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Nissan Leaf's New Problem: Warning Lights Blink and Then the Car Goes Dead

There's nothing worse than getting into an expensive new car, only to find it completely dead and flashing annoying warning lights at you -- but that's what a bunch of Nissan Leaf drivers are suddenly dealing with. And while owners, some of whom have just taken delivery of the new battery-electric vehicle, wonder what's going on, Nissan itself has done a headless-chicken routine -- announcing on one hand that it's still looking into the problem, while simultaneously applying a software fix at some dealerships.

The Leaf had some challenges already, including reduced range in cold weather and stranding owners because of a range gauge with a mind of its own, but this one's worse -- and potentially devastating to the company's goodwill with owners.

Sitting in a dead Leaf
This Leaf Wiki has the best information on what's happening. Owners -- usually but not always after using their air conditioners -- report seeing an array of warning lights. Even though the car is still running at that point, their tendency is to try and turn off the car and restart it again, but that's exactly what leaves drivers stranded -- it then won't restart. In the absence of firm information from Nissan, there's a lot of speculation, including that up to 200 cars (almost half those delivered so far in the U.S.) are affected. Or maybe it's just cars produced in March. No one knows.

The no-start problem is very real for frustrated owners. "Leafwing" on the Leaf owners' forum reports getting a ready light, but no go from the car:

Five lights are on now [and] the steering wheel is hard to budge. To make a long frustrating story short, the car is sitting now at the dealership waiting for an engineer from Nissan to take a look at it--The initial test was not conclusive, although two EV components need to be checked. The technician discouraged me from taking the car home until more tests are done. I'm so disappointed.
"Sitting here in my DEAD Leaf," says another owner. "I got the car [delivered] at 5 p.m. and it failed me at 5:30," said another. "Sigh, I bet the Volt folks are loving this," said a third victim.

One owner said he was able to get going again by disconnecting and then reconnecting the battery, but that's hardly a recommended fix.

Mixed signals from Nissan
Nissan needs to be on top of this situation -- but it isn't even close. (Admittedly, with the disaster in Japan, it has a lot on its mind.) The company said in a statement that it hasn't quite gotten to the bottom of the problem yet.

But Ron Coury, the e-commerce director of North Bay Nissan in northern California, where the first Leaf was delivered, tells me that cars at his dealership have gotten an upgrade that "is specific to the car not restarting." Some 13 of the dealer's cars have gotten the upgrade, he said, and it appears to be solving the problem. Cars coming off the boat from Japan are also getting updated, he said.

Nissan told Automotive News it doesn't plan a recall (at least for now). It says the problem has occurred on only "a small number of Nissan Leafs" (which is, of course, all there are) and doesn't occur when the car is in motion -- and thus isn't a safety concern. There's talk about issuing a service bulletin, which is a step down from a recall.

If I were Nissan, I'd be planning a full-scale campaign right now, whether called a recall or not, that includes a major public relations effort. If there was ever a time for the company to demonstrate that it's putting the EV customers' needs first, this is it. And since there are only 452 Leafs on U.S. roads, how much could it cost?

A U.S. and Japan problem
The no-start problem has been noted in both Japan and the U.S. According to Nissan, which suspects an air-conditioning sensor:

If this sensor is activated it will illuminate a warning light on the instrument panel and may cause the vehicle to not restart once it has been turned off. We are actively investigating to determine the root cause and what action is necessary to address the issue. This is not a safety issue as the vehicle will not stop running while being driven but may not restart after being turned off.
Well, that's comforting, but it's unlikely to appease stranded motorists. And if they're still investigating the problem, why are some cars getting "fixed"?

The problem isn't occurring everywhere. Paul Scott, who sells Leafs in Santa Monica, California and is also a vice president of Plug In America, told me he hasn't seen the no-start problem at his dealership. "My car has been flawless," he said.

Given its challenges in the market -- high initial price, limited range -- it's important that the very cool Nissan Leaf perform well. If they don't, consumers a bit worried anyway are off the hook for going green in their next car purchase.

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Photo: Flickr/Miki Yoshihito
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