2011 Nissan Leaf Leaves Owners Stranded: What Really Happened?

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2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010

2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010

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Every new car has a few teething problems, but a few reports of Nissan's all-electric Leaf running out of charge prematurely hasn't helped the age-old stereotype that electric cars will leave their owners stranded without power. 

But are these incidents as rare as the reports suggest and what exactly happened? Who's to blame? 

A few weeks ago we heard some whisperings on the MyNissanLeaf.com forum that suggested a few 2011 Nissan Leafs which were leaving their owners stranded after prematurely running out of power. 

One owner from San Diego reported back in mid February that his 2011 Leaf reporting he only had 16 miles of range left and decided to leave the highway he was on to drive home on slower roads. Within 1 mile of leaving the offramp his Leaf died completely. So empty in fact that he was unable to turn the car off. 

"I had 0 systems on" he explained. " No air running at all, and power monitor was up. I was 6 miles from home with 17 left on the estimated miles going about 60, as I had been doing for the previous 20 minutes so there should not have been a lot of variability in mileage estimate. Went 17, 16, ---. I pulled off highway thinking to use back streets, went turtle and then less than .75 mile was dead."

While other sites quoted the posts directly, we decided to investigate. We'd  found out first hand what happens when the 2011 Nissan Leaf gets low on charge last year when our John Voelcker got the chance to carry out some range tests in Nashville, but it appears in the San Diego case the car's predicted range dramatically dropped by nearly on fifth of its fully-charged capacity.

2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

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First we contacted Nissan North America. A representative told us that they were unfamiliar with the story we cited, but added that Nissan has multiple warning systems and information screens in place to warn drivers when their cars are getting low on power.  Pointing out that the Leaf's remaining range calculation was only an estimate, not a representation of battery state-of-charge she reminded us that the car's state of charge indicator was the gauge drivers should use to determine how quickly their car needs charging, adding that the car improves its range estimations the more you drive it. 

In other words, as you learn to drive the car it learns how you drive it, resulting in more accurate range estimates from the built-in range estimation screen.  

We also contacted the owners in question. After a few weeks of reflection, the San Diego owner gave us this frank and honest admission. 

"The bottom line is I simply drove it out of power. (Nissan) had the engineers look at the car extensively and test everything, and the end result is that I drove too far for the charge I had. Simple answer."

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Comments (24)
  1. Now we see some of the reasons that Tesla and others
    ensure a constant temp environment for their batteries. It's not just to extend their lifespan to the fullest. It's to avoid situations like these Leaf owners experienced. It's been obvious since the day Ghosn got religion and switched from an EV skeptic to its premier enthusiast that he was in a hurry to get something on the road before the others. See what happens when you rush into a technology you know nothing about?

  2. Well if it makes any leaf drivers feel better I saw a Tesla roadster getting a tow off Southbound 280 near San Carlos last week.

  3. Estimated range is useless, it tries to predict future driving based on past driving. The inaccuracy of this is why we get stupid reports of people driving 12 miles on level ground but only using 3 miles of range, and other drivers who have the opposite experience and end up stranded.
    The first thing Nissan needs to do is give drivers a solid estimate of the remaining capacity of the battery in absolute terms and in resolution equal to about a mile of driving. The 12 bars don't cut it. If you have two bars, is that 9% or 16%? That's a big difference when you're ten miles from home.
    Tesla does this by showing battery percent remaining with a bar that can be read to about 1% resolution (a numerical percent would be better), and also an "Ideal Range" in miles based on the EPA driving cycle. Most of the time an EV driver will have way more charge than they need. (If not, they are driving the wrong car.) On those rare occasions when I'm pushing the limits. I can always get ideal miles by driving 55 mph or slower, so when my ideal miles get down near my actual miles remaining, I know what I have to do.
    GM has already realized the error of not giving the user the absolute battery state. Nissan needs to do the same.

  4. Will: did that Tesla run out of juice? Maybe it was a new owner who didn't know not to trust estimated miles, or maybe it had a flat tire. Like the Leaf, the Roadster has no spare, just a can of tire inflator.
    Every time I drive by a stopped car and an owner walking down the shoulder with a gas can, my thought is: that guy didn't start the day with a full charge.

  5. The Nissan Leaf battery pack has a total energy capacity of 24 kWh, but that amount is *never* fully available. To conserve battery life, all electric-car makers use only a portion of the available energy. For the Volt, it was originally 8 of the 16 kWh; I believe they've now opened it up to something like 10.6 kWh. For the Leaf, it's a larger percentage, but still there's only going to be ~ 19 or 20 kWh available of the 24 kWh total capacity. I would have imagined that an early adopter Leaf owner might have known this, but it seems not.

  6. @John
    I thought it was all agreed that the Leaf has 24kWh useable capacity. The real pack size is something like 27kWh based on what some people have found digging around in the innards of the computer.
    Nissan have said a few times that the usable size is 24kWh but the pack size is confidential.
    Or maybe I am getting my news reports all confused.
    Either way, a SOC indicator would be brill. But is this something Nissan can do in an over the air update?

  7. Nissan should have included on the dash a SOC reading. The bar graphs and range estimation is not accurate enough resulting in people running out of juice. I hope Nissan is going to address this issue since we know from the ODBII port that SOC is available.

  8. In our 3+ weeks now with the LEAF, we have observed some rapid drops in the displayed range. The range "estimate" can drop very markedly if you add heating or defogging or for extended freeway speed driving. I would NEVER now trust the range display anytime it gets down around 25 miles or so...
    But we are seeing highly acceptable daily range with 100% overnight charging; 65-70 miles of actual driving still leaves us with 20-25 miles remaining when we get back to our garage, and most days we only do about 45-50 actual miles at most and return with 40-50 miles on display.

  9. I am sure these experiences will be incorporated into future software updates. After driving my Ford Ranger EV for 4 years, I have learned never to rely on the Distance to Empty gauge, and just go by the battery charge indicator. And you ALWAYS need to keep in mind that freeway speeds uses the battery a lot faster than city driving. Above 35 MPH more energy is expended pushing air out of the way than is used to move the car.

  10. I have been driving an electric vehicle for about 2 years now. Here is an observation. If you drive at California highway speeds and you are in the last 1/4 of your battery life you will see a very sudden drop in mileage remaining and it reduces very rapidly as your progress. i cant express enough the importance of slowing down and also allowing your regenerative breaking to give you some support as well. It is kind of like people who sold their SUV's to buy a Prius and fly around wondering why they don't get good gas mileage. While it is always possible there could be battery issues my first thought is always to look at the driving habits and to consider revising those to improve your mileage.

  11. Reminds me of Audi's "Unintended acceleration" in the 1980s which almost put Audi out of business in the US.
    Guess what, the nut that was loose was the one behind the steering wheel.
    Nissan should assure (I don't know how) that their LEAF customers have a certain level of intelligence before they sell them the car.
    And to Kent Beuchert: Nissan has been working on electric car tech since the 1940s. So you are advised to keep your "KNOW NOTHING" trap shut. Fool!

  12. most of that is true about any ev, not the nissan leaf in particular.
    working on it since the 1940s ? they sure must be slow learners.

  13. Owning both the LEAF and the Volt, the range display on the LEAF is wildly more variable than on the Volt and more OPTIMISTIC. We have NEVER gotten LESS EV range on the Volt than the display indicated when we left our home garage (full charge stage), and we have NEVER gotten NEAR the initial LEAF range indicated on that display when we left the garage with a full charge. Further with the LEAF the range display can and does drop in large increments and the range remaining projection anytime one is in the last 30% or so is highly inconsistent, that is it can take further big drops at least in my/our experience. We enjoy and appreciate our LEAF, but we would now NEVER trust pushing it for range beyond about the 73 mile territory the EPA posted on the window sticker. Perhaps when it is a bit warmer, but our LEAF has not been "challenged" that much in the moderate central California "winter."

  14. This is the reason why General Motors has come up with the extended range Volt. In addition to the extended range engine, GM has designed the Volt battery packs to work well in cold and hot weather environments by paying attention to the battery thermal management. The battery pack thermal management in the Chevy Volt includes a very robust liquid cooling system and the extended range engine will never leave you stranded. Good job GM.

  15. Reason enough in this article to just get a Jetta TDI or SportWagen TDI if you live in cold weather areas...

  16. Or get a *gulp!!* Chevrolet Volt. If they have the battery temp. thing down as bob bob explains, I'm just sayin'.

  17. This account is interesting, given that a Nissan Rep. at our local LEAF Tour a weel ago told me that LEAF range is not significantly reduced by cold temperatures, until the temp. gets down to freezing, 32 Deg. F. (0 Deg. C.) or below.
    It sounds like in this case LEAF range was significantly reduced by charging at a temp. well above freezing (6 Deg. C)

  18. In thinking about this situation further, it seem likely to me that it was not the charging at 6 Deg. C, but the driving at 0 Deg. C that was the problem. Based on the chemistry and what Nissan has told me, I doubt that the battery did not achieve a full charge in the 6 Deg. C garage. I would think that a bit more time might be needed to charge the battery at 6 Deg. C. I would bet that the problem was actually driving in 0 Deg. C temps., which is just cold enough to significantly decrease LEAF range on a full battery charge.

  19. I had a similar problem just today -- left for the airport on a FULL charge, Mileage estimate at the beginning 96 miles. It is 66 miles round trip. I ran out of juice 2 miles from my home -- 64 miles. Outside temp around 45 deg F.

  20. Outside temp around 45 deg F.
    But that's not really that cold. Nissan needs to step up and find an answer to this physiologically or electromechanically. A flash of some sort...if Nissan claims a 100 mile range I'd feel ripped off by these "real-world" results going on.

  21. Should have bought a 09 Ford Escape like us, and then have 3 transmission repairs in 50k miles and it still not shift right.

  22. Wow, this is all very interesting. I have a Leaf reservation ($99.00) and live in the northeast. No word yet on when real orders will be taken. Northeast cold winters from December to March when temperatures stay 35 degrees F or below could be a serious problem. A car that is useful 7-8 months out of the year may not be such a good idea. Seems like never risk taking the Leaf below 30 miles remaining range is best. 60 mile round trip probably best.

  23. Buy a Chevy Volt....and stop worrying about getting stranded. :-) I Did.

  24. I purchased my Leaf because I wanted an all electric car. I am old enough to
    have gone through gas shortages in the 70's. I also expect supply shortages and increased costs with the middle east turmoil.
    I have confidence that the range and accuracy of the battery charge will be improved with technology advances.
    Remember, cars are a lot like computers. Every time you buy one an improved one is produced the next year. At some point you have to choose one that fills your needs. My Leaf only needs to be charged every other day on the 110v charger for my average 32 mile round trips to town. When I take a longer trip for
    regional shopping, I quick charge up (for free) at any EV car dealer or parking lot station for my return home.

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