Nissan Integrity at Stake in Leaf Owners' Battery Test

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Nissan Leaf photoIn what looks like an attempt to avoid a potentially costly and disastrous recall of its taxpayer-funded electric vehicles, Nissan has dismissed the concerns of its Leaf customers in Arizona and other hot states by claiming the apparent loss of battery capacity is “normal.”

Owners of the company’s dismal selling plug-in have banded together to collectively test their vehicles and see just how “normal” their loss of “bars” on their power indicators are.

Over the weekend twelve Leaf owners – led by EV advocate and Leaf owner Tony Williams – were to conduct an extended range test in Phoenix, according to the Web site Green Car Reports. In July NLPC reported that Nissan has been dealing with complaints from mostly Southwestern U.S. owners of the Leaf, who say their vehicles have lost range capacity, which were publicized on the discussion board Web site MyNissanLeaf.com. Carla Bailo, a Nissan official in charge of research and development, said at the time said the capacity loss could be normal “depending on the method and frequency of charging.” And GCR said that VP Andy Palmer attributed the problems to a “faulty battery level display.”

The owners with lost “bars” are skeptical. 

“Following a set route,” GCR reported, “Williams and his team of volunteer Leaf owners will test real-world ranges of 12 Nissan Leafs with two or more missing capacity bars, to see if those with fewer capacity bars lit travel as far as those without any indicated capacity loss.”

The test would determine whether it’s simply the display at fault. Nissan claimed it is investigating the problem, but obviously not to the satisfaction of the Phoenix-area owners. In a letter to Leaf drivers that was posted on the MyNissanLeaf message board, Bailo clearly wrote in language intended to avoid a public relations disaster. She emphasized the number of Leafs affected with the capacity loss represented “a very small fraction” and were limited to cars with high mileage or in “unique operating situations” (like desert heat?). She added that lithium-ion battery loss “exhibits a higher loss of capacity early in life” with the rate of loss diminishing over time.

You can imagine the lawyers breathing over her shoulder as she types.

At stake is not the simple replacement of a few cars in the desert. Instead nearly the entire reputation of the company, CEO Carlos Ghosn, and President Obama’s green-energy stimulus policy stands to undergo enormous public ridicule if the Leaf is shown to be another functional failure (like Fisker’s Karma, which has had at least two recalls). So far American taxpayers have been forced to “invest” $1.4 billion, via a Recovery Act loan guarantee, in a Japanese car company to build an unproven, impractical, expensive vehicle at a revamped Tennessee manufacturing plant.

How much of a dud is the Leaf? Only 4,228 were sold this year through August, a month in which only 685 were delivered in the U.S. DigitalTrends.com says the latter figure represents a 50-percent decline from last year. Nissan’s stated sales goal for the Leaf was 20,000 for the year, which is not going to happen short of the Obama administration paying local and state governments to buy them. At its current pace sales will not even match last year’s 9,674 number, and might not even reach the 2011 sales of the better-known Chevy Volt, which was 7,671.

The indifference exhibited by the car-buying public – especially considering the federal government grants $7,500 in tax credits (with some states adding more) per vehicle to purchasers – is catastrophic. The Tennessee plant will be refurbished to produce up to 150,000 Leafs and 200,000 battery packs per year. Ghosn has said the problem with sales has been supply, and that Nissan expects sales to double once the Tennessee plant is operational. This was supposed to create up to 1,300 new “green” jobs.

Have you heard any news reports about pent up, unsatisfied demand for the Leaf?

The reports out of the Southwest will only intensify the public’s rejection of the Leaf. But heat isn’t the car’s only problem. As NLPC reported in January, even moderately cold temperatures and hilly terrain greatly diminish the Leaf’s range from Nissan’s stated claims of 100 miles to a charge. During the holidays last year a strong advocate for electric cars, Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, drove his Leaf from Knoxville, Tenn. to Nashville – a trip that took him six hours and required four recharging stops. The same jaunt in a gas-powered vehicle normally takes less than three hours.

That revelation followed earlier reports from Southern California, in which journalist Rob Eshman told of his experiences in which he almost never exceeded 60 miles on a charge in his Leaf, all while developing a deep mistrust of his battery charge readings. His Nissan dealer told him his air conditioner would use about 30 percent more power, but Eshman said “it’s more like 50.” He now calls the vehicle “my 2011 Nissan Solyndra.”

And then there was the experience of Consumer Reports reviewer Liza Barth, whose use of a loaner Leaf in the New York area last November detailed a weekend of range anxiety. She had little confidence she could reach destinations and return home on trips beyond the corner store, and she allowed her toes and fingers to “freeze” for fear the car’s heater would use too much power. Meanwhile in CR’s formal test review of the Leaf, the magazine noted a “high-pitched whine” sound at higher speeds, “and to some of us, we found it really, really annoying.”

I wonder if it’s anything like the whine Nissan is hearing from customers in hot climates like the Southwest, or from owners up north when it gets really cold and they need their car heater. Or those who live in hilly or mountainous areas, who need the extra power to drive up inclines.

At $1.4 billion for this fiasco, taxpayers ought to make the whining for Nissan and the Obama administration unbearable.

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes CarolinaPlottHound.com, an aggregator of North Carolina news.