Round Trip Attempt Fail - 2011 Nissan Leaf Long-Term Road Test

2011 Nissan Leaf Long-Term Road Test

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2011 Nissan Leaf: Round Trip Attempt Fail

August 03, 2011


Our 2011 Nissan Leaf is safely tucked away in the Edmunds, garage, but try as I might I was unable to make the 93.2-mile round trip on a single charge. After a series of unexpected events I had to stop short of my goal and duck into the Edmunds static test lab/photo studio for 90 minutes to add in enough juice to get me through the last 3.5 miles.

It started last night, when I completed my 46.6-mile commute home with 53 miles of additional range left on the meter. Getting back to work the next day on a single charge had seemed so easy, so possible, especially since I had done it previously over a longer distance in a less-sophisticated Mini E.

And then there was our experience running the Leaf on a closed course for 132 miles, in which the predictive powers of the range gauge had been spot-on. A 6.5-mile cushion seemed like more than enough to make it back this morning.

And it might have been, too, if only I hadn't gotten a little too eager/desperate to enter the carpool lane when the 405 freeway started to bunch up around Century Blvd.

Even though our Leaf has access stickers, I had been avoiding the carpool lane because it was moving too fast. Making it to work demanded that I keep my speed down in the 40s and 50s, just as traffic had done to the Leaf naturally last night. So I kept to the right lane, running with the trucks and the battered Toyota Hilux pickups full of lawnmowers.

Things were looking OK, and then traffic built to the point where the carpool lane was going slow enough for my purposes but faster than everyone else. I hopped in. Later on, when the carpool lane opened up, I got back into the regular lanes to soak in traffic and proceed at 30 or 40 mph with everyone else for awhile.

And so it went.

With the end in sight the 405 started to pack up solidly as I passed under the flight path at LAX. I started to ease back over to enter the carpool lane -- the entrance about a half mile ahead. I was getting nervous at this point, because my 6.5-mile surplus had shrunk to just under 2 miles. Only 11 miles showed on the range meter with 9 and-a-bit miles to go and I was anxious to keep moving at 25 mph -- the exact speed the carpool lane was now going.

With 200 yards to go I got impatient in the throes of a fully developed case of range anxiety. I could see the entrance signs, see cars ahead moving in, so I rationalized and did something I have never ever done: I entered the carpool lane a little ways before the official entrance point. It was safe, the Leaf had valid permission stickers, no one was barrelling up from behind (in fact someone three or four cars back did the same thing in a classic pick move), but none of that mattered to the CHP officer sitting about 10 cars ahead of me, obscured from my view by a truck until it was too late.


Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb. The thing that sucks most is my local freeways, the 91 and 55 in Orange County, have recently introduced open access carpool lane controls, allowing motorists to enter and exit at any point. I would not have received this ticket 20 miles back down the road.

Incidentally, I've never seen any carpool lane pileups on those OC freeways, either. Quite the opposite, in fact, as drivers on my home turf no longer have to bunch up and make dubious lane changes in front of unsympathetic motorists in an attempt to get in or out of the small (and artificial) entry and exit ports they are forced to wait for in LA. In the land of Carmageddon traffic stacks up as concentrations of cars attempt to criss-cross in and out at the few designated choke points.

Instead the officer quoted the standard line that says getting in or out at points other than the designated points is "dangerous". The carpool lane policies in Northern California and on the 55 and 91 freeways suggest that this matter is currently up for debate within our state, but the fact remains that range anexiety got the better of me and I jumped about 150 or 200 yards too soon in a place where, for the time being, at least, they frown on that sort of thing.


And so, dear readers, I did not simply crap out on the side of the freeway, putting myself and others at risk in a stupid attempt to prove something about electric cars by, ironically, driving more conservatively than everyone else on the road. No, I got pulled over and was directed to the side of the road by a CHiP in a Crown Vic.

In the process of getting pulled over, the range meter dropped down to "---", meaning I no longer had any way to judge my remaining range or what this incident had cost me. I decided to punt. I asked the officer if he could also please summon a AAA tow truck.

He was a bit perplexed as I explained that I was in an electric car and had been attempting to keep moving in order to make it to my destination before I ... ended up on the side of the road like we were now. I showed him the range indication's "---" display and he saw the nav screen's Very Low Battery warning. Gazing back up at the stop-and go traffic inching past us, he understood. Nevertheless, he told me he could not unwrite the ticket at this point. He might have felt bad about it, but I don't really know what that emotion looks like on a patrol officer.

He called AAA for me, apologized for the inconvenience and waded back out into traffic as I sat there and waited for the flatbed.

About 20 minutes later my tow truck passed by without stopping, apparently looking for some OTHER red Nissan Leaf on the side of the freeway.

At this point I was simmering. And then it dawned on me that our new static lab was a couple miles closer to my position than the office. Duh. A quick check of Google maps put it 5.8 miles away. I decided to go for it, figuring I wouldn't be any worse off than I was already. Traffic was moving along at a nice steady 25 mph at this point, so conditions looked perfect for clandestine hypermiling. As a bonus, the route to the lab included a couple miles on the deserted 90 freeway, meaning I'd be well out of harm's way with a couple of handy exits to bail out on if this didn't work.

In short, it did work, and the empty lanes of the 90 allowed me to proceed at a slow pace with the 4-ways on until I got to the final mile of surface streets.

With 89.9 miles on the clock I rolled in to the lab and plugged in for about 90 minutes to ensure I'd have enough to make the 3.5 mile final leg to the office.

Lessons learned:

You'd think an electric car's range meter would be hyper-accurate, but don't get sucked in. It was quite accurate in our closed course test at a steady 30 mph, but that was because of the steady 30 mph part. Despite by best efforts to duplicate yesterday's driving pattern, my 6.5-mile cushion evaporated quicker in the real world than I could ever have guessed.

46 miles away is too far away from work for a Leaf if, like most everyone, you can only plug in at one end of your commute. Based on this and other experiences I'd recommend no more than 35 miles, a 70-mile round trip, in order to keep a decent safety margin. Even at that distance it's best to stay out of the fast lane. 30 miles is probably a better maximum commute radius if you want to drive like a normal person.

Carpool lanes aren't really that great for electric cars -- my problem notwithstanding -- because going fast in an open lane does your range no favors. Carpool lanes work best for this car when traffic is impacted and the carpool lane is moving slower than the posted limit but faster than everyone else.

Finally, even though you may have sat idly by and watched hundreds get away with something for years and years that you're too afraid to try, don't think that you'll be able to get away with it "just this once". Chances are one Mr. Murphy will be waiting to smack you upside the wallet with one of his infamous laws. Ouch.

Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 3,447 miles

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