Top Gear And The Nissan Leaf

It has been silent for a while at Top Gear about Electric vehicles. But with their latest review on the Nissan Leaf and the Peugeot iOn they have stirred up a bit of a controversy.

In it their report on both cars Jeremy Clarkson and James May set off for Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire, 60 miles away. During their report they made a lot of palava about the range, searching for a charging point and actually ran out of power. And they stressed the point they had to wait for 15 hours before the battery was charged again. Slamming the electric car quite hard for a lack of infrastructure for charging and battery range.

They also had a discussion on the costs of the vehicles, especially replacement costs of the battery packs of the cars. And also about the fact that a battery, as all batteries do, lose capacity over time. Which means that the range of an electric car will drop during the years it is being used.

Their conclusion at the end of the report was that petrol cars are far better than electric cars, just by the sheer fact that you can refill them in a matter of minutes. And they held up the hydrogen car as the future with far better performance and range than an battery powered electric car.

Now the problem with the hydrogen car, which Top Gear is so fond of, is that it has absolutely no supporting infrastructure. It isn’t just fill points you need to get the hydrogen in these cars, you also need to transport and produce this hydrogen in sufficient amounts. We currently just don’t have this infrastructure. With the electric car we already have the infrastructure up and running, it’s just a matter of rolling out the charging points. Which are becoming available more and more around the country.

But I really have a problem with how they represented the costs of running these vehicles. Robert Llewellyn has been driving electric cars for years and has gained a lot of real life experience with how much they cost. And he had the following to say about the claim Top Gear made about the battery pack replacement costs:

I think there is ample evidence to say it is very far from true. The batteries in the Nissan Leaf are extraordinary, they are a step change in technology. If, after say 100-150,000 miles the batteries range starts to decrease, Nissan will re-furbish the battery for much less than the £19,000 figure so casually bandied about in the Tory press recently.

Nissan will re-furbish batteries in the UK, at the plant in Sunderland where the batteries are made. They will re-cycle 97% of the materials and fit the re-furbished battery back into the car and it will be as good as new, for another 150,000 miles.

While it is true that no one yet knows exactly how long a modern electric car battery will last, (they’ve not been in use long enough) we are beginning to get a good idea of their longevity.

Once again I will refer to Paul Scott’s Toyota RAV E4 in California which has now travelled over 120,000 miles on the original battery pack and it’s showing no signs of failure. Also worth pointing out that in the time he’s driven the car, Mr Scott had to replace wiper blades and one shock absorber. The maintenance costs of that vehicle are so low as to register as zero.

Yes with current technology the cars are expensive. But the running costs are not what the nay sayers are predicting, and these cars will only get cheaper. Robert also explains that the charge costs for the Nissan Leaf are a lot lower than the £8.50 quoted by Top Gear:

According to the plethora of energy comparison websites, the average cost of daytime electricity is between 14 and 18 pence per kWh meaning a full battery would cost £4.23 if you charge in the daytime, working out at 4p a mile as opposed to 12p per mile for a traditional car doing 50mpg.

But this isn’t even the biggest problem that people noticed with this Top Gear report on electric cars. Remember that I mentioned that they ran out of charge? Not all is at it seems with the ‘unexpected breakdown’ of the car, as reported by George Monbiot:

But it wasn’t unexpected: Nissan has a monitoring device in the car which transmits information on the state of the battery. This shows that, while the company delivered the car to Top Gear fully charged, the programme-makers ran the battery down before Clarkson and May set off, until only 40% of the charge was left. Moreover, they must have known this, as the electronic display tells the driver how many miles’ worth of electricity they have, and the sat-nav tells them if they don’t have enough charge to reach their destination. In this case it told them – before they set out on their 60-mile journey – that they had 30 miles’ worth of electricity. But, as Ben Webster of the Times reported earlier this week, “at no point were viewers told that the battery had been more than half empty at the start of the trip.”

It gets worse. As Webster points out, in order to stage a breakdown in Lincoln, “it appeared that the Leaf was driven in loops for more than 10 miles in Lincoln until the battery was flat.”

When Jeremy Clarkson was challenged about this, he admitted that he knew the car had only a small charge before he set out. But, he said: “That’s how TV works”. Not on the BBC it isn’t, or not unless your programme is called Top Gear.

Yes Top Gear is loose with the facts now and then, just to give some entertainment factor. But this is just cheer dishonesty that can be a severe blow to an emerging market and industry. And mind you this isn’t the first time this happened. For an early episode where they were racing around their track with the Tesla Roadster they also staged a breakdown.

The show is currently being sued by the electric car maker Tesla for staging this breakdown and claiming, among other accusations, that the Roadster’s true range is only 55 miles per charge (rather than the stated 211 miles). Tesla says “the breakdowns were staged and the statements are untrue”.

So I wasn’t exactly surprised that yet again there were misrepresentations and shenanigans going on. But I have to say the show did surprise me with some of the positive comments on the cars themselves. They complemented the Nissan Leaf on its build quality, performance and design. So they are warming up to electric cars, which fills me with hope for a bit more factual and fair show on these cars in the future.

But the main point is that these electric cars aren’t marketed for people who drive long distances every day, which would be around 100 miles (or 175 kilometers for us metric minded people). And this is nowhere near what I drive, or most other people drive on a daily basis. For example most Americans, on average, drive somewhere between 15 and 20 miles for their commute. So this is more than enough charge for your daily commute and do some shopping on the way home. Or visit friends during the weekend.

For people who want to drive longer distances there are the REV (Range Extended Vehicles) like the Chevrolet Volt. Plug-in hybrids or normal hybrids. They have the capacity to go beyond the charge they have in their battery pack. We are slowly getting there with a workable range of vehicles and infrastructure and this is the future after cars with combustion engines. And the Top Gear hosts admitted in the very same episode that they, petrol heads, are dinosaurs and a dying breed.

And I leave you with an episode of Fully Charged where Robert Llewellyn further discusses the Top Gear episode.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.