However strongly you feel about torture testing in other situations, it's necessary when it comes to car safety. Without crash tests, cold- and hot-weather testing, and some pretty creative destruction, the cars of today would be a lot more perilous.
For the 2011 Nissan Leaf electric car, the hurdle's even higher, given the newness of its EV drivetrain and the unrelated, ugly press about those Sony laptop fires from a couple of years ago. Nissan's highly aware that safety will be a prime concern of Leaf owners--and it's torture-tested the pieces of the Leaf, including its batteries, to ensure it's foolproof.
Part of the perception of EVs stems from neighborhood electric vehicles, or NEVs, according to Leaf product planner Paul Hawson. Those vehicles are limited from major roads, have low top speeds and aren't subject to crash tests like standard passenger cars. With the Leaf, he says, "we're targeting five-star safety" according to standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
To cover its bases, Nissan's made a conscious effort to remove any low-rent feel from the Leaf.
"The first offering shouldn't be toylike," Hawson says. "It shouldn't be a gimmick where the only good thing about it is it's an electric car."
To that end, Nissan's fitted some versions with a heated steering wheel and heated seats; it's inefficient to blast the climate control and change the temperature of the whole car, but warming those spots gives a similar psychological benefit, Hawson says. Nissan's also programmed a muted, Jetsons-like whir as the Leaf's rolling soundtrack, so that vision-impaired pedestrians will know it's moving.
And for the Leaf's groundbreaking battery pack, Nissan has borrowed a page from the CIA manual. The batteries, Hawson says, have been subject to all sorts of stress tests to see if and how they'd break.
"We did some crazy tests," he says. "We dunked it in the river. We shot the case with a high-pressure wash, just in case you go to the carwash from hell," he says. (The 2011 Chevrolet Volt has also gone through its own water torture.)
The batteries have also been cycled through the extremes: "We superheated it--put it in an oven, essentially--and then put it in an ice bath.
"In all those situations," he reports, "we essentially dried it off, plugged it back in and it still functioned."
2011 Nissan Leaf