Published August 20, 2012
By Jeff Cobb
Be it a tempest in a teapot as Nissan has loosely suggested, or further damage to the EV movement brewing, eyes are on the maker of the all-electric Leaf following its analysis of customer cars suffering premature battery failure.
A few weeks ago – Nissan will not divulge exactly when – the company borrowed and tested seven of the worst Leafs out of dozens believed to be experiencing substantial range loss.
The common denominator for the alleged battery degradation for these Arizona Leafs has been ambient heat, as is true also of cars reported in Texas and California thus far.
The brewing discontent among early adapters in the MyNissanLeaf.com forum is being monitored by Nissan – as noted by tracking of Tennessee and Japanese IP addresses – and the company in July issued an open letter saying it had only just been made aware of problems, valued its customers and would follow through.
Meanwhile the forum members are sifting the tealeaves for portents for how Nissan will respond, how they will in turn respond, and some note with dismay the Leafmaker’s actual lack of an attitude perceived as sufficiently forthcoming.
According to one of a few wiki pages compiled by intrepid and tech-savvy early adopters, 33 Leafs currently have one bar loss out of 12 total bars on their digital battery gauges. An additional 19 cars currently have two bars missing – putting them deep into the zone where Nissan said would not happen for many years, and five cars have reported three bars lost.
The Leaf service manual says the first capacity bar loss represents a 15-percent loss, while each subsequent bar stands for a 6.25-percent additional loss.
There is evidence to suggest further that once these allegedly heat-degraded batteries begin to fade, they go down hill rather fast.
When we last looked at these issues late in July, we were following the case of Nathan Drozd in Texas who describes he and his wife as quintessential early adapters. Drozd’s Leaf lost its first battery capacity bar on the car’s one-year anniversary, and grimly said if he fits the trend, he expected to lose his second bar by August.
Sad to say, Drozd was right on the money.
“Just wanted to let you know, I lost my second bar today,” said Drozd via e-mail last week. “It was 23,652 miles on the odometer (3,446 from 1st bar to second bar loss). Time was almost exactly two months from the first bar (14 months total from ownership), it will be two months tomorrow.”
Nissan has said a battery degraded to 80-pecent charge holding capacity is due for replacement. If Drozd’s battery gauge is accurate, his car is telling him he is at 78.75 percent.
Among the possibilities being explored is that the on-board battery meter could be inaccurate, along with other potential software issues, but a number of engineers and technically knowledgeable folks besides have been monitoring their state of charge independently with their own CAN Bus-connected meters.
As for Drozd, he has simply noted significantly less traveling range compared to when his car was newer which roughly corresponds to what his battery gauge says.
What’s more troubling are anecdotal reports that upon bench testing some of the worst customer cars, Nissan suggested their batteries were in better shape than their owners believed they knew to be the case.
This trend was also alleged first at the dealer level, where missing bars have been portrayed as “normal.”
But Nissan has also already replaced at least one Leaf battery in the Phoenix area. That was reportedly in November 2011, and another was replaced in April 2012. Since then – and to keep mixing metaphors – the Leaf battery problems have snowballed ever since.
So where are things now?
Officially Nissan’s jury is still out. We contacted the company and spokesperson Katherine Zachary said today she could share very little, although she did say a total of seven cars were tested.
The MyNissanLeaf forum members – sifting the tealeaves – have heard from at least six owners who had their cars thoroughly tested, and rumor had it this could be as many as 11 Leafs tested.
Today Nissan specified the count, but that’s all it has to say.
“We are studying the results of the seven cars tested and will let you know when we have something to share,” Zachary said.
Another aspect of this mystery already known is Nissan covered itself by not offering a Leaf battery warranty that would address issues like those now being experienced when it launched the car. The Chevy Volt battery is by contrast warranted, as is the similar battery in Nissan alliance partner, Renault.
It’s been observed the Volt’s battery affects emissions controls, as a degraded battery would make the engine run more often, but a Leaf with a degraded battery still emits nothing. Beyond this, Nissan has taken the warranty posture it has, which contrasts to General Motors which already suffered through the EV1 debacle, and in any case has learned some public relations lessons.
The Volt’s battery – as is true for Tesla’s – is furthermore more thoroughly engineered with a liquid cooling/heating Thermal Management System.
In February this year, Nissan said in an article touting its EV prowess that a liquid heating/cooling thermal management system was not necessary for the U.S. climates.
In 2010 Wired ran a report suggesting the battery was under-engineered, and that was turned into an Autoblog post which has since proven potentially prophetic.
As patience is now being urged by Leaf owners, comments on the owners’ forum run the gamut, and all options are being explored.
One occupational hazard Nissan essentially took in creating an advanced battery electric vehicle is it attracted some forward-thinking people as its first customers. Many of these folks tend to be well educated, informed, proactive, assertive, and they are watching Nissan for potential improprieties, some of which have already been noted.
Said one poster:
[Forum member] Tony has been one of the strongest supporters of the LEAF and it is troubling to see the transformation in recent months. I should say that this is troubling for Nissan and it's fledgling EV enterprise because clearly, unlike GM (maybe it's really learned from the EV1 fallout), Nissan has not shown appropriate support for it's early adopters!
First, somebody must ask themselves what their end game is. For me, I want to see EVs succeed, and soon. Nissan could quite conceivably put a really big dent in that movement, or just make it a speed bump. This issue really is that pivotal, in my opinion.
Said another regarding possibly taking Nissan to court:
This idea of not pressuring or punishing Nissan "for the good of the EV movement" is ridiculous. You do not help a person or a cause by coddling their weaknesses. … Is it lawsuit time? Of course not yet. But one should not be afraid of that remedy and we should not be critical of anyone who goes that route. The complaint is legitimate and some kind of restitution is most definitely in order. Hopefully Nissan will recognize this and do the right thing.
The worrisome aspect at this juncture is that the reported degradations are SO much worse than Nissan predicted, it makes one wonder just how bad it might get -- even in more temperate locales. And at this point I'm not inclined to give Nissan the benefit of the doubt in regards to degradation "flattening out."
Unfortunately Nissan is quickly losing the ambassadorship of the enthusiastic early-adopters.
I think they really need to step out in front of this in a big way, even if they don't yet have all the answers. And not a memo full of disclaimers and spin, but forthright statements and a major unwavering show of commitment, such as a retro-active warranty.
The clock is ticking.
A variety of opinions are of course being put forth, but a consensus is something is awry and it is heat related.
Further, several have said Nissan has not been handling it nearly as proactively as GM handled Volt battery issues last year following a federal side-impact crash test – although truth be told, GM did not report a post-crash-test fire for months until the media got hold of the news.
Afterwards, GM did bend over backwards offering loaner cars and even no-hassle Volt buybacks to prevent a public relations debacle for its nascent technology.
As it is, the greatest consolation Leaf owners seem to be getting now is from one another, and their forum is serving as sort of a support group, as well as a place to air views, while Nissan seemingly plays its cards close to its chest.
Depending on how things go, Leaf owners are preparing.
Options include potential class action law suits, registering an appropriate complaint with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, Better Business Bureau, Consumer Reports, state Attorney General, or state lemon law.
Since there is no warranty on the battery however, it’s unknown how some of these suggestions would play out.
Leaf owners have also said such things as Nissan should have known better than to not employ thermal management, and some suggested the company would have done better only selling the car on the coasts, and avoiding the hottest climates.
Phoenix Arizona has had record heat this summer, and while Nissan has said it has considered liquid cooling in places like Dubai, after testing pre-production Leafs in Arizona, it chose to make it one of the first launch states.
It’s anyone’s guess whether owners in other hot regions will add their names to the withered Leaf list after sufficient cars have been rolled out.
Nissan has repeatedly said cars with battery degradation issues have been but “a handful” out of the total fleet, and this is true, thus far.
Some are giving Nissan benefit of the doubt, and those wanting to see EVs succeed especially hope their more charitable attitudes will prove well founded.