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Nissan LEAF Road Trip: The end of range anxiety?

By / 4 years ago / Features / No Comments

You’d be forgiven for expecting that, in a day which included a 200-mile all-electric trip from Leeds to London, the long recharge stops would be the source of the longest delay. Yet, ironically, the biggest hold up on our planned electric journey was the weather-beaten train journey northbound.

That’s not because the later gave an unplanned overnight stop, either. In September, Nissan and green utility company Ecotricity completed their collaborative Electric Highway project along the London to Leeds stretch of the M1. This network of evenly-spaced rapid charging equipment is capable of filling an empty LEAF battery to 80% in around half an hour.

In theory, by stopping at the three Welcome Break services on the M1 for a top-up, a trip from Yorkshire into the capital need only take 60 to 90 minutes longer than it would in a diesel or petrol car. That’s less than the extra time added by our storm-damaged railway trip, and assumes a petrol or diesel driver won’t stop half way.

Schemes such as this are vital if electric vehicles are to take off. Battery technology isn’t advancing quickly enough to offer hundreds of miles of range at an affordable price, which means charging times have to come down to offer drivers the flexibility they’re used to. Regular stops are still an inconvenience, but not waiting eight hours to get a usable range back is a big step forward.

There’s a reward for your patience, too. Ecotricity’s Electric Highway scheme, which now includes all of the UK’s Welcome Break sites, selected Moto service stations and Ikea stores, is powered by 100% renewable energy and – for now – completely free to use. In fuel costs alone that’s a saving of £21.59 against a 60mpg diesel, even before the environmental benefits are weighed up.

Our delayed train touched down at Leeds Railway station at 11.30am, to a waiting delivery driver and a fully-charged mid-spec LEAF. The end destination in North London provoked an unnerving warning that it was well outside the battery’s range, but our first stopover was comfortably inside the display’s inner circle.

It doesn’t take long to realise why range anxiety is still a barrier. Joining the M1 near Leeds, there’s an unnerving realisation that grinding to a halt with a flat battery isn’t as simple as running out of fuel. There’s no two-minute top-up in a recovery van, and even if there was there’s no guarantee that you’ll have the membership card or charging cable needed to access the nearest charging point.

So, conscious that the first leg would be the only one where I’d have 100% battery capacity (around 96 miles, according to the navigation system), I’d decided the best thing to do was throttle back, keep my speed under 65mph and use the LEAF’s Eco mode. While this meant I could use the climate control system and charge my phone, it strips the Nissan of all but the bare minimum pulling power.

It turns out this was a little unnecessary. Despite steep inclines en route, a few stretches of 50mph roadworks and some gentle driving meant we arrived at Woodall Services with miles to spare. But we also arrived to find the charging unit had been vandalised, meaning a call to Ecotricity for advice.

Woodall has charging units on both sides of the motorway, and a heavily potholed access road between the two which (in emergencies) electric vehicle drivers are directed to use to get between them. It’s a preferable solution to the five-mile detour via the next junction and a similar diversion on the way back to the southbound M1.

Ecotricity’s rapid chargers look a little bit like electric petrol pumps. There are tethered cables to suit the Japanese CHAdeMo connector, the larger of the two under the LEAF’s nose flap, and the European Type 2 standard used by Renault, among others. Accessed by a swipe card, they give clear on-screen instructions and the LEAF’s cable-locking mechanism stops passers-by tampering with the charging while you’re inside having a coffee, which is reassuring.

My inexperience was showing, though. At 80% charge, the unit drops down to a much slower rate similar to a conventional charging unit. Our car would’ve got there in about 20 minutes from just the quarter charge we arrived with, and the additional 15 minutes we’d spent in the services had added around 9% on top – an uneconomical use of time.

Halfway house…

Leicester Forest services, some 53 miles further south, was our half way stop. The LEAF chimed in to let us know we might not make it, so we set off slowly and kept the speed down, arriving about an hour later with 19% capacity and a sense that my earlier range anxiety wasn’t really justified.

From here, we decided to treat each services as a pit stop. To roll in, leave the car charging to 80% and unplug as soon as it switched down to conventional rates. It turned Leicester Forest into a 23-minute stop – once the rapid charging finished, we’d already packed and were ready to go. Confident by now that, regardless of navigation warnings, the distance between each stop was well within the 77 miles offered from an 80% charge.

This is the most efficient way to use it. The third leg was the route’s flattest and, with confidence improving, we were keeping pace with traffic and held back only by the blunted performance in Eco mode. Californian electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla measures its charging times in miles per hour, and by that logic Ecotricity was adding around 160 miles per hour plugged in. Slowing to a crawl to save a couple of minutes at the “pump” is really unnecessary.

Stop three was Newport Pagnell services, by which point we were starting to feel like we were coming close to our destination. Train-related delays at the start, range anxiety on the first leg of the journey, and the needlessly long stop at Woodall had held us up enough that dusk was descending on Northamptonshire and rush hour traffic was picking up. An 80% charge arrived in 15 minutes, we unplugged and set off having barely had time to stop for a Starbucks.

As a sign that we were coming close to LEAF territory, Newport Pagnell’s rapid charger was showing data from its last user. From here it’s easy to get into London without an additional stop, provided there’s a charger waiting at home or the office when you arrive. But, with a trip back out to the Fleet World office in St Albans, a ten-minute top-up at the final Ecotricity charger at London Gateway provided a safety net en route to our end destination in Regents Park.

Inexperience had meant the journey took far longer than it needed to, but it doesn’t take long to realise just how easy it’s now become to do a trip like this. Drivers who spend most of their working life travelling the length of the country will still find the regular stops are a bind, but for those who use the motorways less regularly it’s not as inconvenient as you might expect.

There are still plenty of incompatibility issues in the UK’s charging infrastructure, a legacy of local schemes, but it’s getting easier. Rapid charging goes a long way towards providing the safety net drivers need if they’re considering an EV as a company car. Like a range-extender, it gives reassurance that – with planning – the car can travel long distances as needed.

With a 125-mile motorway range, a figure which we’re close to, a trip like this would’ve required only one stop. But even now, it could be quicker than taking public transport.

How long should it take?

The LEAF indicated a range of around 77 miles to an 80% charge in Eco mode, or 96 miles at 100% charge. Assuming no traffic jams and the driver sticking to the speed limit, a non-stop trip from Leeds to London should take around three hours and 12 minutes. Most drivers would, however, factor a break into their journey time.

Based on a 100% charge at the start, and assuming the driver treats each service station as a pit stop, leaving when the battery reaches 80% capacity, stopping at all four Welcome Break services will add around 58 minutes to the journey including a couple of minutes to plug in at each stop. This equates to a journey time of four hours and 10 minutes, with breaks taken while the car charges.

Compatibility issues

Despite the advances in the vehicles and infrastructure, electric vehicle charging is still a minefield of incompatibility in the UK. Access to charging points is still mostly via membership cards, and while negotiations are under way between the eight plugged-in places schemes and multiple charging point suppliers, in most cases it’s not possible to pay for a charge via text message or phone call. A factor which limits the spontaneity of roaming between regions, and the comfort of knowing there’s somewhere to charge at the other end.

There are also five different connectors, six if you count the Renault Twizy’s domestic three-pin plug, for electric vehicles. It means carefully selecting the right home or office charging point to suit, with Chargemaster usually recommending a socketed unit rather than a tethered cable.

The most common are as follows:

J1772/Type 1 (AC) - The most common connector at the moment, J1772/Type 1 cables feature a trigger-like release and tends to be favoured by Japanese and American manufacturers. 
Fitted to: Nissan LEAF, Toyota Prius Plug-in, Vauxhall Ampera

Mennekes/Type 2 (AC) - A large oval connector used by most new European-developed plug-in vehicles, and found at most UK fast charging stations. 
Fitted to: Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, Renault ZOE, Volvo V60 Plug-in Hybrid

CHAdeMo (DC) - With Nissan as an EV pioneer, most public access rapid charge stations in the UK use the Japanese CHAdeMo standard, offering 80% charge in 30 minutes. 
Fitted to: Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, Nissan LEAF

Combined Charging Standard (AC/DC) - CCS adds two DC charging pins to a Mennekes or J1772 connector, allowing wider compatibility between cars and infrastructure and multiple charging rates. 
Fitted to: BMW i3, Chevrolet Spark EV, Volkswagen e-up!

Alex Grant

Trained on Cardiff University’s renowned Postgraduate Diploma in Motor Magazine Journalism, Alex is an award-winning motoring journalist with ten years’ experience across B2B and consumer titles. A life-long car enthusiast with a fascination for new technology and future drivetrains, he joined Fleet World in April 2011, contributing across the magazine and website portfolio and editing the EV Fleet World Website.

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