By on July 27, 2012

As we reported back on July 17th, there were reports of Nissan LEAFs “bricking” themselves while connected to GE’s WattStation home charging stations. Over the last 10 days, I have been on a number of conference calls, spoken with a number of Leaf owners, electrical engineers and battery charging gurus. As it turns out, the problem was exactly as I had surmised: bad utility power damaged the LEAF. The only involvement the GE WattStation had, was that it was merely the connection between the LEAF’s on-board charger and the utility.

Back when I was contemplating getting an electrical engineering degree, I was working for a small computer peripheral design company. The experience has proved useful countless times, but this popular engineering joke is particularly àpropos: how many hardware engineers does it take to change a light bulb? None, we’ll fix it in software. To that end, GE released the following statement this morning:

“Nissan and GE have completed their investigation into the instances of Nissan LEAFs experiencing on-board charging (OBC) issues when using certain EV chargers. Nissan has traced the root cause of the issue to the LEAFs OBC software that can allow damage to occur to its OBC components while using certain chargers and in certain instances, such as when a brief under voltage or blackout condition occurs. Nissan is working to address this issue as quickly as possible, and in the meantime is advising customers to avoid charging during times when brownouts or momentary power dips may be likely, such as during electrical storms or high power usage on the grid.”

Until Nissan releases this fix, Nissan and GE are both telling us that LEAF owners should continue charging as normal, and on the off-chance you fry your LEAF during an electrical storm before Nissan has this fix, your warranty should cover the problem.

What about the problem with LEAF batteries permanently loosing their charge in the Arizona heat? Check back for an in-depth look next week.

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24 Comments on “GE WattStations and LEAFs: We’ll fix it in software....”


  • avatar
    redav

    For the price of the home charging stations, I would have thought that a power conditioner would be included to isolate the car from problems with the grid.

    • 0 avatar
      Alex L. Dykes

      Only a surge protector is supplied. With the current draw it would be extremely expensive to add true power conditioning to the mix.

      • 0 avatar
        el scotto

        I don’t think would be that expensive to install a whole house power conditioner; it would be good for an EV and just about anything else in the house that has a power cord. Electricity is the fuel for this car, don’t you want to feed it premium? Not a hot or sexy item for this car but one may be necessary. I think I need to buy someone wearing an IBEW t-shirt a few beers and get their take.

  • avatar
    redmondjp

    This is new information – we now know that it’s not a surge that is the problem, but an undervoltage or brownout situation. My guess is that during the brief voltage drop, the vehicle charger electronics get confused (possibly reconfiguring the power converter to use a lower input voltage), and when the voltage goes back up to normal, an overvoltage condition within the converter causes damage to some of its components.

    All speculation, but a software fix may indeed fix the issue. Time will tell.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      More likely the charger is a switching power supply where current increases when voltage decreases. More current causes more heat. The inexpensive solution is to monitor the input voltage and stop charging if the voltage falls below some lower limit.

  • avatar
    toomanycrayons

    What about hiding a backup gas generator in the bushes…?

  • avatar
    Toad

    This does not bode well for electric cars becoming more popular. Bricking the car because of a line voltage drop, power failure, or brownout is not a selling feature most consumers look for.

    Add range anxiety (real and imagined), limited charging stations, and all the other downsides and it looks like the internal combustion engine is not going anywhere anytime soon.

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      We need Steam! It was a great power source in the 1900′s, imagine what it could do with modern technology.

      • 0 avatar
        Luke42

        It’s called a coal or nuclear power plant. Steam already drives electric cars.

        Coal -> steam -> turbine -> generator -> grid -> battery -> wheels.

        It seems a little bit Rube Goldberg-ish, but so are the alternatives. Our society is a complex one.

    • 0 avatar
      Bowler300

      Some blogger probably posted the same thing after the first fouled spark plug back in 1902. This is just growing pains with a new technology.

  • avatar
    philadlj

    If LEAF batteries are permanently loosing their charge in the Arizona heat, does that mean they’re permanently tightening their charge in the Alaska cold?

  • avatar
    Sky_Render

    Utility power is notoriously bad. That’s why any company that has a large server farm or other IT equipment spends so much money on installing hardware that “cleans up” the grid power.

    • 0 avatar

      +1 i work in video and power conditioning has been standard for mission critical application since the ’70s it’s not just the low voltage. every time the utility switches a generator on or off, lots of weird stuff happens.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    *losing

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Hopefully they will fix it. But, as anyone with computers or . . . high-end audio . . . knows, the utility power that is perfectly adequate for your incandescent light bulbs and washing machine motors can create real problems with sensitive electronics.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    I’m a Leaf fanboy, but such an oversight by Nissan is pretty bad.

    As others have indicated, dirty power is status quo and must always be considered and tested in electronic design.

    I wonder if Nissan can quietly retrofit cars with better parts.

    On the other hand, GE doesn’t seem totally off the hook when they use the weasel words “…while using certain chargers” in their statement.

    • 0 avatar
      Silvy_nonsense

      Those aren’t weasel words, it’s GE trying to be diplomatic in stating what some consumers don’t want to hear – that the problem has nothing to do with GE’s product.

      Some customers reached a conclusion that was dead wrong. GE doesn’t see the need to embarrass their customers when the facts blow the customers’ conclusions out of the water. GE showed respect for their customers here and it probably confused you because large companies so rarely show respect to their customers anymore.

  • avatar
    Mike Kelley

    This problem will become even worse due to the Sierra Club/Obama team’s crippling of our ability to produce reliable electricity. Here the Sierra Club brags about their efforts:

    http://www.sierraclub.org/goals/

    • 0 avatar
      Silvy_nonsense

      It’s just sad that the United States is so polarized. Mike has used the comments section of a story that mentions the power grid to take a swipe at a President and interest group who have views that are different from his.

      It’s pitiful that we are so jacked up about certain issues that we just can’t control ourselves and politicize the comments section of an article that really has nothing to do with politics.

      It would be a great day if all the political extremists (both the psychotic right-wingers and the nut-job left wingers) found someplace else to whine.

  • avatar
    jpolicke

    So the list of rules for successful living with an electric car now includes:

    Don’t charge it too quickly or you’ll shorten the battery life;
    Don’t drive in a hot climate for the same reason;
    If you hear thunder in the middle of the night you must get out of bed and unplug the charger;
    Don’t charge it on summer days when usage on the grid (which was never designed for transportation needs in the first place) is high.

    I guess I don’t have the green goggles one has to wear to see these cars as anything other than an expensive joke.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    Blaming the public utility is a bit of a copout.

    This is an engineering flaw with the power management system of the car. The car should be designed to deal with low voltage situations. Nissan should take full ownership of this problem, if it hasn’t already.

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      Who knows? We may get fanboys of the Japanese electric grid gushing over the superiority of the Japanese way of delivering electricity.

    • 0 avatar
      BrianL

      I was thinking the exact thing Pch101. You can’t expect the power to be perfect 100% of the time. In the US, the power is better than many other countries. Since the Leaf is supposed to be a global car, what are they expecting to see in other countries?

      This is a striking failure of design and testing. I think TTAC took the softball approach here on laying the blame.


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