The EV battery scare shows the urgent need to support green technology

by The Listener / 17 August, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Ev battery scare green technology

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With nearly half of New Zealanders considering buying an EV in the next two years, the results could be electrifying.

It’s a great relief for owners of Nissan’s 30 kilowatt-hour (kWh) Leaf to learn it’s not their cars’ costly electric batteries that are faulty but rather some of the more easily fixed software that monitors them. And yet this whole avoidable episode has proved an important lesson for New Zealand in our uptake of new, green technology.

We know wide uptake of the Leaf – New Zealand’s bestselling electric car – and its ilk would have a swift effect on emissions reduction. In terms of sequestering carbon, an electric vehicle (EV) is, on average, the equivalent per year of 22 pine trees averaged over a 30-year growth cycle.

Given the alarming new scientific assessment, published in the National Academy of Sciences journal of proceedings, PNAS, revealing that even a modest continuation of CO2 emissions could plunge the planet into an irreversible climate-warming catastrophe, we must take every action to avoid it. EVs make sense, especially in a nation with so much renewable energy.

It’s therefore vital that Government agencies and tech innovators focus on reducing barriers to getting consumers on board. Manufacturers like Nissan, too, need to be more proactive in supporting their technology, even when imported second-hand to New Zealand.

As the Listener revealed earlier this year, owners of the 30kWh EVs reported their batteries’ energy-holding capacity, and therefore its range on a full battery, was declining at an alarming rate.

This model was available in New Zealand only as a used import, so Nissan was not obliged to take responsibility – and didn’t at first.

Happily, Nissan found the batteries are fine but the cars’ software was under-reporting the charge by as much as 17%. The problem is now being remedied with a $115 software upgrade.

But this scare highlights not just gaps in consumer-protection law but an urgent need for support and safeguards around the uptake of new green technology, especially second-hand imports.  

Nissan stopped selling the Leaf here in 2013, but with drivers keen to buy the latest model with extended 30kWh battery life, there was a market here for used Japanese imports. When the battery problem emerged, however, the import owners could only turn to the Consumer Guarantees Act, which puts responsibility onto the dealer that sold the vehicle. Those EV dealers are also early adopters deserving protection from faulty vehicles and many suffered losses from this battery scare. A new battery would have involved a $9000 refit in Japan – there was no one to do it here. The importers and dealers had no means of remedying the batteries, though some gave owners a refund.

With more than 800 New Zealand Leaf owners in the dark about how far their cars would travel, let alone the resale value, the brand’s reputation suffered, as probably did the overall reputation of EVs. This is highly regrettable. The Government wants our EV fleet to reach 64,000 by 2021, from today’s 9500. It and private funders have committed $37 million to expand the fleet.

Yet, had it not been for the voluntary research of Flip the Fleet and Walter Larason from EVs Enhanced in Christchurch, with access to sophisticated testing facilities beyond the capability of the average automotive garage, EVs might still be under an unnecessary cloud.

The fact that consumer law may not be match-fit for new green technology should immediately galvanise regulatory authorities and politicians. We can’t continue to rely on the good work of volunteer groups to detect and solve teething troubles. Regulators need to ensure such technology is well supported. It is risky to base EV uptake on second-hand vehicles – cast-offs from other countries that are no longer covered by the manufacturer’s warranty once they reach us. Instead, we need to invest upfront in incentivising entry of the latest EV models into the country.

Like the Leaf, green technology is often a big investment and the sniff of a hassle will deter families and businesses alike.

Similar uncertainty has sapped confidence in other green products – notably solar-energy products, whose benefits were initially oversold; heat pumps, whose properties and limits were not adequately explained to early adopters; and water tanks, which are still not as user-friendly as they could be.

The PNAS assessment outlines our climate peril. There is no time left for delay; the evidence is already clear. Though heatwaves such as those tragically seen in Europe and Africa recently can occur naturally, a worldwide climate attribution study led by an Oxford University researcher says man-made greenhouse-gas emissions have made such weather more than twice as likely.

It’s now urgent for our leaders to dust off their nudge theory manuals and ease consumers confidently into green tech.

With surveys showing nearly half of New Zealanders are considering buying an EV in the next two years, the results could be electrifying.

This editorial was first published in the August 25, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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