Published July 26, 2012
By Jeff Cobb
Imagine you are an environmentally conscious and technologically savvy early adopter of the Nissan Leaf who researched everything you could about the all-electric car since pre-production test mules were being talked about in 2006.
You bought one in good faith, knowing it was EPA-rated at 73 miles range – not a lot, but enough – and Nissan had assured you that the car was engineered to lose no more than 80 percent capacity in five years and 70 percent in 10.
Now imagine you have real reason to doubt whether the car you bought a year ago will have much more than 40-50 miles usable battery range by this winter – little more than your wife’s Chevrolet Volt gets before its gasoline generator kicks in.
This is unfortunately not a fictitious story. It is the actual account of Nathan Drozd, 32, a transportation planner in the Dallas-Fort Worth area who, on his car’s one-year anniversary June 17, lost his first “bar” (out of 12 total) from his charge meter with 20,206 miles on the odometer. This means he has around 85-percent charge holding capacity, which based on Nissan’s statements, he did not expect before a few years or so.
Drozd now adds his name to a list of Leaf owners experiencing, in some cases, 30-50 percent charge holding capacity on their still relatively new cars.
Being an active member of the MyNissanLEAF.com forum, he knows it’s possible he will lose his second bar by August, as a number of people have reported losing the second bar that quickly.
Note Drozd is in Texas. To date Nissan has not acknowledged anyone more than a “handful” of people in Arizona who have experienced what looks like heat-induced premature battery degradation.
Nathan says he knows of at least five Texans who have lost unacceptable amounts of range and an unrecognized minority of Leaf drivers in that state are also hoping along with Arizonans to be “made whole” as Nissan investigates the problem.
Texas and Arizona were among the first roll-out states and also have in common extremely hot summers, and have seen unseasonal heat spells – worse than the other first states of California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii.
“I definitely can feel the capacity loss,” says Drozd. “Last year, when the car was new, it took about 4-5 bars of ‘fuel’ to go one way to my work, now its 5-6 (and this is a less hot summer than before here in Texas, and I get to pre-cool this summer since there is a charger at work – this should mean I should use LESS than before if the battery capacity was even),” Drozd says. “Trips to the next suburb used to take 3 bars round trip, maybe 4 if lots of A/C or rain, wind, etc. Last night (it was cool) the trip took 5 bars with no wind.”
Drozd said he took his car to his dealer, and diagnostic tests were run, but somehow the report was lost. Nissan has said in an open letter – written by no less than Carla Bailo, senior vice president, Research and Development, Nissan Americas – and she said Nissan only just learned of such incidents thanks in part to the vocal forum and wished to allay concerns.
Bailo said the problem is isolated to maybe 0.3 percent of the 13,000 Leafs on U.S. roads, and the company reportedly has loaned cars to some Leaf owners in Arizona as it researches the issue.
But Drozd isn’t buying it.
“Where did my report go? And one of the Nissan execs ‘just finding out’ really makes me vexed. Either their inside communication is horrible or they are trying to cover the problem,” Drozd said.
Similarly, some MyNissanLEAF forum commenters have said they find it incredulous, and it smacks of corporate rhetoric, while others urge “patience” and to give Nissan time, and benefit of the doubt.
That the problem is substantial is however in little doubt to Drozd.
Having tracked the issue with the same diligence he says he used in researching the Leaf, Drozd wrote us a 2,000-plus word report noting some “engineering types” have been monitoring the state of charge of their air cooled batteries. Having ruled out other potential causes, he and other Leaf owners say they believe the common denominator seems to be heat, and the problem is more pervasive than Nissan would like to portray.
As we reported the other day, a local ABC affiliate televised report documented lackluster perceived response from Nissan. It noted repeated allegations of the automaker’s defensive posture of panning alleged SNAFUs as normal, or sweeping issues under the rug at the dealer level for months prior to Nissan beginning to show it really cares.
With this assessment, Drozd concurs.
“I believe they are paying more attention now, but it has only been because of the media,” Drozd says. “People whom called into Nissan or asked dealerships were just told it's all normal and wouldn't go further. Although Nissan is doing something right now, they still do not acknowledge loss in other places than Arizona”
But even the media has only gotten so far. Nissan has shared limited details, and some writers are painting an encouraging picture saying Nissan will likely soon resolve issues to everyone’s satisfaction, while known critics are circling like buzzards.
Rather than speculate ourselves, we thought we’d give Nissan a opportunity to explain its position, so we contacted the company and were replied to by Nissan’s Director of Corporate Communications, Travis Parman in Tennessee. He asked us to email questions, so we did with full disclosure. We copied in a number of Drozd’s quotes and included 10 questions that could be answered prior to Nissan engineers’ full analysis of reportedly around a dozen customer Leaf’s they are now evaluating.
1) Has Nissan documented battery complaints outside of Arizona? (Note Nathan is from Texas.)
2) If so, what other states?
3) How many cases of excessive battery state of charge loss has Nissan documented in total (and how many cars are now being loaned out to Leaf owners?)
4) How does Nissan respond to many peoples' perceptions that GM was far more forthcoming with its Volt battery fire concerns, not sweeping issues under the rug at the dealer level until media attention and the forums magnified the issues to force it to further show it cared? (As is alleged against Nissan - GM was willing to buy back Volts at the drop of a hat, it seemed, whereas Nissan seems more guarded, it is being said.)
5) Can you respond to this allegation from Nathan: “I believe they are paying more attention now, but it has only been because of the media. People who called into Nissan or asked dealerships were just told it's all normal and wouldn't go further. Although Nissan is doing something right now, they still do not acknowledge loss in other places than Arizona and up until a few days ago still claimed it was isolated to 5 cars (the wiki obviously reports a higher number than this). I don't know if Nissan has communication problems or is sticking their head in the sand.”
6) What is on the table for Nissan to do to “make customers whole?”
7) i.e., will it replace cells if necessary, or whole batteries?
8) Is it on the table to purchase back all affected vehicles (this was one of Nathan’s suggestions as a possible remedy)
9) What about thermal management? It’s been reported Nissan has experimented with this for countries like Dubai. I know it was said U.S. does not need it, but would you change your position?
10) Any further comments you can add would be appreciated.
Thanks for your note and heads-up. You are welcome to attribute the response below to me, and I look forward to working with you as we learn more.
We don’t yet have enough information to answer many of your questions. While we are concerned about any individual Leaf owner who has a less-than-stellar customer experience, fortunately, our data shows these cases to be minimal. We hope to share information soon from our investigation of this handful of vehicles.
The problem with Nissan’ response was it was blank.
There were no responses to attribute to Parman. He not only lacked answers for “many” questions,” he did not answer any.
Thinking this was a mistake, we replied again asking him to please paste in the answers he seemed to have forgotten. Unfortunately, it was not a mistake.
“We don’t yet have enough information to answer many of your questions,” Parman said again. “While we are concerned about any individual Leaf owner who has a less-than-stellar customer experience, fortunately, our data shows these cases to be minimal. We hope to share information soon from our investigation of this handful of vehicles.”
As you’ll note in the questions, we asked about Nissan’s willingness to do damage control as GM did lat last year into this with “concerns” over the Chevy Volt’s battery following a federal side-impact crash test that induced fires.
At the time, GM said it would buy back Volts from anyone even just uncomfortable with the Volt while the government and GM collaborated on a solution.
GM also provided loaners to anyone who asked, and basically bent over backwards in an extremely liberal policy in weeks before it announced its solution in January. Chevrolet’s Volt owners are generally enthusiastic about the car, and to help speed acceptance of the car, GM has given them “white glove” treatment from day one, so in a way, this was in keeping of its policy for a car Consumer Reports says is number one in owner satisfaction with a 93-percent approval rating.
“I whole heartily agree that Nissan's approach is lackluster, especially in comparison to GM's and the Volt’s non-problem,” said Drozd.
But this is not about GM. We’d tell you more from Nissan, but only have what we have. The company is working on it, and Bailo said in her letter Nissan cares very much, and values its Leaf owners.
But at this point Drozd – and his wife, Lori do not feel very valued by the company they took a chance in supporting. Lori noted the documentary video “Revenge of the Electric Car” showed Nissan talking about wanting to dominate and own the electric vehicle category like Toyota’s Prius does in the hybrid category. Nissan expressed willingness to give outstanding quality backed with service.
In the beginning, Lori says Nissan was full of enthusiasm and “sterling” but she cannot say this now.
“We love the car and we love the lifestyle. I just wish Nissan had kept up their end of the bargain. Now that we've had the car a while and we're pointing out flaws, they're ignoring the coveted customers that went out on a limb on a relatively radical product and lifestyle,” she said. “Early adopter Leaf customers aren't your average consumer. They're usually educated on the subject, and they're a little radical themselves. Of course we're going to holler when we know there's something wrong. I'm just shocked and disappointed at their overall (lack of) response.”
And to be sure, Nissan does not need more image problems now when its sales have been plummeting the past few months. The company nonetheless has said it will sell 20,000 units by the end of the fiscal year, and continues to be bullish.
It has said thermal management is not necessary for the Leaf's battery in the U.S. although GM decided to use liquid heating and cooling to regulate the temperature of its battery pack.
Nissan's battery management system utilizes a large percent of the total battery capacity to maximize range, allowing an approximate 21 kwh of usable energy out of the 24-kwh battery size. Nissan's default is 100-percent charging, but it is recommended to only charge to 80 percent capacity to extend the battery life as well as reducing the amount of time the battery is completely discharged. In comparison, the Chevy Volt allows approximately 10.5 kwh of usable energy from its 16-kwh battery. The smaller usable capacity percent, while reducing the range, allows a larger buffer for the battery that could prevent premature battery degradation. GM has no restriction on partial charging or complete discharge.
It’s speculated a new Nissan battery chemistry could be pending in a couple years or so, and previous reports have said it’s on track for 2015, but Nissan has said it does not answer such questions.
We’ll update you when Nissan has more to say, and for now will leave you with what one Leaf owner and his wife in Texas have to say six years into their experience as early adopters.
Drozd said he would not buy another Leaf again at this point, and has doubts whether things will be satisfactorily resolved.
“All-in-all I am pretty disappointed. Here is an analogy I gave my wife when she asked me how I felt about it: You are a kid and have your favorite sports idol. You watch him in every game, you follow every news article and interview, you know his every stat for his sport off the top of your head, you even buy his jerseys and bobbleheads. You send him letters every month! He is your idol, he his your hero, for years. Now he is making a special appearance at your local mall. You plan the basic mall trip for weeks and are so giddy you can't even sleep that night. When you finally get to the mall you see your hero unshaved, drunk, stumbling, and shouting obscenities at people waiting to see him. He is belligerent and refuses to sign your favorite poster/card that you brought. Your once perfect, pristine hero picture has been utterly destroyed. You are not angry, sad, upset, you are beyond that ... just complete ... utter ... disappointment. On your way out you toss the poster you brought in the trash and proceed to clean your room out of his stuff you accumulated, never to watch him on TV again or look him up. That’s how I feel ... betrayed by my hero.”