Does the LEAF have a problem? It depends who you ask. According to a number of LEAF owners, their cars have battery problems. According to Nissan’s latest announcement, there is no problem. Seen from the EV media’s perspective, there’s a significant PR problem, and in this industry, those can be the hardest problems to recover from.
Here’s the story so far. Beginning in May, a few LEAF owners, mostly in hot climates, started posting on forums that, according to the car’s dashboard display, their batteries were losing capacity much faster than they were expecting. According to Nissan, LEAF batteries should generally retain 80 percent of capacity after 5 years, and 70 percent after 10 years.
Engineers have long said that extreme hot (or cold) temperatures can hurt battery performance. Unlike some other EV models, the LEAF has no cooling system for the battery pack. Could the Southern heat be cooking the LEAF’s goose?
In July, Senior VP Carla Bailo said in an open letter to LEAF owners that Nissan is “taking the issue very seriously,” and little else. Meanwhile, Nissan took seven Phoenix-area LEAFs to a corporate testing facility and checked them out. The company made no substantive comments about the results of that test until this week, and during that time, some owners have grown impatient, to say the least. Nissan’s lack of urgency does beg an unflattering comparison with GM and Fisker, both of which pulled out all the stops to reassure owners and the general public when their plug-in cars had issues.
Recently, a group of LEAFers, led by Tony Williams, took matters into their own hands, and conducted a test to measure the real-world range of their cars. Conditions were meticulously documented, and Williams reported the results in great detail on InsideEVs.com. To sum up the results, the 12 LEAFs reported ranges from 59.3 to 79.7 miles (the LEAF’s EPA-certified range is 73 miles). Williams concluded that LEAFs with lost capacity bars have indeed lost range since they were new, and that some of the cars tested also had “huge differences between the instruments and the actual range performance.”
This week, Nissan finally released some information about its findings. According to Carla Bailo’s statement, which has been posted to the MyNissanLeaf forum, the company’s tests found that:
The Nissan LEAFs inspected in Arizona are operating to specification and their battery capacity loss over time is consistent with their usage and operating environment. No battery defects were found.
A small number of Nissan LEAF owners in Arizona are experiencing a greater than average battery capacity loss due to their unique usage cycle, which includes operating mileages that are higher than average in a high-temperature environment over a short period of time.
Bailo also said that the company has asked EV advocate Chelsea Sexton to convene an independent global advisory board, which they hope will “hold up a mirror to us and help us to be more open and approachable in our communication and to advise us on our strategy.”
We look forward to hearing the board’s recommendations, but please permit us to offer a little unsolicited advice now. Batteries and range are the big bad wolves of the EV world. When people start talking about EV batteries wearing out the way laptop batteries do, this hurts the whole industry, not just Nissan. The company has announced that the 2013 LEAF is going to have a new and improved battery pack. The best thing it could do is to make sure consumers hear plenty about the new box’s better range and longer life (in all climates). And, if Nissan really wants to turn disgruntled drivers into fanatical fans, it will emulate software companies, and offer an attractive upgrade path for existing owners.