Well it seems a lot of people are buying them – Nissan has sold 158,000 Leaf’s worldwide, which might not be huge numbers but for an electric car that makes it the best selling model in the world.
But for everyone else who hasn’t bought one yet what’s the issue? Well for some it’s simply that they are too new and therefore too expensive at the present time, the Leaf has only been in production since 2011. If you shop in the £1000-£3000 car market as I have done for most of my life, there aren’t any EV’s for sale.
If however price is not the limiting factor then for most people range almost certainly is. My leaf is supposed to be able to do 124 miles on a charge. However as anyone who has ever owned a car has found out, especially if they bought it because it was meant to be very economical, these figures are produced in a facility where the temperature is perfect, the rollers under the wheels are perfectly smooth and the wheels only turn at a constant (low) speed. In reality my 3 year old car does 80 miles on a full charge and around 60 miles on an 80% charge (which is recommended to maintain battery longevity).
Why is the range 80 miles? It seems that the range a Leaf was designed to do was based on Nissan data showing that average journeys are nearly always under 100 miles. This is explained very nicely and diagrammatically in a documentary about EV battery tech https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtfKux9BUnE (there are lots of other interesting things in there as well).
Here is a similar graph.
Long journeys are very uncommon.
One Leaftalk forum member Scott has devised a clever website https://evstatus.com/ which downloads (with users permission) data from their cars and shows the average journey distance from a pool of a hundred or so Leaf drivers to be 8.1 miles or 10% of the real world range of a Leaf!
This way of thinking was in one sense very accurate and the experience of Leaf drivers matches this scientific and statistical way of specifying the range needed. It is enough for most people to make it perfectly viable. Everyone who now owns a Leaf worried about range before buying the car and then found it be just fine once they went out driving in it. However a lot of the current owners are early adopters. Nissan though failed to take into account the human factor, when you’re coming from a fossil fuel car, the range feels low and some people make a lot of journeys in a given day even if they are short ones.
So whilst a range of 80-100 miles is actually quite enough for nearly everyone (and really not a problem if adequate reliable charging facilities are available such as your own garage/driveway), those who are anxious about range would be more comfortable with 300 miles and this is why Tesla’s Model S has this range. It’s a case of science/statistics versus human psychology/existing norms.
So what are the alternatives? Buy a Model S – fine if you’ve £70k to spend and want a luxury, grand tourer-type car, but since this applies to a tiny fraction of the driving public it is not really the answer, though if Tesla want to give me one (or even lend me one for a few weeks) I’d be very happy to accept their kind offer. Its worth noting that the Model-S’s large battery means charging times are much longer unless you use a Tesla supercharger station which is capable of much higher power charging, and there are a lot less of these available than any other type of charger. But as your typical journey is short this probably doesn’t matter most days.
Buy a plug in hybrid car such as the Prius Plug-in and the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV? These try to give you best of both worlds by giving you an electric car with battery/motor plus an engine and fuel tank as well, but like many other cross-overs, think amphibious cars for example, they potentially give you the worst of both worlds instead. Whether you chose to start on electric mode (approx 15 miles), drive in hybrid mode or switch to petrol mode will be dependant on whether you’re making a short journey (electric) a long one (petrol) or want maximum performance (hybrid).
Why the worst? Because you don’t buy one based on a dispassionate statistical analysis of your driving habits, if you did you’d buy a pure EV, but because they sell to people who want to try this “new electric thing” and save money/CO2 and company car tax but worry that they won’t have the flexibility that their current fossil fuel car offers them if they go full-EV. Despite this they will and do sell well and in so far as they bridge the gap they are great. They will get people used to plugging in their cars both at home and out and about, and if they find they hardly ever need to switch to petrol mode, as the majority of journeys are under 15 miles, they are much more likely to buy a pure EV next time and drop the engine/fossil fuel altogether. My negative stance really only stems from being quite happy to take the plunge straight to EV and bypass plug-in hybrid altogether.
This leads nicely to another possible way forward. A Leaf or other pure EV which comes with a removable petrol/diesel range extender (generator) would be the ideal combination, leave it at home on shorter runs and stick it in the boot for long journeys. It charges the battery as you drive extending your range considerably. Several companies are working on designing a small, powerful range extender that could be used in this way. Currently none are quickly removable so they don’t quite satisfy this ideal yet. Sure you could just buy a generator and stick it in the boot, but you’d need an exhaust pipe and a way of cooling it, and to be able to put up with the noise it makes.
What about public chargers? Well it seems that my experience of them is that they are pretty good and fairly numerous. A lot are free and even when you get charged a ridiculously high fee such as £5 (for 100 miles driving), you’re still sitting pretty. However I live in the 2015 Green Capital of Britain – Bristol and they really have had a push to install chargers everywhere so I’m having it easy. Discussions on Leaftalk forum suggest not everyone is so happy and the proliferation of EV’s and more commonly plug-ins, is placing a strain on the capacity of public chargers. However this is a teething problem and its chicken and egg, more chargers will be installed as more EV’s are sold and so on. Supermarkets are starting to install them which will really help and if the petrol retailers (many of whom are supermarkets) start putting them on their forecourts then the problem will be much less acute.
However it still takes 30 minutes or so to charge on a public rapid charger, which considering that a coffee, a visit to the loo and a catch up on emails/facebook can easily take 15-20 minutes is not ridiculous but it is a way short of the 5 minutes it takes to fill up at a petrol station. Perhaps the answer is inductive charging where a strong magnetic field or something similar wirelessly induces a current in a receiving unit in the car. This can happen at the traffic lights or when parked up, or even on the move. This is a very infrastructure-heavy solution but then so are roads for all these cars to drive on, and most main roads have electricity cabling running along them already for lights and the national grid.
Battery swap systems have been tried in Israel and this is a nice idea. Pull in to a station and a mechanised system changes your battery for a fully charged one. This works in Israel which is small and where few of the population drive out of the country but limits all vehicles to having one standard sized battery pack.
So in conclusion range with a fully battery electric vehicle, in reality, is an issue for only a few but the perception of range being too short is a problem for many. Hopefully information like this will convince more people to try it and see for themselves. This is the reason Nissan will give you a 7-day test of a Leaf, they are convinced you’ll see the light if you only give it a try.