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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nissan Leaf Test Drive

Crossposted to Grist

Nissan is touring the country with a dozen or so electric Leafs to let people test drive them. It was exciting to be sitting in the first viable mass-produced electric car from a major car manufacturer. This car has the backing of Nissan dealerships for maintenance, warranties, and the quality control you can expect from a Japanese company. This is history in the making.

See this Treehugger article on the American version of the Mitsubishi i-MiEV due out next year.

The Drive:

The quietness and total lack of engine vibration was noticeable.

The steering was effortless. I don't know if that had anything to do with it being electric but I already own two cars with electric power steering, a Prius and a Yaris, and they are both harder to turn than the Leaf I drove. Maybe there is less weight on the front wheels. Even though the electric motor, controller, battery, and gear box are located there, the combination may weigh less than a front wheel drive engine with its attendant transmission, radiator, starter motor, and alternator, although the difference must not be very big. Or maybe they just tuned the steering to be that way for the test drivers.

Cars tend to be rated by how fast they can accelerate from zero to sixty because that is what you have to do to safely merge onto an interstate. Nobody talks about accelerating from zero to thirty, which is what you have to do to dodge other cars here in Seattle traffic.

I goosed it while in economy mode (computer softening the gas pedal) and was shocked by how fast it got up and went. That's the beauty of an electric motor's torque characteristics. A gasoline engine has to spool up to achieve peak torque.

There didn't seem to be enough regenerative braking compared to a Prius. It's possible they had it turned down for the test drives.

Under the Hood:

The tour guide claimed that the top of the motor controller was intentionally made to look like a conventional engine valve cover to give customers a sense of familiarity. I find it hard to believe than anybody would care about a detail like that but then, what do I know about mass marketing? I bought a station wagon just like everyone else when they started calling them SUVs.

There are still brake fluid, window washer, and coolant reservoirs. The coolant is used for the controller and motor. The batteries (under the car) are air cooled.

There is still the same old lead-acid car battery sitting there even though there is no starter motor. It's still used as a low voltage source and power reservoir for most of the electric things like wipers, radios, headlights, etc. The Prius does the same thing.

However, the alternator that is normally spun by a belt off the engine to charge that battery was nowhere to be found. I'm sure it has been replaced by something though, or maybe I just missed it.

Miscellaneous observations:

I spotted a Tesla doing a drive by. I'll bet that every Tesla owner in the area test drove a Leaf to compare it to their $100K version. You can't blame them for checking out the competition.

One test driver asked the tour guide why the car doesn't just charge itself up when moving rather than have to be plugged in.

I didn't catch the standard answer they must all give. It certainly wasn't, "Because we would have to rewrite the laws of physics to do that idiot. Next dumb question?" Or, maybe, "Snap! A perpetual motion machine! Why didn't Nissan think of that?"

Just before I got in the car I heard tires screeching and looked up to see a Leaf skewed sideways with an octogenarian in the driver's seat. He might have been testing its handling limits and ABS braking, or maybe he just confused the brake pedal for the gas pedal. Everyone survived.

There were two large tractor trailer rigs nearby with full body shops and maintenance facilities. The dozen or so Leafs being driven were all test cars that had been used to develop the production version although you could not tell by looking.

There was also a large generator on a flatbed truck that was being used to charge the cars.

I envision companies springing up to assist Leaf drivers who are worried they won't have enough charge to get home. All they need is a pickup truck and a couple of large battery packs that can be used to put enough charge in the car to get home. Maybe they can drop the battery pack off to charge the car for several hours as a kind of rental deal.

Electricians are going to get real busy installing plugs and chargers.


There are three types of charging. The cars all come with a trickle charger that will take about 20 hours to top off a fully depleted battery. Because you will rarely, if ever, fully deplete your battery just as you roll into your driveway, you will mostly just be topping off a partially discharged pack and should have no problem doing that overnight.

The power cord that comes with the car looks like a giant version of the one for your laptop and plugs right into the same 15 amp, 120 volt outlet.

The level II charger will top off a dead battery in about eight hours. The charger itself isn't very expensive. Most of the money goes to the electrician who will install it in your garage.

The level III charger is for people where cost is no object. It will blow a charge into your pack in about 30 minutes i.e., a carefully controlled explosion. However, you are not going to find any of these chargers out in public for quite a while. There isn't even a standard plug for them yet here in the States. I will also wager that fast charging will tend to wear your batteries out faster. This is a special factory ordered option. You can't have this plug installed at the dealership after it leaves the factory. I imagine it involves extra cooling fans and God knows what else.


I've been using an electric vehicle for several years now. You learn what your range is and never exceed it. You don't need public charging stations.

Local governments are spending a lot of time and money trying to figure out where to put public chargers. Personally, I think they are wasting most of that time and money as any government worth its salt is expected to do. Imagine taking a trip that is beyond your car's range so you plan to park it at a charging station. But when you get there, somebody else is charging. Snap!@? And what are the odds that a station is where you want it to be?

Range on all cars is highly variable depending on how you drive, city or highway, air conditioning etc. You just don't realize it until you drive an electric vehicle. Do eighty miles an hour and you won't go very far. In general you can expect somewhere between 80 and 120 miles on a charge, depending.

To the Luddites:

(This one's pretty good too)

The only heavy metals used are in the old style lead acid battery that is in every other car.

The batteries will be recycled.

Lithium is not a rare earth and supplies are plentiful.

The Leaf uses an induction motor which does not need rare-earth magnets.

A representative from a local power utility was there selling green power credits. For a few bucks a month you can blow off critics who claim your car is burning coal, or better yet, you can Photo-shop an image of your car into the following picture:

Photo from Tesla Motors website

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  1. Good write up Russ - you lucky bugger! Don;t know what you had to do to get a drive, but good for you.

    I like the E-bike conversion too - nicely done. I had seen someone who did a less elegant conversion that involved using the drill motor to power the bike!

    Of course, being stuck in Seattle traffic in an EV will be just as slow as in any other car, but will surely "feel" better.

    When you talk about the 8hr charger, I presume that is a 220V, 30 amp, or thereabouts, similar to what you would have for an electric appliance like a range or dryer? If you have a workshop wired for 220V, might you already have what is needed?

    I also like you points about the public chargers. As soon as there is any quantity of Ev's on the road, chances of getting a "charging space" start to decrease. I can see restaurants and shopping centres putting them in to attract customers, and that is their choice, but I can't see the benefit of government doing it on gov't property.

    If there is a market for away from home charing, I'm sure some entrepreneurs will work it out - they don;t need government putting them out of business before they start.

    What are the electricity rates for night time charging?

  2. Hey Paul,

    Right about the 8 hour charger.

    Seattle experimented with night time rates about eight years ago but it didn't work out. For reasons I'm not sure, customers were not saving money. We have a lot of hydro and some of the cheapest rates in the country-- about a 5 cents per kWh that goes up to about a dime when you cross a certain amount of use.

  3. “The coolant is used for the controller and motor. The batteries (under the car) are air cooled.”

    That certainly implies BEV are not very efficient.

    “Do eighty miles an hour and you won't go very far. In general you can expect somewhere between 80 and 120 miles on a charge, depending.”

    That certainly implies BEV are very inefficient under normal use.

    “I will also wager that fast charging will tend to wear your batteries out faster. ....The batteries will be recycled.”

    That implies batteries must be replaced. Wonder if the government will give me a tax credit.

    “I imagine it involves extra cooling fans and God knows what else.”

    You think! How about the fire department and some EMTs.

    “For a few bucks a month you can blow off critics who claim your car is burning coal, or better yet, ..”

    Of course, the fuel will come from fossil fuel despite volunteering to get ripped off.


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