Published on March 19th, 2015 | by WMG Editor

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Leaf to London: A Fully Electric Journey

Mike Abbott, an EngD research student at WMG, was one of six young engineers invited to attend ‘Engineering a British Victory in the Americas Cup?’, an all-party parliamentary engineering group at the House of Lords at the end of 2014. The group was chaired by Professor the Lord Broers and was held to discuss the role engineering can play in helping Britain to win the America’s Cup. To make his journey to London, Mike drove a Nissan Leaf electric vehicle. Despite initial misgivings, the car made a successful journey to the capital and back again.  Originally authored for the WMG centre High Value Manufacturing Catapult newsletter, Mike shares his experience of the journey with us:

By the third time someone said I was brave, I had to start to doubt the decision I had made to take the Nissan Leaf as my mode of transport down to London. For those who don’t know, the Nissan Leaf is a pure electric car which means no petrol, no diesel and you are powered purely by the electric motor and the array of batteries sitting below your seat. This method of propulsion is good for 100 miles, according to Nissan…however that would not be true on this day. Some things do affect the range of the vehicle: driving faster than 40 mph – minus 10 miles, using the heater (it was a really cold day) – minus 10 miles, and did I mention it was a cold day? – Minus 10 miles as the batteries don’t like it. So that leaves me with 70 miles, London is 100 miles away….I can see why they said brave.

Let me introduce you to an intrinsic part of electric vehicle ownership: Planning.
Most sat nav will point you onto the M40 to get to the capital but thanks to the guidance of the website Zap Map I knew I should take the M1. This is because in order to make it down there I would need to charge, for this to be done in a time less than 4 hours I could use an Ecotricity rapid, 50 kW DC CHAdeMO charger, found at all good service stations. These are impressive pieces of kit that will boost the Leaf from 0-80 % charge in around 40 minutes. This must involve some complex electrical innards and so explains why on the M40, out of the 3 such chargers on-route only 1 was functioning, whereas the M1 has 5 which, according to the site were all working well – no brainer.

On a cold Tuesday morning I start scraping the car. I was expecting cold, but not this bad. In your conventional car this would not be a huge problem as you can just set the heater to full and bathe in the warm hug of the wasted heat generated in the engine bay. The “zero emission” Leaf does no such thing, and so for every degree of heat you want in the cabin, you must sacrifice one of those few mile of range the car has, so wrap up warm. The next thing you learn about driving the Leaf is that lorries are your friends. The taller the better! Not only do they maintain a good 60 mph, by following behind them you can slipstream, as the Leaf isn’t that aerodynamic.

Pit Stop 1: Newport Pagnell. 12 miles remaining, and now I can relax. Charger connected, heater on full blast, and nothing to do but wait and talk to people. A charging electric vehicle at a service station always seems to generate some interest from passers-by. This may be because the charge points are located right next to the doors into the main building or may be due to everything on the car glowing blue and flashing to advertise the fact it is charging. Another electric vehicle pulls up and it is obligatory to have a chat, he is driving a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and I can’t help feeling a bit jealous of the fact he doesn’t NEED to charge up, as he has a petrol engine at his disposal, he is just doing it because he can. Cost of charge: £0, thank you Ecotricity.

Onto the second stage, and a comfortable 80% charge in the car. Find another lorry and cruise behind. This is not an exciting way to travel but at least it is Ken Bruce and not Jeremy Vine (yet) on the radio. Finally I hit the M25. At this point, the age of the Nissan Leaf’s 2011 sat-nav is apparent as we take the most unusual direction to the Nissan dealership. I hand over the keys and ask them nicely to charge up my car.

At this point, if I was a reader, I would be asking: if you are going to London, one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world, could you not just go into the centre and use a charge point there? My answer is yes, there are charge points in London BUT:

  1. Just like most cities in the UK London operates its own card access scheme which means you need that city’s card to charge there, London’s card is called “Source London”
  2. The Source London operator, sold off from TfL a few years back, cannot decide who is responsible for maintaining the charge points across the city and therefore there are more broken chargers in London than there are working ones

Onto the tube (£12.50), which also runs on electric power of course, and into Westminster. Thanks to Innovate UK, I have been invited to take part in a discussion at the House of Lords about England entering a boat racing competition called the America’s Cup. It was a great presentation from Ben Ainslie and his racing team about the challenges ahead for their competition. Also a good opportunity to talk to other engineers and MPs about Warwick, WMG, EngD programmes and of course, the Nissan Leaf.

Now back on the tube and setting off home. The Nissan dealership has kindly charged the Leaf (cost £0) and it is ready to set off. Once I am onto the motorway I know I have range so can upgrade from a lorry to a coach and go that little bit faster. Of course there is lots of traffic but in the Leaf you don’t really mind. The lack of gears and the fact you aren’t burning fuel and therefore money, seems to help relax your mind as you crawl in rush hour traffic.

Back at Newport Pagnell, and back on charge. 40 minutes and £0 later, I can set off on the final leg of the journey. Two hours later I am home.

Most importantly I have made it. Apart from taking longer than I expected, the journey went surprisingly without a hitch. Thanks to the fact that electricity currently is free on the charge network, I managed to make it to London and back for £12.50 compared to £165 on the train, and at least £45 in my car.

We also managed to collect data about the Nissan Leaf’s battery pack which was the initial reason I took the Leaf. This should help WMG set up a new driving study with the Leaf early next year.

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