Monday, July 27, 2015

The Nissan Leaf and EV FAQ

This post is in response to all of the questions I get about my 2013 Nissan Leaf and also to lend knowledge about electric vehicles to those curious about humanity’s automotive future. Make no mistake, electric vehicles (EVs) are here to stay. The days of the internal combustion engine (ICE) are assuredly numbered and after my experience with the Nissan Leaf I can say it won’t be missed. Driving an EV full time really spoiled my expectation of what a car should be. I’ve tried to capture in FAQ format what it’s like to own and operate an EV in order of most to least asked questions.

Q: What’s the range on that thing and how long does it take to charge?
It varies but the 2013 Leaf averages about 84 miles per charge. Yep, just about a quarter tank of gas worth of range in an ICE car. No, you can’t take it on road trips. It wasn’t designed or intended for that. It’s meant for a daily commute to work and grocery runs on the weekends. City driving will get you more miles per charge, highway driving less. Using the heat in the winter combined with the cold temps will drive that estimate down even further.
On a 30 amp 240v circuit (considered level 2 charging) it takes about 5 hours to charge from dead. It only takes about 2.5 of those hours to reach an 80% charge however due to the nature of how lithium ion batteries work. If you’re planning a 120 mile round trip somewhere you will likely have enough range to make it home after 30-60 minutes on a charger at your destination. A 120v circuit (level 1 charging) will take around 17 hours to fully replenish the batteries. Many owners only use the supplied 120v charger exclusively, which when used overnight is satisfactory for their commute distance. Some Leafs have the DC quick charging option (level 3) which will charge the car in about an hour, if you can find a compatible station.
I can accomplish about 90% of my family’s driving with the Leaf’s range, for everything else we have an ICE vehicle as well. Charging at one’s destination is often available, albeit with sometimes less than easily walkable distances. Still, it takes careful planning to use the Leaf when driving outside of your range comfort zone. After owning the car for a few months I can say my range anxiety is gone now that I know the car’s limits and where chargers are along my frequented routes.
This is most definitely an early adopter car. Chevy and Tesla have already announced their second gen mass market EVs, the Bolt and Model 3 respectively. Priced around $35,000 they will offer around 200 miles of range which I feel is enough for all but the most hardcore road warriors. As battery tech gets cheaper and lighter, range and charging will become all but irrelevant. I’m sure in 10 years time most EVs will come with around 300 miles of range at a reasonable cost.

Q: What’s it like to drive?
If you’ve ever driven an electric golf cart, it’s kind of like that except with all of the refinement and you’d expect from a modern car. With 100% of torque available at 0 RPM and no transmission between the accelerator and wheels there is an instant connection between your right foot and the road. The Leaf isn’t a fast car but it’s certainly quick off the line and in sprints under 60mph. It has no problem passing on the highway and moving up to speeds that would get your license suspended but all of the punch happens at lower speeds. You don’t have to wait for downshifts or for a torque converter to engage the engine to the wheels. Power is always there, instantly. I got used to this very quickly and driving ICE cars now feels strange and slightly disconcerting when pushing the go pedal does nothing for a half second while all of the drivetrain components spool up.
The Leaf is also super quiet and completely immune to the vibrations, rattles and undulations caused by ICE power. It’s so quiet that Nissan had to fit a new type of windshield wiper motor because the standard unit was jarringly loud. Similarly, those goofy looking headlights serve a functional purpose, to direct air up and over the side mirrors where there had been unpleasant wind buffeting noises in Nissan’s testing. It may not sound like a big deal but it’s amazing how quickly I got used to the silent running of the Leaf. It’s utterly peaceful sitting in traffic and at low speeds where you notice most how still and tranquil driving can be. To top it off the car doesn’t get hot or need to be warmed up in the winter. It just is, stateless until you will it to be otherwise.

Q: What’s the maintenance like, how long does the battery last and what does it cost to replace?
The short answer is there is very little that needs to be done outside of brakes and tires as they wear out. Brakes tend to last a very long time due to the aggressive regenerative braking available in “B” mode that most Leaf drivers opt to use. Of course the usual suspension components will wear just as any other car but you’re talking 100k+ miles before those things should need to be considered. The maintenance schedule consists of replacing the cabin air filter and rotating the tires, replacing brakes and tires as needed.
Nissan warranties the battery for 8 years or 100,000 miles. It is expected that the battery will lose 30% capacity over that time, anything greater will trigger a replacement under said warranty. The current cost to replace the battery pack currently is about $5,500. Just like any other lithium ion powered device (e.g. your laptop, tablet and phone) there are things you should (and must if you want to keep your warranty intact) do to maintain proper battery health. There is a “long life” setting that will only charge the car to 80%. This should be used when possible and especially when leaving the car for more than 24 hours. One should only charge to 100% when needed, just before long trips if able. Some EVs, like the Chevy Volt do this for you behind the scenes. The Volt actually has the capacity to go about 10 miles further than advertised on its battery pack if the car allowed the driver to charge it fully. Chevy shows 100% even though the battery is around 80% charged so it can maintain its advertised EV range throughout the bulk of the car’s life. Extended exposure to extreme ambient temperatures, 120+ and below 0 degrees fahrenheit are also detrimental to the life expectancy of the battery pack. The Leaf logs this information and your charging habits both for Nissan’s R&D department as well as to determine if your warranty claim is valid.
The Leaf is not a care free ownership experience but I believe it’s a lot less of a headache than an ICE vehicle. No fluids and belts to change, just a battery pack to maintain. Granted it’s a large expense to replace when that time comes but I’d be willing to bet most EV owners will jump at the chance to upgrade to a new EV with double the range when given the opportunity.

Q: What don’t you like about the Leaf and what would you change?
Admittedly this is more of a question I ask myself, since I have so much time to spend with the car. EV owners are typically gadget-centric, tech savvy people. With that in mind I wish Nissan had offered more settings to tweak and knobs to twiddle. Things like adjusting the aggressiveness of the regenerative braking and fleshing out the Carwings system and smart phone app with tighter control over the cars systems (e.g. granular charging timers, battery stats/diagnostics, push alerts for maintenance items, etc) would be really great. The building blocks are there and I’m sure we’ll see these changes in future models. If I could ask traditional automakers to take anything from Tesla’s playbook it would be pushing iterative improvements to customers as soon as reasonably possible. The software defined car model is one of Tesla’s biggest advantage. Keeping owners up to date on the latest innovations only encourages brand loyalty.
I only have the Leaf for another 12 months until the lease runs out. My plan was to purchase a Tesla Model 3 once it’s available but by the time Tesla gets around to shipping them, there will be some other compelling options on the road such as the next generation Leaf and Chevy Bolt. Time will tell but I can say with complete confidence that I’m done with smelly, polluting and slow ICE vehicles.