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BATTERY BUG: Nissan Leaf
Mike Cassesse/Reuters/Landov
BATTERY BUG: Nissan Leaf

Dying Leafs

Technology | Americans aren’t excited about electric vehicles with short battery lives

Issue: "Race to the finish," Nov. 3, 2012

If you live in Phoenix and are thinking of buying Nissan’s all-electric Leaf car, you might want to think twice. In September, a group of Phoenix-area Leaf owners coordinated a driving test of their 2011 models. They found the distance their cars could travel before recharging had decreased as much as 30 percent since the time of purchase. Although a new Leaf can drive more than 100 miles on a single charge (in ideal conditions), a car belonging to one Phoenix driver traveled only 59.

The Phoenix driving test backed up Nissan’s own investigation of seven underperforming Leafs from Arizona. The carmaker concluded the area’s intense summer heat has a degrading effect on the Leaf’s 48 lithium-ion battery modules. Nissan said battery life was further reduced because drivers had put “higher than average” mileage on the cars: about 16,000 miles over 12 months. The plummeting battery gauge bars in the Leaf’s dashboard might explain why American enthusiasm for electric vehicles has fallen too.

Nissan requires buyers to sign a form explaining that some battery degradation is normal. The company says the Leaf’s batteries should retain 80 percent of their original charge capacity after five years, but some Arizona Leaf owners retained 85 percent capacity after only 15 months. As a “goodwill gesture,” Nissan bought back under Arizona’s lemon law Leafs from two unhappy Phoenix customers, without conceding the batteries were flawed. In the meantime, the company faces a class-action lawsuit from Leaf customers claiming Nissan sold flawed batteries and advertised improper charging methods.

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Nissan hopes a redesigned battery in its 2013 Leaf will boost lagging U.S. sales of the vehicle. The carmaker hoped to sell 20,000 Leafs in 2012 but is on track to sell 7,000. Now it’s offering discounts to the 2012 model’s hefty $35,200 price tag to reduce inventory.

Unlike hybrids, which rely on a gasoline-powered engine once battery charge wanes, most all-electric cars need to plug in after around 75 miles of driving, especially if the driver is using air conditioning or heating. That rules out road trips, and provides a clue to why Americans have purchased only 40,000 electric vehicles since late 2010, in spite of a $7,500 federal tax credit.

The Obama administration had a goal of putting 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, and the 2009 stimulus plan included $2.4 billion to jump-start the electric car industry. Grant recipients have built battery factories, but with car sales slumped, only a trickle of vehicles exist for the batteries they make.

Speed readers

License reader
Zuma Press/Newscom
License reader

Millions of Americans may be unaware that a picture of their car’s bumper is stored on a searchable computer database somewhere. Police and private companies throughout the United States are using automatic license plate readers to track suspects, find stolen vehicles, or repossess cars. The readers, often mounted on police cars, can scan 1,800 plates a minute and tag them with time and location. The Department of Homeland Security has invested $50 million to help local police adopt the technology. One company, Vigilant Solutions, has about 700 million scans in its private database, according to The Wall Street Journal. —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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