginning of time (in LEAF years), this guage would indicate relatively reliably when one could expect to run out of juice. Please do not confuse this with the Distance Til Empty display, which is the number (in this case 82) that appears next to it. The Distance Til Empty display has (rightfully) earned the disdain of many LEAF drivers as it is not a good predictor of remaining range. The Battery Available Charge Guage on the other hand, did a reasonably good job. We have always been an advocate of watching this guage along with your accrued mileage (on that particular trip especially), and then using that to determine, based on your driving style, how far each bar would take you. We have always driven our LEAF just as we have all of our previous cars. We have made no attempt to optimize mileage or try to achieve the almost mythical 100 mile range touted by Nissan when the LEAF first came out (more about that later). As we tend to be fairly conservative, we always benchmarked our remaining range at 5-6 miles for every remaining bar, or a total range of 60-72 miles for a 100 percent charge. We have never been stranded.

Some early LEAF owners were not quite so observant, or cautious, and were left stranded. Naturally, as the LEAF was a novel approach to personal transportation in those early days, it received much attention from the press. These stories of LEAFs running out of juice made for great headlines, so Nissan changed the Battery Available Charge Guage. What had once been a fairly reliable tool (when the last bar was gone you were “running on fumes”), became a much less useful instrument. Why? Because Nissan, as a result of these few owners, recalibrated the software driving the guage to hold some unknown range in reserve after the last bar disappears. What a great opportunity was missed by those testers in Tempe by not tracking how far they went after the last bar disappeared. That would have been very useful information to know. Especially to know if those LEAFs with diminished battery capacity had more, less or the same reserve as those with greater capacity.

But let’s get back to Nissan’s claimed 100 mile range for the LEAF. The first clue that the LEAF may not achieve this in the real world would be noticed before one ever decided to purchase the car. On the Monroney (window) sticker found on every new vehicle, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides their own information. On a conventionally fuelled vehicle, this is generally the miles per gallon (MPG) rating. The LEAF, and other EVs, get an MPG equivalent known as MPGe. In addition though, the LEAF and other EVs get a federally evaluated range. For the LEAF, this is a range of 73 miles. Every potential LEAF owner sees this sticker prior to purchase.

To believe that the LEAF actually would obtain 100 miles in normal operating conditions would require a belief that the government test was off by a significant amount. In actuality, Nissan was advertising the 100 mile range claim based on what is known as the LA4 City Test cycle. In this cycle, top speed is roughly 56 miles per hour and average speed is around 19 miles per hour. We wrote about real world range in the Nissan LEAF last year (found here), and it is still among our most read articles. We found that range could vary dramatically based on a number of factors, and could range from as little as 47 miles to well over 100 miles. Nissan is now focused on the EPA 73 mile range on their consumer website, with other ranges noted based on varying conditions.

All well and good, you might be saying, and wondering what this has to do with battery capacity loss and Nissan reaching out to their customers? We provide all of the above as a preamble.

Mr. Jeff Kuhlman, Nissan Global Communications Manager, Nissan Motors (the parent company of the Nissan, revived Datsun, and Infiniti automotive brands) has recently become a participant in the MyNissanLEAF forum. It is almost unheard of for such a high level corporate executive in any industry to become personally involved in such a forum. After a lengthy introductory post, he responded to some owner inquiries and ideas. One such idea was the idea of town hall style meetings, which he has agreed to organize a team to attend. These meetings would take place in Phoenix, the eye of the storm. In addition, Mr. Kuhlman stated also that “We would try to get to a number of cities” to gather feedback.

Previous communications to the LEAF community were one way open letters to the community from Ms. Carla Bailo, Vice President, Research and Development, Nissan Americas. These letters were issued to note that Nissan did in fact understand that some corporate response was needed, but did nothing to calm the waters. A question in our minds was why was an R&D VP addressing the issue at all. Mr. Kuhlman’s entry into the discussion is a major step up from the Nissan corporation in addressing the seriousness of this issue as it moves Nissan’s involvement further up the food chain. This is a welcome move on the part of Nissan.

Other items need to be addressed by Nissan. They have already taken a step in the right direction by focusing on the more realistic EPA 73 mile range, rather than the  much less likely LA4 100 mile range on their consumer website. All of their advertising needs to reflect the 73 mile range in our view.

One revealing study has resurfaced recently. In 2007, Automotive Energy Supply Corporation (AESC), a joint venture of Nissan Motor, NEC Corporation, and NEC TOKIN Corporation was formed to manufacture lithium ion batteries for Nissan and Renault EVs. In 2008 AESC testing (found here) revealed that current EV battery technology at the time would retain 80 percent of battery capacity after 7 years or 70,000 kilometers. This equates to just over 6,200 miles per year, well short of the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHA) tally of over 13,000 miles per year on average (found here). Our belief is that Nissan’s marketing arm latched onto the time frame while ignoring the mileage, ultimately performing a disservice to themselves and their customers. One result of this is that Nissan has recently agreed to buy back two of the Arizona LEAFs referencing Arizona’s Lemon Law. We can’t help but think that there will be more buy backs in the future.

The outlook for a proper resolution is murky. LEAFs marketing spokesperson, Mark Perry, “retired” this week. It is probably just as well that Nissan provide a new face for the LEAF as Mr. Perry’s statements proved to be more marketing driven, rather than technically driven for the most part and his credibility within the LEAF community was rapidly diminishing. That likely was no fault of his. More rides on the outcome of the town hall meetings than Nissan may realize. As the first relatively affordable, mass produced EV presented to the American (and global) market, Nissan’s resolution will have an impact on the entire EV industry. Vehicle buy backs, lemon law invoked or not, may resolve the issue for some unknown number of LEAF owners. The more pressing issue is how Nissan plans to address this issue moving forward. There is much more to come in this ongoing saga.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Twohy October 2, 2012 at 10:29 am

Dear Ernie,
Thank you for the insightful article. You are quite correct that there is much more riding on this issue. For many of us this was our first Nissan vehicle and this issue is a big concern for me even though I live in the San Diego area. Of major concern is the battery life based on 6,200 miles driven per year! That is only about 16 miles per day!

Reply

Tom K October 2, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Well, the lawsuits have already started. Get some popcorn and a good seat midfield!

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