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Are thousands of Kiwi Nissan Leaf owners at risk of brake failure?

How the Nissan Leaf's brakes perform in cold weather is of concern to Flip the Fleet here in New Zealand. Photo / Getty Images

Picture the horrifying scene – you are driving along in your electric car and you tap the brakes to slow down for an upcoming intersection. Nothing happens.

Well, something finally happens. You slow to a stop, but only when, in desperation, you slam the brake pedal to the floor.

It is a scenario that has played out for at least five New Zealand-based Nissan Leaf owners, according to Flip the Fleet, a citizen science group of researchers that has a particular interest in the Leaf, the world’s best-selling plug-in electric car.

As NOTED and the New Zealand Listener revealed in March, Flip the Fleet’s detective work was responsible for revealing an issue with the Leaf’s battery management system that appeared to show the longer range 30kWh (kilowatt hour) Leaf’s battery degrading far quicker than Nissan claimed.

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After extensive testing, involving taking ‘state of health’ battery readings from hundreds of Leaf cars around the country, it was determined that a software issue was responsible, one that could be addressed with a software upgrade, which Nissan made available in August.

Such is the reliance of newer cars on software, particularly those of the electric kind, that a string of computer code can mean the difference between a car purring along or running like a dog.

Pressing issue

This latest alleged issue with the Leaf could also be fixed with a simple software update, claims Flip the Fleet, which over the weekend published its research on the braking issue. But Nissan says the rare occurrence of partial brake failure only affects 2013 - 2015 Leafs in regions where the temperature drops to minus 20 degrees centigrade and where the cars are parked in the cold for prolonged periods of time.

Between October 2015 and February 2016 Nissan issued “voluntary service recalls” in the US, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden over the issue, places where it can get brutally cold over winter. Leaf owners were able to take their cars to a dealer to have their car’s electrically-driven Intelligent Brake Control Unit reprogrammed with new software.

But Nissan never issued a recall for the United Kingdom or Japan, which don’t experience such frigid climatic conditions, and where all of the Leafs sent to New Zealand as second-hand imports originate from.

“There's no way people are driving around in negative 20C here in New Zealand for prolonged periods of time,” Nissan New Zealand chief executive John Manley told Noted.

“You are talking about Alaska or central Chicago in the middle of winter. My understanding is that it literally freezes parts of the car. It makes the brake pedal feel very firm and you've got to put more pressure on it.”

However, Flip the Fleet says it is aware of over 60 reported brake failure incidents in generation 1.2 and 1.3 Leafs manufactured between November 2012 and February 2016: 46 in USA, ten in the UK and Ireland, and five in New Zealand, including one where a Leaf owner had to reportedly veer off the road to avoid running into the back of a truck.

“Our research has led us to believe that these failures can be attributed to faulty ‘Series-A’ firmware that is written into the brake control unit at the time of manufacture,” the Flip the Fleet researchers noted.

“It appears that the brake control unit ‘crashes’, causing a partial failure in the overall braking system of the vehicle.”

Flip the Fleet on October 22 wrote to Nissan, and numerous government agencies and industry bodies, including the New Zealand Transport Agency and the Ministry of Transport, highlighting its concerns over the potential for brake failure. It estimates 2,400 Leafs in New Zealand may be affected and calculates that “the minimum risk of the failure occurring in a particular year is about 0.2%”.

That equates to just a handful of incidents. But it only takes one Leaf owner, unaware of the remedy, to crash, causing themselves or others injury – or worse.

Transport agency investigating

NOTED understands that NZTA is testing Nissan Leafs to research the fault itself, but the agency did not respond to requests for comment. NOTED has requested more information on the issue under the Official Information Act. Transport Minister Phil Twyford and Associate Minister James Shaw have been made aware of the issue.

The brake failure concerns are particularly relevant to Flip the Fleet co-founder and University of Otago academic Henrik Moller.

In July 2018, Moller was driving his Leaf when he experienced brake failure himself. It was 2 degrees Celsius outside the car, not uncommon for regions of the South Island. Analysing the fault codes in the Leaf’s computer system suggested to Moller and his colleagues that they weren’t “imagining things”.

“We’re pretty sure it’s a real thing, which can’t be entirely explained by Nissan’s voluntary recalls related to extremely cold temperatures,” they wrote in their report.

“We are relieved that NZTA are apparently now doing tests,” Moller told NOTED.

“It may yet be that the professionals decide that a significant risk does not exist in this recent brake failure example – we fervently hope that this is the conclusion after thorough and independent investigation by NZTA.”

Both Flip the Fleet and Nissan suggest that concerned Leaf owners get in touch with the dealer they bought the car from to get a thorough safety check. But that’s where things can get complicated.

While the sale of imported second-hand motor vehicles are covered under the Consumer Guarantees Act, faults with the cars are not covered by the manufacturer’s warranty that applied in the country where they were initially bought.

It means that dealers, unwilling to wear the cost of safety testing Nissan Leafs, will not feel obliged to act, unless Nissan issues a recall.

No recall warranted

At least two ‘firmware’ upgrades, ‘B’ and ‘C’, have been issued overseas that upgrade the original software responsible for the brake failure issue. So why doesn’t Nissan just make the upgrades available to Nissan dealers to install in affected Leafs here?

“If you are putting it into a car that doesn't have that specific issue you might be creating a problem,” an adamant Manley maintains.

“You may fry your electronic control unit. People are grabbing hold of software amendments and putting it in cars they aren't meant for or needed for. It doesn't make sense.”

Nissan knew of only one Nissan Leaf being presented to a dealer with the suspected braking issue.

“It turned out it was a parts issue,” says Manley.

“It had nothing to do with software or upgrades. The driver just drove off, he didn't want to take it any further.”

Manley added that with Nissan’s alliance with Renault and Mitsubishi making it the biggest car maker in the world, any safety issue would be given top priority. When it came to the Leaf’s braking issues and second-hand Leafs on the roads in New Zealand, the concern wasn’t warranted.

But what about the overseas voluntary recalls? Surely, to be absolutely safe, the same is justified here?

“When you are selling cars into North America which is colossally litigious, you don't risk anything,” explains Manley.

“There's no way Nissan would not do something if they thought it was necessary.”

Only independent testing from NZTA is likely to change that stance. Flip the Fleet has requested the results of that testing be made available to the public. However, the transport agency is beset with larger issues relating to its oversight of vehicle certification. An external inquiry into the NZTA is currently underway.

The Flip the Fleet team of scientists have done their own unofficial testing to ascertain what Leaf owners may experience if hit by the brake failure. Putting some of the Leaf owners who had experience brake failure in a test car, they purposefully turned off the brake control unit via a software command to simulate the failure.

“While they noted similarities, they felt that the test car had more braking ability than when their car had failed and there were differences in how the brake pedal behaved,” the researchers noted.

“Hence we can’t be sure this self-induced ‘failure mode’ fully replicates what happens when this failure occurs under normal conditions, thus these results need to be treated as potentially conservative.”

Who is responsible?

For Moller, the braking issue, like the battery state of health issue, raises concerns about the state of the electric vehicle market, which continues to be dominated by imported second-hand Nissan Leafs.

“In my personal opinion, citizens are entitled to expect a manufacturer to design and build reliable brakes,” he says. 

“Fixing any faults should be promised as part of their ‘social license to operate’ in New Zealand."

Flip the Fleet urged the Government to require carmakers to provide firmware upgrades for their vehicles “as a matter of course at an affordable price, irrespective of how they got into New Zealand”.

But Moller says the issues also raise questions about the effectiveness of the Consumer Guarantees Act for car buyers and dealers alike.

“Simply shifting the responsibility for a manufacturing fault onto the dealers seems unfair. They are an important group of EV ‘early adopters’ that we need to support if New Zealanders are going to be able to access relatively inexpensive EVs,” he says.

Manley said Nissan and other car makers were under pressure to make factory warranties apply to second hand imported cars.

“It won’t happen,” he said.

“We are certainly not discriminating against imported Leafs. We are being put under pressure using other means.”

However, maintenance issues with Nissan’s electric cars here would be easier to address if the carmaker sold new Leafs here. Other car makers, such as BMW and Mitsubishi, which do sell their EVs new here, have been more willing to work with local owners to resolve issues and offer support through their dealer and servicing channels.

A new Leaf?

Manley said the plan had been to have new newest generation of Nissan Leaf on sale here by the end of Nissan’s current financial year, which closes on March 31.

“I suspect that is going to be delayed,” he told NOTED.

“Nissan New Zealand and Nissan Australia will probably source new generation Leafs from the UK, it suits us better. But the UK has demand exceeding supply, so it may be delayed slightly.

The Leafs assembled in the United Kingdom were preferable as they had specifications suited to the New Zealand market and had the sought-after NCAP five-star safety rating.

If could be the middle of next year or later then before Kiwis have the opportunity to buy a new Nissan Leaf, and enjoy warranty cover. In the meantime, Manley urged any concerned Leaf owner to take it to a reputable dealer for a look-over. 

“They'll check it out for you. It doesn't matter whether its a Leaf or a Rolls Royce.”

Read the full Flip the Fleet report summary and Frequently Asked Questions.