The Truth About Cars » New York Times The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Sat, 26 Jul 2014 01:30:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » New York Times Ask The Best And Brightest: How Do You Handle Recall And Service Bulletins? Mon, 21 Apr 2014 15:53:54 +0000 cobalt report 19

Since arriving at TTAC, I have been continually challenged and impressed by the B&B. The knowledge, wisdom, and rather civil discourse that arrives in response to the so-called journalism I produce is awe inspiring, often. Thank you, B&B. I’ve also been tasked with handling the GM recall story, given my technical background and my familiarity with GM’s processes at the dealer level – but today, I want to turn the floor over to you.

A recent New York Times article, raised the notion of GM’s seemingly nonchalant responses to quality issues with their vehicles. It’s been my goal in covering this matter to be as objective possible and present as many primary sources as possible. Getting carried away with a story like this is easy, and in my opinion, the NYT does just that. There’s little to no context for the reader, and most people are unfamiliar with recall processes for any OEM, let alone GM.

The Times analysis of service bulletins was limited to General Motors. 


The article is centered around the letter from the NHTSA’s Frank Borris discussing GM’s responses to various safety recalls over recent years, a letter that apparently that came at GM executive Michael Robinson like a bolt out of the blue. Excluding the Cobalt ignition debacle, was GM truly surprised, rolling with the status quo until caught? Or are they particularly unique in their behavior?

Can we sit and point fingers at GM solely, or is this a common occurrence in daily operations at other manufacturers? My dealer experience ends with GM. Where does your experience begin? Work at a dealership with another automaker? Maybe you work in a similar engineering field, and have fought the wrath of bean counters? How do the other OEMs (Toyota, Ford, Honda…) mitigate product problems in practice, especially in the face of safety vs. costs? And how do they respond to field reports about product flaws?

Anonymous stories and tips can be emailed to Editors at ttac dot com

]]> 38
Strict Enforcement of NY’s Parking Laws Affects Official Vehicles Mon, 24 Feb 2014 21:08:13 +0000 Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

The New York Times reported Sunday on how strict enforcement of parking violations in Manhattan is causing problems for government agencies as they are forced to reclaim official vehicles that have been towed. In most cities, official vehicles are kept immune from the effects of parking enforcement by dashboard placards that allow government officials to park in red zones or without feeding the meter while they are on the job.


In New York city, that policy ended in 2008 when then Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised to crack down on illegal parking by city employees and gave oversight of parking violations by official vehicles over to the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau. That agency’s policy is to tow cars, placard or not, no questions asked and, as a result, in 2013, New York City tow trucks removed 1855 vehicles displaying placards. Those vehicle included 242 registered to the Fire Department, 361 assigned to the Police Department itself and another 311 vehicles assigned to Federal agencies operating in the city. Most of the vehicles fall into the category of “safety hazard violations” and were towed for blocking bus stops, no standing zones and other places where parking is prohibited like fire lanes.

On the surface, this seems like a good policy that holds government employees to the same standard as the general public, but the article explains that towing and impound fees are not generally assessed against official vehicles and goes on to say that they are usually released to their agencies upon receipt of an official request. The net result is that the entire operation is one that actually costs the city money in unpaid fees while serving as little more than a nuisance to public employees who take time out of their work day to retrieve their vehicles. Senior officials have stated that the new police commissioner is currently reviewing the program.

]]> 49
News Flash: Prius Pokes Pedestrians, Bimmers Bump Blithely, Ladies Catch A Break Wed, 14 Aug 2013 15:15:05 +0000 impact

You’ve always suspected that BMWs don’t respect pedestrian safety. Now there’s a survey that confirms what you already believed, making you feel very warm and fuzzy inside.

The NYT is reporting some details of a study of motorist behavior and courtesy to pedestrians. It confirms much of what you’d expect:

The study also found that male drivers were less likely to stop for pedestrians than were women, and that drivers of both sexes were more likely to stop for a female pedestrian than a male one.

“One of the most significant trends was that fancy cars were less likely to stop,” said Mr. Piff, adding, “BMW drivers were the worst.”

Stupid fancy cars and their fancy-pantsy drivers, probably wearing ascots and whatnot as they drive their $219/month 320i Sportronic X Drives home from their soul-destroying cubicle jobs! But it turns out the narcissists behind the Roundel aren’t the only villains:

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where the hybrid gas-and-electric-powered Toyota Prius is considered a status symbol among the environmentally conscious, the researchers classified it as a premium model.

“In our higher-status vehicle category, Prius drivers had a higher tendency to commit infractions than most”

AHA! We all know why that is, right? It isn’t lack of courtesy or consideration. It a concern with regeneration. Stopping for pedestrians in a hurry necessitates wasteful use of the brakes, decreases fuel economy, and causes the planet to cry out as if a thousand BTUs were suddenly silenced or something like that. Every time you save a life near People’s Park, a polar bear winds up floating on a tiny little iceberg! And nobody wants that. I mean, you could wind up stuck on that iceberg with that polar bear. And then we all know what happens next.

Note: Listening to this video, even at home, will cost you your job. It has the F-word in it. At least twice. Don’t watch this video unless your mom says it’s okay and you are independently wealthy and have already heard the song and know what to expect. Other songs from this group, “Method of Destruction”, are offensive to people of all lifestyles and make light of the tragic incident in which Jim Gordon, the guy who wrote the piano coda to “Layla”, murdered his mother. Also there are jokes about Ethopia. I really cannot emphasize enough that you don’t want to watch this video. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

It’s also no surprise that men are more likely to both commit and receive motorist-on-pedestrian offenses, unless you really and truly believe that men and women are alike in all ways, in which case it will be a surprise. Last but not least, although the survey’s authors speak in reverent terms about the pedestrian courtesy displayed by “beaters”, I wouldn’t step out in front of anything labeled “Eurosport”, “Brougham”, or “Ghia” while within the city limits of Detroit, Michigan.

]]> 38
Musk Blames NY Times For $100 Million Loss, Should Blame Himself Tue, 26 Feb 2013 14:03:25 +0000

Tesla CEO Elon Musk found the perfect scapegoat for lost Tesla sales and a 13 percent drop of the company’s stock: John Broder of the New York Times. Musk told Reuters that “Tesla has lost about $100 million in sales and canceled orders due to the Times story, which said the sedan ran out of battery power sooner than promised during a chilly winter test drive from Washington D.C. to Boston.”  Musk should look in the mirror if he needs a scape goat.

To pile on more, Musk told the wire that “between $100 million and $200 million of Tesla’s drop in market value was due to the Times article.” Since the Times’ February 8 story, Tesla shares have fallen 13 percent.

“We have seen a few hundred cancellations that are due to the NYT piece and slightly lowered demand in the U.S. Northeast region,” Musk emailed Reuters.

Reuters carefully raises the possibility that either Musk’s math is wrong, or the losses in sales are steeper. Says the wire: “To lose $100 million in car sales, assuming a $100,000 price per vehicle, Tesla would have to sell 1,000 fewer cars than expected.”

Musk says that a “Tesla team and I are brainstorming this week how to correct the misperception that they have created in the market about how well our car performs in cold weather. That too, will take money and time.”

TTAC says and said: Musk has nobody else to blame than himself. It was Musk who started the Great Twitter War that still reverberates through the interwebs. The Times story had received zero traction in the media until Musk twittered the lid off it, and it exploded. Musk is a loose cannon, and the easiest way the Tesla team can start changing the perceptions in the market is to take away Musk’s Twitter account.  However, it may be too late. The spat between a West Coast tycoon and the New York paper told a much wider public that “maybe, this EV stuff is still not ready for prime time,” as more than one commenter commented.

]]> 71
Who Lost The Total Tesla Twitter War? An After Action Report Thu, 21 Feb 2013 15:58:11 +0000

As a retired operative of the auto propaganda community, I watched the schoolyard brawl between Tesla’s Elon Musk and the New York Time’s John Broder with detached interest. I won’t re-hash it again. Unless you live in a monastery in Tibet, and your Samsung Note 2 was impounded, because you were caught masturbating to Google image search, it was impossible to escape the fallout from the war of tweets, blogs, and counter-tweets. To this day, bullets and barbs still ricochet through the Internet. Only hours ago, Musk was still seen tweeting about an “impressively out of touch NYT auto editor,” while the world at large is utterly confused. And that is the true tragedy. This after-action report is dedicated to the victims.

At the end of a modern war, both sides declare themselves winners and go home, leaving behind ruins and scorched earth. Same thing happened after the Total Tesla Twitter War. Both sides of the spectrum, the EV-haters and the EV-lovers, say they won this one. Who lost then? Tesla did, and along with Tesla, the fledgling EV industry. Tesla may have won the argument, but it lost the now completely confounded hundreds of millions of people caught between the tweeting fronts.

The radicals, EV lovers and haters alike, do not need any convincing. Who needs to be convinced are the gasoline-powered hundreds of millions of people, called consumers, who buy a car not as a science experiment, or as a display of political leanings. They buy a car to get them from A to B without fuss, maybe with a spontaneous detour to C. They get anxious when the gas gauge approaches empty, and when there isn’t a gas station after a few more miles, on their side of the road, preferably. They will not buy a car that demands the same level of high anxiety all the way from Washington, DC, to Boston. They also won’t wait an hour for the car to fill up.

The Total Tesla Twitter War, and trust me, none of the hundreds of millions did escape the ferocious carpet bombing, could not have been better planned by an axis of evil, formed by BP, Shell Oil, and Valero.  Shell-shocked consumers are left with the impression that a normal ride in one of those electric vehicles must be planned like an Atlantic crossing in a single engine plane. They were told by CNN, a network that had set out to prove Broder wrong,  that the “most scary part of the trip” was 200 miles long. They heard that a group of Tesla-aficionados, likewise on the road to exonerate Tesla,  needed to be provided with “multiple versions of beta software” flashed onto one owner’s car multiple times, to continue the trip.

During the Total Tesla Twitter War, hundreds of millions of people, also known as “the car market” learned that to drive an EV, one better pick a not so cold day for the outing, because the heat must be kept down. You must drive below the legal limit, and not stray from the New Jersey Turnpike. The response of the hundreds of millions? “Very interesting. I know, electric cars are the future. Call me when simple people like me can use them.”

The 20 million or so who live around New York City and points East were completely lost to the electric cause once the Cross Bronx Expressway was mentioned in the reports. In a (well-maintained and gassed-up) regular car, that piece of scenic roadway is passed only with the utmost trepidation. In an electric car? “Are you kidding me?”

I was professionally horrified when I heard of Elon Musk taking to Twitter, calling John Broder a fake. If I had not read about it in Reuters, I would not even have noticed the article in the Times. It was Musk’s tweet, and not Broder’s piece that started the war. Where I worked most of my professional life, CEO’s of car companies did not tweet. They didn’t even do email, their secretaries did, somewhere by the turn of the millennium. “But that’s just how Elon is,” said someone who is familiar with the situation, as they say. “If you buy a Toyota, you won’t meet Akio. Buy a Model S, and you will meet Elon. It’s unavoidable.”

A CEO of a real car company would never stoop so low and lambast a newspaper writer for a botched review. In the executive suite, car reviews are not read or taken seriously anyway. If a story is really bad, the CEO will call his chief of PR, upbraid him or her for not having the media under control, and let them handle it. A professional PR chief will know that attracting extra attention is what you absolutely do not want to do in that situation. The matter is handled over the phone, or over lunch, and next time, when there is a car launch on the Fiji islands: “Sorry, all seats are booked.” In really, really, really bad cases, when foul play is involved, you sue and let the lawyers handle it. But always stay out of the limelight, and keep your hands off Twitter. Or, as we had to repeat daily in the industry: “If you step in the shit, don’t run around the house.”

A CEO of a real car company also would have listened to his PR and Marketing people, and he would not send his car into a fight it will lose. These daylong press drives between Supercharger stations are the result of a Musk obsession with the Great American Road Trip. At the 2010 Detroit Auto Show, the electrified sports car was driven en masse from California to Cobo Hall. At the launch of the Tesla Supercharger, a thing that looks like a roadside advertisement for a sex aid, a sadly forgotten Brad Berman drove 531 miles from Tahoe to LA and wrote it up in the New York Times. Another customer drove from Las Vegas to the event, replicating a Motor Trend trip. One of these stunts is bound to go wrong, and Broder’s did.

A CEO of a real car company would congratulate his marketing and PR people for positioning the car as how an EV, and frankly a sporty car should be positioned: For quick trips around town or down to the beach. For a road trip, use the SUV.  Trust me, people who have $100,000 for  an electric car, will fly from DC to Boston. Usually, in a Lear. Environmentally responsible billionaires shun the Gulfstream.

Some say, Musk had to do something, because the story sent the Tesla stock in a tailspin. Let’s look at the chart. When the story ran on February 8, the stock was unimpressed, and pretty much moved sideways. Traders don’t read the car pages of the Times, they read “The Tape”, and Barrons on Sunday. Sure, on Monday the 11th, the stock opened a buck and change down, only to recover to its old trajectory during the trading day. At 2:30 pm, TSLA is back at 38.92. Then suddenly, it goes into a tailspin.  What happened at 2:30 pm on February 11?

At  2:30 pm, Musk tweeted his infamous  “NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake”. Blogs, retweets, soon all of the media drew attention to a Musk vs. New York Times mudslinging. Promptly, the stock went south again. Lost in the fog of the Total Tesla Twitter War, the TSLA share was shot out of the sky and landed at $37 on the 15th . On the 19th, it changed course, to end up where it had been the week before.

Again, people can read into it whatever they want. The Musk-for-president camp will blame Broder for the loss, and will explain the recovered stock with Tesla’s vindication. The EVs-are-evil camp will say the stock was sold by people learning the truth. The street says these are the typical pre-earnings gyrations, driven by option plays. There was an earnings announcement on Wednesday, the news (“Loss Widens at Electric-Car Maker”) were what one is used to hear from Tesla, the stock shrugged it off. All I can say is that the brouhaha did not instill confidence. Neither in the stock, nor in the car.

PS: Today, the Tesla share is down hard, nearly 10 percent at the time of this typing. I am awaiting a tweet from Elon any minute. Time to go into hiding.


]]> 97
New York Times Public Editor Throws Reporter Under The Electric Bus Tue, 19 Feb 2013 16:42:19 +0000  

The New York Times had their public editor (think ombudsman) publish a response to the whole “Dead Tesla’ fiasco (summary by our own Dan Wallach here), and it is far from kind to reporter John Broder.

While Public Editor Margaret Sullivan defends Broder against Tesla founder Elon Musk’s claims that he “faked” his test drive, she does just about everything else possible to impugn his journalistic cred. Witness Sullivan’s epic qualification when sticking up for her writer

My own findings are not dissimilar to the reader I quote above, although I do not believe Mr. Broder hoped the drive would end badly. I am convinced that he took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it.

Did he use good judgment along the way? Not especially. In particular, decisions he made at a crucial juncture – when he recharged the Model S in Norwich, Conn., a stop forced by the unexpected loss of charge overnight – were certainly instrumental in this saga’s high-drama ending.

Sullivan claims she consulted with

“…Mr. Broder, Mr. Musk, two key Tesla employees, other Times journalists, the tow-truck driver and his dispatcher, and a Tesla owner in California, among others…I’ve also had a number of talks with my brother, a physician, car aficionado and Tesla fan, who has helped me balance what might have been a tendency to unconsciously side with a seasoned and respected journalist – my own “confirmation bias.”

Perhaps Ms. Sullivan’s brother could have been replaced by someone with an engineering or automotive background rather than a Tesla fan and car nut, who surely comes with his own set of biases and, in the case of the average car aficionado, opinions that are largely formed based on hearsay and a quick scan of a buff book while waiting in the CVS checkout line.

Also missing is one crucial element that most of you are aware of, but Sullivan seems ignorant of; the element of pressure from an OEM when testing a car or anything related to the car on a manufacturer-arranged drive. Tesla has operated some of the most tightly controlled testing protocols we’ve seen in some time (TTAC has yet to drive the car outside of a brief preview). If anything, invoking the Holy Cause of journalistic integrity would call for Sullivan and the NYT to push back against any interference or petulant PR campaign from Tesla and Elon Musk. In the wake of Jayson Blair and Judith Miller, the Grey Lady is doubtlessly sensitive to claims of journalistic incompetence – or worse. But if Sullivan had consulted someone besides a few Tesla employees and her brother, this crucial element may have been brought to the surface, and a different tone may have been adopted.



]]> 81
Tesla vs. The New York Times: Let’s Check The Logs Fri, 15 Feb 2013 11:17:31 +0000

Pull up a chair, get some popcorn. The fireworks have been flying fast and furious. New York Times reporter John Broder wrote a piece about his press loaner Tesla running out of juice. Tesla, already smarting from the perceived slight given them by BBC’s Top Gear, decided they needed an ace up their sleeve: data logging. Chairman Elon Musk penned a response that included detailed data logs from the press car. Broder responded in general terms and then with a point-by-point response to Musk’s charges. The NYT’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, has also chimed in with the opening of her own investigation. Notably, Musk hasn’t returned her calls. Her tentative conclusion? “I reject Mr. Musk’s central contention that Mr. Broder’s Sunday piece was faked in order to sabotage the Model S or the electric-car industry.” She also called for Tesla to release all the data they’ve got in proper machine-readable form, not just their pretty annotated graphs with the circles and the arrows and the paragraph on the back of each one.

Readers are welcome to read all the back and forth and come to their own conclusion. You can read lots of smart technical people trying to reconcile both stories at this Hacker News thread. The AtlanticWire has a reasonably concise pro-Broder analysis if you don’t want to wade through a comment thread. Also, Consumer Report’s recent article and members of the independent-of-Tesla owner’s forum seem to be corroborating some of the cold-weather battery issues raised by Broder’s original piece.

Instead of going any further down that path, let’s instead talk some more about this data logging business. The Tesla Model S has the capability of logging everything about the car: it’s GPS location, velocity, even the settings on the AC/heating system. Musk noted, in a tweet, that “Tesla data logging is only turned on with explicit written permission from customers, but after Top Gear BS, we always keep it on for media.” How nice.

On the one hand, bully for Tesla. As Jack Baruth has often noted, car reviewers are often not particularly good car drivers, and this gives Tesla the opportunity to correct the record. On the other hand… Tesla is working to destroy the career of a seasoned journalist based on their interpretation of the evidence in these logs. It’s heady stuff that might give any other car reviewer a moment of pause. We believe that journalists sign something acknowledging that Tesla is watching them. But everybody else is cool, right? Let’s talk about the privacy implications.

Say you’re a Tesla owner, you enable the data logging feature, and then you let your teenage kid drive the car without you around. Does she have an expectation of privacy? Should she? Okay, now you give your car to one of the valet parking stands which many trendy restaurants force you to use these days. The valet takes your car for a joyride and you’ve got the data. (Amusingly, the Tesla Roadster had a valet mode to diffuse exactly this concern, but the Model S doesn’t seem to.) Those are easy cases. How about your insurance company or a car rental company? Maybe they offer you a discount for driving sedately and providing them with the data. Or maybe they require data logging access, particularly if you’ve got a less than stellar driving record. Drive your car more than 10 mph over the speed limit and lose your coverage? Some companies already offer variations on this sort of usage-based insurance, but Tesla’s data logging facility enables it to go to quite a different level. One step further: can a court order subpoena your data? The possibilities are endless. Hacker types might also imagine protecting their privacy by modifying the car to falsify these records. Criminal types might see this as a way to generate an alibi. Heck, unethical car manufacturers could even falsify these records to falsely impugn negative reviewers. Write a positive review or risk your career!

I don’t want to pick on Tesla too much. Any car with a modern telematics system (GM OnStar, etc.) already has the facilities to support remote data logging. Let’s just hope Tesla gets more of these cars into reviewers’ hands. That’s the scientific method at play: results should be repeatable. If there’s a real problem, it can and should be discovered by having more eyes looking at it. CNN has already set out with another Tesla. More on this story as it develops.

[This blog piece emerged from a discussion with several of my graduate students. Everybody’s buzzing today with this news.]

]]> 84
Dead LEAFs and GE Chargers Tue, 17 Jul 2012 13:00:05 +0000

The GE Wattstation killed my Leaf! That’s the story being reported by the New York Times as well as As the tale goes, 11 Leaf owners have had their chargers “damaged” while charging with GE’s Wattstation home charging station. The relative significance of only 11 failures aside, the Nissan Dealer in San Pablo, CA confirmed to that Nissan North America has notified dealers of a potential problem with the Leaf and the GE home charging station. TTAC contacted Hilltop Nissan and they have yet to return our calls. Rather than just parroting back the usual news reports we dug deep. We contacted GE and Nissan, consulted some professional electrical engineers and read though hundred of pages of boring SAE documents. Click past the jump to learn more about EV charging than you ever wanted to know.

Before we dissect the dead Leaf issue, we must first understand how EV charging stations work. Because there were a wide variety of charging connectors prior to the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt coming on the scene, we’re going to focus on just the SAE J1772 standard. Other than Tesla, who has decided to off on a tangent with their “prettier” charging connector, all EVs and PHEVs on sale in America use this connector. The short list includes the Leaf, Volt, Karma, Coda, Prius Plug-in, i MiEV, Fit EV, RAV4 EV, Focus Electric, Smart EV, and ActiveE.

The first thing you need to understand is that a “charging station” or “EV home charger” is a confusing term that seems to imply that the home unit is “doing all the work.” In reality, the J1772 connector and station you plug your car into is simply a “smart” extension cord for your car. All the circuitry required to charge the battery, monitor the rate of charge, and keep tabs of the heath of the battery are driving around with you all the time.

Wait! Why is my charger in my car, isn’t that inefficient? While the extra weight of hauling around your charger sounds crazy at first, it is the easiest way to make the charging infrastructure both universal and cost-effective. Because each EV’s battery differs in cell count, voltage, chemistry, cooling characteristics and capacity, it is easier to supply AC power directly to the car and allow the car’s electronics to charge the battery the way it sees fit. The charging connector is simply responsible for communicating to the vehicle what kind of power is available and providing protection to the electrical circuit on which it is installed.

The J1772 connector has 5 pins: AC1, AC2, ground, “control pilot” (aka data) and “proximity detection.” AC1, AC2 and ground are fairly self-explanatory. When using 120VAC AC1 is power and AC2 is neutral. When connected to a 240V circuit AC1 is power and AC2 becomes power as well.

OK, why not just use an extension cord? What’s going on in my charger? Excellent question. Inside the charger we essentially get some relays that turn on and off the power to the pins when the car requests it. In addition we have electronics that communicate the power type (120VAC or 240VAC) and maximum charge current available from the charging station.

So how does it work? When the station is not connected to a car, the AC1 and AC2 pins are not active. This is a safety measure to keep you safe if you should decide to go probing with a paperclip. When you start to connect the vehicle, the first thing that connects is the ground pin because it is longer than the others. The ground in theory helps prevent (among other things) static discharge that could harm the electrical components. The next pins that connect are the power, data and proximity detection pins. Now that everything is connected, the car sees the proximity detect line, establishes a data connection with the charging station, and tells the car what voltage and current options are available. Part of this process involves checking for the presence of a small silicone diode SAE refers to as D1. According to SAE, the purpose of D1 is that it “insures that an EV is actually connected and can be discriminated from other potential low impedance loads.” In other words, D1 isn’t involved in actually charging, just in the verification that there’s actually a car connected to the plug. Next, the car tells the charger what kind of charging it will be doing and requests power. The station energizes AC1 and AC2, the car begins drawing power and charging the battery.

During the charge the station and the car are both monitoring the connection and either device can end the charge at any time. When you unplug the car, the first connections broken are the proximity and control pilot connections, which cause the station to stop power to AC1 and AC2 within milliseconds.

Back to that whole GE thing

The core of the issue seems to be the circuitry that communicates with the charging station. According to SAE, “the minimum control circuit necessary on the EV to use in conjunction with the inlet uses one diode, one capacitor, and one resistor“. Based on the way these components are connected between the “control pilot” pin and the ground connector, the station knows a car is connected and can tell basic charge status.

With me so far? Let’s dig deeper. Suppose that for some reason you had a bad building ground that caused some sort of transient voltage, or ground fault in your home’s electrical system, or a massive power surge from your utility. If this was the case, it is possible to damage the diode which, in this case, is the most likely component to be damaged from a reverse voltage situation. Again, this is possible because the station just connects the car’s on-board charger to the mains. This is likely enough that the J1772 spec outlines that D1 should be rated for at least 100V because “this diode is exposed directly to cable transients.” If D1 fails, charging stations that adhere strictly to J1772 won’t energize AC1 and AC2 because they will think that there is no vehicle connected or there is a fault in the connection.

Actual failures

From my forum research is appears that the Leaf failures fall into two broad categories: D1 failure and a failure involving more than just D1 on the control side of the charger.

The failures can be identified from one another by using the EVSE (Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment) that came with your car. Users on report that if D1 has failed, then the car will still charge with the EVSE as it does not check for the existence of D1 in the first place. If the car fails to charge period, then there’s more wrong.

Assuming there is no design fault inherent in the Wattstation’s “control pilot” design (and we might assume this logically because the issues are limited to Nissan Leaf vehicles only), the most likely possibility is a problem with the an underrated or faulty D1 diode in the Leaf’s charger that makes the control pilot circuit more susceptible to transient current and failure. While it does seem fishy that the problems are only reported with the Wattstation and not the popular Leviton and Nissan branded chargers, the issue likely comes down to surge suppression and bad luck. It is likely that Nissan uses a D1 diode with a lower rating (and therefore affording less protection) than the Volt and Prius plug-in. With so few EVs on the road, and little public information on the specifications of electrical components in the chargers it is hard to say for sure.

With US Leaf sales at approximately 12,841 through June 2012, Volt sales at 16,814, i MiEV at 413 and some 2,000 Plug-in Prius sales to the same date, there are some 32,000 EV/PHEVs on the road (not counting the smaller volume vehicles). GE won’t release specific sales numbers simply citing sales in the “thousands.” Even if we assume this means only 2,000, then the number of actual problem units is just over half a percent. If you assume that half the units went to Volt owners and half went to Leaf owners, then the problem percentage raises only to about 1% of all the units being used with the Leaf. Maybe.

Confirming our hypothesis which is that the root cause of the failure is a factor external to the Leaf we got a statement from Nissan at the 11th hour.

We are aware of several isolated instances of Nissan LEAFs sustaining damage due to voltage current spikes from the power grid. These isolated instances, while resulting in component damage to the on-board charger, did not result in any injuries or fires.  Some of these reported occurred while LEAFs were charging at GE WattStations. Nissan and GE are working to investigate every issue and determine root cause of the charging issues. While this issue represents a handful of incidents out of millions of charging events involving the Nissan LEAF, we are doing everything we can to get to the bottom of the issue. --Katherine Zachary, Nissan North America

While a power surge/spike is the most likely cause, it seems to highlight a possible shortcoming in the Leaf’s charging circuitry that may make it more susceptible to this type of damage. But it’s probably not all D1′s fault, your home might be killing your leaf. If you live in a home built before 1960, your home was likely built without grounded outlets, and possibly without the neutral line being connected to ground properly. If the neutral is “floating,” there is the possibility of having some very strange voltage potentials at the charging connector to your car. We have no real way of knowing whether the Leaf or the Volt is more likely to fail from this sort of event, but we can assume that it may manifest itself in the Leaf first as Volts don’t have to be plugged in to operate. There are a few steps you should take regardless.

1. Get a surge suppressor. You put one on your computer, your TV, your stereo and even your fridge. Why wouldn’t you put one on the most expensive appliance you’ll ever buy? Regardless of the outcome of the GE/Nissan investigation, the few hundred you’ll spend on a surge suppressor is insurance well spent, especially if you live in a lightning prone area. According to GE, the Wattstation has an internal 6kV surge protection per UL2231-2 & IEC 1000-4-5 which is the same standard that Leviton and other competitors meet. Buy a whole house surge suppressor anyway.

2. Have an electrician checkout your electrical system before you have a station installed. This may seem like a no brainer, but if you’re just asking your electrician to install an outlet to plug the station into, or hard wire the station, they may not check your main panel to see what’s going on. Be sure they check your main and all sub-panels (at the least) to see if everything is kosher.

3. If you live in a lighting prone area, have lightning rods professionally installed on your home.


In the end this is a textbook example of the power of the internet. The fact that a very small percentage of problems can make a New York Times article is amusing to say the least. But it also tells us something else: As EVs gain market share and our cars become essentially expensive electrical appliances with expensive computers inside, we need to re-think how we view the quality of the power in our homes.


According to the New York Times: A spokeswoman for Nissan North America, Katherine Zachary, said in an e-mail, “There’s no official Nissan policy instructing customers not to use G.E. WattStations.”

We contacted GE ourselves and got the following response:

Since its launch in 2011, GE’s WattStation Wall Mount has performed as designed, thousands of units have been shipped, and it has received positive reviews from EV drivers. Regarding the charging issue raised by 11 Nissan Leaf owners who had GE WattStations, GE’s current analysis does not indicate that the WattStation is the cause of the reported failures.  GE has been actively working with Nissan to help determine the source of this issue. The GE WattStation has not encountered a similar issue with other brands of electric vehicles. GE’s WattStation is also designed and tested to the SAE J1772 and appropriate UL standards and these tests have been validated by an independent third party. And there have been no design changes to WattStation since its 2011 launch.

The GE WattStation has surge protection per UL2231-2 & IEC 1000-4-5 which will protect the internal circuitry of the charger in the event of a surge up to 6kV.  This  is consistent with what is seen with our competitors.  –Sean Gannon, GE Energy Spokesperson

]]> 21
Boycott Costco! Save The Chargers! Sun, 21 Aug 2011 15:22:13 +0000

The New York Times is outraged:

“Just as plug-in cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt enter the market, Costco is reversing course and pulling its chargers out of the ground, explaining that customers do not use them.”

Why in the world?

Costco was an early leader in setting up charging station, also in setting an example for other retailers, such as Best Buys and Walgreen. By 2006, Costco had 90 chargers at 64 stores. It didn’t matter that next to nobody had an EV.  Even after GM ditched the EV1, Costco kept the chargers.

Now as EVs are finally showing up in (small) numbers, Costco is pulling the plug-in poles.

“Nobody ever uses them,” said Dennis Hoover, the general manager for Costco in northern California, to the Times. “At our Folsom store, the manager said he hadn’t seen anybody using the E.V. charging in a full year.”

Plug In America, a California-based E.V. advocacy group, is mounting a spirited save-the-chargers campaign:

“Costco’s charging stations have supported the pioneering owners who purchased electric vehicles in the 1990s and early 2000s. As documented in Who Killed the Electric Car, most of these cars were taken back by the automakers and crushed. Fortunately, hundreds of these vehicles were saved by the electric vehicle activists who founded Plug In America. The owners still depend on these cars, many of which still perform just as well today as when new. These cars are a testament to the longevity and reliability of electric vehicles.”

The Costco outlets are outdated by current standards and most likely only fit those pioneering cars from the last millennium. A state-supported program would let Costco upgrade them at no cost.

Hoover is aware of the state-funded upgrade program, but does not want to use it: “Why should we have anybody spend money on a program that nobody’s thought through?”

Or maybe Costco is afraid of the electric bill, now that EVs possibly will show up en-masse?

You never know.


]]> 44
TTAC In The New York Times Thu, 16 Dec 2010 07:43:09 +0000

Ed Niedermeyer is too humble to say it, so it’s left to me: Ed just had his second third op-ed piece in the New York Times. Required reading.  Two core sentences:

“In particular, what Mr. Obama called his “one goal” — having Detroit “lead the world in building the next generation of clean cars” — is nowhere near being achieved. While the idea of improving G.M.’s and Chrysler’s fuel efficiency was doubtless a politically popular justification for the bailout, American consumers have not embraced the goal with equal fervor. Sales of fuel-sipping compact and subcompact cars have actually dropped this year, while pickup and sport utility vehicle sales grew by double-digit percentages.”

Honestly: Trying to tell customers what to buy fails. You have to make what they want. If they want dualies, give them dualies. It (still) is a free country. The mind-altering abilities of advertising are vastly overrated.

“And if Detroit’s slipping into bad old habits wasn’t distressing enough, the bailouts have created a perverse new dynamic. With G.M. stock now being publicly traded on Wall Street, taxpayers have every incentive to cheer on the bailed-out automaker as it overproduces vehicles and pushes cheap credit. After all, the sooner G.M.’s stock hits a certain level — likely around $52 per share — the sooner the Treasury can sell its remaining equity and get taxpayers out of risk.”

True, very true.

]]> 59
TTAC In NYT: GM “Taking Taxpayers For A Ride” Mon, 23 Nov 2009 14:18:58 +0000 The souring embrace, pre-souring.

No, General Motors is not paying back the taxpayers, nor will it ever fully… it’s more like a partial refund. That’s not exactly fresh news around here, but the Grey Lady called wanting the breakdown. So here it is. Just don’t ask how they misspelled the byline.

]]> 20