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Thursday, May 18, 2017

6 Years of Nissan Leaf Ownership

When I first received my Leaf on May 18th, 2011, I loved it. Six years later, the new car smell is long gone.

Happy new car owner in 2011
This was the first new car I had ever purchased. I had only bought used cars prior to this one. I was not a "car guy" and spending money on a depreciating asset is not generally a smart financial move. This was different though, it was new technology. There was no significant used EV market in 2011.

The car was great. It was quick off the line, smooth, quiet, and fun. I loved it. We took it on road trip adventures to Great Wolf, Enchanted Forrest, and Spirit Mountain to name a few.
To Great Wolf Lodge by EV

The 10 Year Plan Is Gone

"Ten years gone, holdin' on, ten years gone." Jimmy Page, Robert Plant

Before I purchased the car, battery degradation was one of my biggest concerns. I wanted to drive this car for 10 years and the batteries needed to last that long for my plan. My daughter was 6 years old when I bought the car, she'd be 16 when the car turned 10. If the range was degraded at that point, that'd be OK. I wouldn't want her driving too far away anyway. 😊

When the Leaf Tour came to Portland in 2010, I was lucky enough to meet the man who was the face for the Nissan Leaf in the US, Mark Perry, Director Advanced Technology for Nissan USA. I specifically asked him about battery degradation. He assured me that the Leaf was designed to handle the demanding needs of EV driving in all 50 US states, hot or cold. This put my mind at ease, even when Elon Musk openly mocked Nissan for their "primitive" thermal management system, I was not worried. I'd be driving in Oregon, where it's far from the hottest or the coldest state and generally a great environment for battery longevity. It might be an issue in the hot Southwest or the cold Upper Midwest, but surely, I'd be fine, thought I.

As the first couple years of Leaf sales rolled by people in hot climates started to complain about battery degradation. This was labeled the Leaf Arizona Range Debacle and Nissan handled it poorly. Customers were rightfully unhappy with a car that had rapidly decreasing range. This event was the swan song of Perry's career at Nissan. After years of enthusiastically advocating for Nissan's electric car, his career ended on this stone sour note.

Nissan had a new leader for the Leaf and he was addressing the hot state debacle head-on. This was Andy Palmer, the #2 person in the company. He clarified the warranty condition, bought back cars from many unhappy owners, and replaced batteries for others. This got the company through the PR disaster but did nothing to solve the underlying engineering issue with Nissan's design.

After 3 years of ownership, in 2014, with ~25,000 miles, we lost our first capacity bar. At this point the car had lost 11 miles (or 15%) of its original range. Oregon's mild weather had not inoculated my car as much as I had hoped. Coincidentally, this was about the same time that Andy Palmer then left Nissan too.

Now we're celebrating 6 years of Leaf ownership. Maybe 'celebrating' is not the right word. Soon after the year 5 mark, the second battery capacity bar disappeared. As we now hit the 6-year milestone the battery capacity is at 74% of the original battery, or 26% degraded. This puts the current range at 54 miles according to the EPA rating and at 60 miles according to the GOM in the Leaf.

Degrading 2011 Nissan Leaf Range

So now we have about half the range we did when it was new (according to the GOM). Most Leaf owners are familiar with the battery health meter. They are the little ticks to the right of the battery charge gauge let you know how much of the original capacity remains in the battery pack. We've been losing one about every three years.

The GOM rating changes based on how light-footed or lead-footed you've been driving recently. So rather than just look at that, let's look at the stats from the battery pack. With the app LeafSpy (for Android or iPhone), you can see a lot of information about the car and batteries. I have been collecting information monthly since I found the app in 2012. Here's a chart of the range with some smoothing for clarity (and using the battery capacity mapped to the EPA efficiency of the Leaf).


Looking at this range chart, you can see that the 118 miles predicted when the car was new, is nowhere near what the EPA rating estimated. According to these, more accurate measurements, the range has dropped from an initial 73 miles to the current 54 miles. The car has lost 19 miles of range. This is not too much if the car had 200+ miles of range, but it only started with 73 miles. It has lost 26% of its range in 6 years. This is putting a kink in my 10-year plan for the car. A range of just 54 miles greatly reduces the utility of the car. The road trips that we once took in our Leaf are now in the rearview mirror. Our Leaf is strictly an errand car, if we need to drive more than 25 miles from the house (50+ miles round trip), this is not the car that we take.

My initial concern about degradation was well placed and Musk has been proven right. As I said at the opening, the new car smell is gone.

And even if all of this degradation had happened in the first five years, I still would not qualify for the warranty battery replacement until our third capacity bar blinked out of existence.

Telematics Gone

"It's not like wings have fallen cannot stay." Long Road by Eddie Vedder

To add insult to injury, the telematics stopped working this year.

The telematics system in the Leaf is called NissanConnectEV (formerly known as CarWings). It allows an app to connect to the car. You can (or in my case "you could") check the state-of-charge and turn on the HVAC. It was cool to be able to access your car with an app. If you were charging, you could find out how charged up it was without running out to the garage (or where ever the car was charging). Being able to turn on the HVAC was handy too. In the winter, I could turn on the heater while I was sitting at my desk. Then pack up my stuff and head out, by the time I arrived at the car, it was warm and it would quickly defrost.

When Nissan designed the 2011 Leaf, they used AT&T's 2G wireless. By 2007, 3G was widely deployed and in 2009, 4G-LTE had its first few deployments. So when Nissan was designing the Leaf, it was clear that 2G was on the way out. Yet 2G is what they selected. Knowing that 2G was on the way out, they could have at least included a 3G modem that they could have opted to turn on at a later date via an over-the-air update, but they didn't.

2G service turned off in January of 2017. Without this service, all the CarWings services mentioned above are lost and the list of charging stations in the car's nav system is no longer updated. Not having a list of charging locations for an errand car is not a big deal. We are not driving it very far and on the off chance that we need to charge out in the wild, PlugShare works fine.

Nissan's solution is to offer a 3G modem for $199. So today, when 4G-LTE is the dominate connectivity solution and 5G is on the horizon, they are again going with the oldest possible solution and again with no futureproofing. Making sure that Leaf owners will need to upgrade once again when 3G is sunset.

I am not feeling appreciated as an early adopter by this move.

No More Long Roads

"It's a short road to love. But you're taking me the long way around." ~Eddie Rabbitt

The range is decreasing faster than I'd like. It does not appear that the Leaf will make it to my 10-year plan or be my daughter's first car. Not even Oregon's battery-friendly weather could get us to the goal.

Nissan has not recalled the cars due to the faulty battery thermal management system nor made efforts to ensure long-term Leaf owner satisfaction.

Nissan had the first-mover advantage in the affordable full EV space, but their pace of innovation was too slow. They have not significantly increased the range of the car and they have been leapfrogged by the Chevy Bolt EV and soon by the Tesla Model 3. Nissan had added a 30 kWh option in the 2017 car giving it a 107-mile range, but they have not improved the thermal management and I have read reports that the larger battery heats up faster and takes longer to cool down.

Nissan will have another shot to stay competitive when their 200-mile+ next gen Leaf comes out but they have lost their leadership position in EVs IMHO. Nissan has released a few details about the 2018 Leaf, among these preview tidbits is the statement that it will have active thermal management. It's about time.

I was an enthusiastic Leaf owner, those days are sadly gone. I expect to trade this car in on a new EV before its seventh birthday.