How citizen scientists revealed an electric vehicle problem

by Peter Griffin / 25 March, 2018
The Nissan Leaf is the world’s bestselling electric car. Photo/Adrian Malloch

The Nissan Leaf is the world’s bestselling electric car. Photo/Adrian Malloch

RelatedArticlesModule - EV battery

Last week, the Listener broke a story revealing problems with batteries in New Zealand’s bestselling electric car, just as the uptake reaches a tipping point. Should you still go electric?

There’s a common refrain from those who have joined the front ranks in the electric car revolution. “We like to think we are doing our little bit to reduce our footprint on the planet,” says Dave Hawkins, a Wanaka-based retiree who produces most of his own power from the solar panels on his home’s roof.

In September, Hawkins bought his first electric car for $26,000 from a Christchurch car dealer – a second-hand 2016 Nissan Leaf with 17,000km on the clock.

“It seemed sensible – rather than selling power back to the power company for next to nothing – to put it into an electric vehicle and reduce our petrol bill as well.”

The Nissan Leaf is the world’s bestselling electric car. Over 300,000 of them have been bought worldwide since the Leaf’s debut in 2011. Of the 5022 new and used light electric vehicles registered in New Zealand at the end of February, over half were used Leafs.

Our move to electric vehicles is powered by cheap second-hand Japanese imports. They are zero-emission cars and cost up to 80% less to run than petrol-powered models. So for most owners, new versus second-hand is irrelevant – until something goes wrong with the car’s battery.

The day Hawkins took the Leaf for a test drive around Christchurch, the “state of health” of its 30 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery – a measure of its ability to hold energy – was at 97%. A few days later when he checked again, the figure had dropped to 94%.

“Fairly rapidly over the next month, it kept going down,” says Hawkins. “By the time it was past 90%, I contacted the dealer and told them what was going on.”

Leaf owners tend to fixate on the 12 blue and red “bars” on their dashboard display that indicate their battery’s health. Dropping a bar is cause for concern – it means the resale value of the car could drop. Hawkins’ Leaf never dropped a bar, but the steadily declining battery capacity reading led him to ask his dealer to fix the problem.

The dealer opted to give him his money back in full and the story could have ended there. But Hawkins also contributed his Leaf’s battery health statistics to a New Zealand citizen science project called Flip the Fleet.

Last week, in what the authors believe is a world first, the Flip the Fleet team published online a study examining the battery State of Health results from 283 Nissan Leafs, using data gathered from Leaf owners around the country such as Hawkins.

The results, claims Flip the Fleet co-founder and University of Otago emeritus professor Henrik Moller, are alarming. The researchers found that the 30kWh model of the Leaf, which went on sale in 2016 and offers greater driving range than the 24kWh version, was rapidly declining in its ability to hold electric charge.

“By two years, the 30kWh vehicles are dropping their ability to hold energy by about 10% per year,” says Moller. “The 24kWh Leafs are dropping at 3% per year.”

Nissan estimates that the battery on the 30kWh Leaf should reach about 80% of its energy-holding capacity after five years of use. But Moller’s team were seeing them reach that point in just over two years. Even worse, the rate of decline appears to be accelerating as the batteries get older.

Dave Hawkins: his solar cells now charge a BMW i3. Photo/Louis Trerise

Dave Hawkins: his solar cells now charge a BMW i3. Photo/Louis Trerise

Possible overheating battery

The paper has yet to be peer-reviewed by an international scientific journal, something the researchers intend to have done. But the findings echo the stories of Leaf owners from New Zealand to Canada and the US, who on blogs and web forums, in tweets and YouTube videos have documented their own concerns over declining battery capacity.

“We don’t really know what’s causing this yet,” says Moller, who stresses that the Leaf has paved the way for electric vehicle take-up here and the findings are isolated to one Leaf model’s battery. The 24kWh batteries appear to be performing as expected.

“Our working hypothesis is that it is related to overheating of the battery or at least keeping the battery at high charge when it gets hot. There’s a lot of research that shows a combination of high temperature and high charge degrades the battery. We think it is in that general area.”

Most Leaf drivers plug in their cars overnight to charge. But new EV owners are usually warned that repeated rapid charging – where the battery can reach 80% of capacity within 30 minutes and which is essential for long trips – can lead to battery degradation. The Flip the Fleet researchers saw some evidence of that degradation, but that itself does not explain the rapid decline they observed.

The higher-capacity Leaf was intended to ease “range anxiety”, with the average maximum range in winter of 172km bettering the 135km possible with the 24kWh Leaf. But the research suggests owners of the 30kWh Leaf, which sells for up to $10,000 more than the lower-capacity model, are losing 15km in driving range a year. About 600 of the longer-range Leafs are on New Zealand roads, with another 180 in transit from Japan and England or sitting on car dealers’ yards.

Should the results be confirmed, it could put a dent in the Government’s plan to have 64,000 electric vehicles on our roads by the end of 2021, given that the higher-capacity Leaf already accounts for about 12% of our entire electric vehicle fleet.

The Government’s EV leadership group, including representatives from the Ministry of Transport, the Automobile Association and electricity companies, met on Wednesday to discuss the research.

“It is a matter of some concern to all in the industry, as used EV sales are what have given us market penetration,” says David Vinsen, chief executive of the Imported Motor Vehicle Industry Association, who is also part of the group.

Flip the Fleet sent its findings to Nissan in late February but has so far been met with silence from the company’s Japan-based engineers. “They are doing an internal investigation,” Nissan’s New Zealand managing director, John Manley, tells the Listener. “We never sold the 30kWh car in New Zealand and we have no technical EV people in New Zealand.”

Dave Hawkins. Photo/Louis Trerise

Dave Hawkins. Photo/Louis Trerise

No longer sold new here

Despite the popularity of the Leaf in New Zealand, Nissan doesn’t sell them new here after it pulled the 24kWh version out of the market in 2015. It means the thousands of New Zealand owners of second-hand Leafs have no official channel to buy a replacement battery for their car, which is starting to become an issue as seven-year-old first-generation Leafs approach the end of their useful battery life. A new 30kWh battery and installation costs $9000 in Japan.

Manley puts the move to stop selling Leafs here mainly down to competition from cheaper imported Leafs – the new cars were on sale for $40,000-50,000, while second-hand imports sold for about $25,000-30,000.

Electric car dealers and users alike see Nissan’s absence from the sale of new Leafs as a major threat to the success of the EV market in New Zealand. If a significant fault emerges years after purchase, such as the one the Flip the Fleet team claim to have uncovered, thousands of car owners could be left stranded, haggling with second-hand dealers for a fix. Nissan, for its part, could face major warranty liability overseas, as 30kWh Leaf owners seek a remedy.

Like most car manufacturers, Nissan will honour a factory warranty for faults and battery replacements only in the country of purchase. But Consumer NZ says Leaf owners who have experienced significant battery degradation should be protected under the Consumer Guarantees Act. Dealers of second-hand Leafs have an obligation to sell cars that are of “acceptable quality”.

Bill Alexander, a partner at West Auckland electric vehicle specialist dealership Blue Cars, says it is “virtually impossible” to get a Leaf battery replacement in New Zealand at present.

“Nissan is not supporting the batteries because they are all Japanese imports. So there isn’t really an upgrade path at this stage,” says Alexander, who rents Leafs to people keen to test the water before buying and sells parts and accessories for EVs.

What are the options for Leaf owners looking for a new battery?

“In the absence of something happening in the next two to three years, it is probably scrap it or use it in a situation that doesn’t require a lot of range,” he says.

Some dealers will attempt to supply a replacement, but this relies on getting hold of a battery in Japan. Alexander sees a lot of Leafs arriving off the boat from Japan with 65-70% battery health.

“They are still good for 75-80km range. That’s fine for most people’s commutes; they still have useful life left.”

That’s the conclusion Wellington Leaf owner Rob McColl eventually came to when he saw his own 30kWh Leaf battery degrading. The battery State of Health showed 91% when he looked at the car on the Coventry Cars sales yard. Within a few weeks and now in McColl’s ownership, it had dropped to 79%.

“It was very concerning for us and we started to feel like we’d been sold a pup,” says McColl, a retired scientist.

Coventry Cars sent the Leaf to a local Nissan dealership for a check, but the battery was found to have no faults. Coventry offered McColl a warranty that would cover a portion of the cost of replacing the battery. He accepted.

Shortly afterwards, Nissan called McColl “out of the blue” asking him to bring the Leaf in for a more in-depth check. “We suspect they are quietly checking on the 30kWh cars to see what is going on,” he says. He hasn’t heard what Nissan discovered about his Leaf.

Ultimately, he is happy with Coventry’s service and keen to hang on to his degraded Leaf, which he mainly uses as a “shopping basket” for short hops around town. “We want to keep it – we love it. As long as we don’t sell it, we haven’t lost anything.”

Bill Alexander: “virtually impossible” to get a replacement battery. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Bill Alexander: “virtually impossible” to get a replacement battery. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Battery replacement problems

Better support from local dealers and agents will be required as the Leaf fleet expands, particularly if the battery issue with the 30kWh Leaf is confirmed.

Blue Cars has received $23,000 from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority’s Low Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund to trial refurbishing the battery pack from the first-generation Nissan Leaf. If successful, the project could pave the way for affordable battery pack replacements for ageing second-hand Leafs. But moves are afoot to sort out the battery-supply issues.

Vinsen says the Imported Motor Vehicle Industry Association has an agreed protocol with shipping companies that would remove barriers to shipping large lithium-ion battery packs to New Zealand. “We need to have a feed stock of batteries. It looked as though the ability to import used batteries was going to be precluded by the Dangerous Goods Act.”

With that problem solved, the industry needs to find reliable supplies of batteries. Vinsen will lead an industry delegation to Taiwan next month that will meet battery makers to explore the possibility of securing replacement batteries suitable for cars like the Leaf.

A 40-year veteran of the motor industry, Vinsen says the lack of options for battery replacements mirrors the early days of Japanese imports when spare parts were hard to come by. As demand increased, parallel-imported parts became big business.

As a trusted name in the EV market, Blue Cars’ Alexander was approached early with the Flip the Fleet findings. He says caution is needed, as the sole measure in the study is the State of Health data. “We are presuming that because these batteries are appearing to lose capacity, that it’s affecting the range of the cars. There’s room for more work to establish that it is a real number,” he says. “Nissan are probably the only ones that know what the algorithms in that software do.”

Chelsea Sexton is also taking a wait-and-see approach while Nissan’s engineers run their own data from the tens of thousands of 30kWh Leafs around the world that regularly send information back to the firm.

Bill Alexander. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Bill Alexander. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Leading the charge

An EV advocate for 25 years, Sexton was in Greymouth when the Listener called, travelling in a convoy of electric cars as part of the annual Leading the Charge road trip spanning the length of the country and aimed at spreading awareness of EVs.

The Californian worked on General Motors’ short-lived EV1 electric vehicle programme in the late 90s. The world’s first mass-produced electric car was cancelled in 2001 despite positive reviews and what Sexton suggests in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? was actually strong demand from motorists wanting to go electric.

Nearly 20 years on, she says, the auto industry is still ambivalent about EVs, despite lofty claims made in press releases from car makers such as Volkswagen of plans to phase out combustion engines.

“This is the only technology in the history of the automotive industry anywhere in the world where consumers and advocates have pulled the industry and the government into this space, not the other way around,” she says. “You could never imagine Apple saying, ‘When we see demand for an iPhone, we’ll build one.’”

New Zealand’s tight-knit community of early EV adopters have done more marketing of the technology – at EV meet-ups and in Facebook groups – than the car companies have. Despite that, says Sexton, the Government is easily achieving its target of doubling electric vehicle uptake each year.

“The single biggest issue facing EVs in any part of the world is lack of product and that isn’t different here,” she says. “The second is lack of awareness, education and marketing, and that’s where the Government is really trying to play a role.”

No road-user charges

Electric vehicle owners enjoy an exemption from road-user charges, the most generous aspect of a suite of measures the Government introduced in 2016 to spur EV uptake. Others include a trial in Auckland allowing EVs access to special vehicle lanes and Government funding has helped build fast-charging stations around the country.

You can now drive from Cape Reinga to Bluff and recharge your vehicle along the way, but the real attraction with EVs is being able to plug in to charge your car overnight cheaply. The growth in the number of EV owners doing exactly that could put a strain on the power grid, electricity companies say (see next page).

The road-user charge waiver will last until electric vehicles make up 2% of the national fleet. Then the economics of going electric could look less attractive.

The Government measures and growing awareness of EVs are one thing, but Nissan’s Manley argues that sales of new electric vehicles will struggle to take off without price subsidies. “Overseas, where the uptake has been strong, there are direct purchase incentives. Whether it is Labour or National, there doesn’t appear to be an appetite to apply purchase subsidies.”

Nevertheless, Nissan is set to reintroduce the Leaf to the New Zealand market in 2019. Second-hand imports will continue to make new sales tough, but Manley says there is a strong appetite for new EVs in the corporate market.

“You need to get fleet business. There is a lot of demand, but it comes down to the seller and buyer and it being commercially viable.”

US EV buyers have enjoyed price subsidies. But Sexton says they were probably offered too early. “The earliest adopters were happy to have the money, but they were going to get the car anyway. So it didn’t necessarily make a big difference in the early years.”

Now, she says, the momentum behind EVs threatens to stall as President Donald Trump favours a revival of high-emitting fossil-fuel industries.

“In my country, they are lobbying our president and his administration to roll back fuel economy standards and the EV requirements in California, to roll back CO2 requirements [under the Paris Agreement] in Europe,” she says. “There is a lot of lobbying going on to try to avoid having to do many of those things.”

Here on her fourth trip in two years, Sexton sees the New Zealand EV market developing well. A remaining factor is education among car dealers of the technology’s potential. “If someone walks into a dealer and is told, ‘You don’t really want an EV, you want a Holden Cruze’, you haven’t solved the problem.”

A leaf from the BMW book

The day Hawkins handed back the keys of his Nissan Leaf over concerns about its eroding battery capacity, he boarded a flight to Queenstown to make his way home. The plane didn’t make it, aborting its landing in a storm and returning to Christchurch. With flights delayed overnight, Hawkins went to kick the tyres at a few car dealerships.

He ended up buying a used 2016 BMW i3 electric car for $47,000. He drove it home the same day. The battery reading hasn’t changed since he bought it on February 1 – 100%. “It suits me well,” says Hawkins. “I’m very happy being an EV owner now.”

This article was first published in the March 31, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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