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What happens when you run out of battery with an electric car?

An electric car out of batteries

There is a question I hear over and over again when I talk about my electric car (a Nissan LEAF): have I already run out of battery in the middle of my journey? I decided to put myself in the situation in order to be able to explain what happens and how the “rescue” process works to all my curious listeners.

Ah – autonomy! This is one of the core issues of the electric vehicle debate, and one of the major constraints, from the point of view of the general public. Those who have looked into the matter a little more know that an average of 160 kilometers (100 miles) of autonomy is more than enough for a large number of typical car journeys.

Clearly, however, there is a genuine concern about “running out of battery”, in the same way that one could run out of gas in a traditional internal combustion engine vehicle. This is understandable, but I have to mention here that I have only once been caught in a situation where the battery has almost run out, and this is when I chose to “play with fire”, knowing that the battery would be at its end limits for the journey.

So, get to grips with this issue, and to be able to talk about all aspects of electric vehicles, I had to see, at least once, what happened when I ran out of battery. That’s exactly what I did a few weeks ago. I did pick a “comfortable” spot to run out of battery: an industrial area which wasn’t too far from home, and was also close to my work and a Nissan dealership.

It was relatively cold on the day, and there were 3 of us in the car, and we had done some different types of driving: freeway, including the fast lane, and city. The heating was on, and we did 105 kilometers (65 miles) before the battery was completely flat. The battery had been 100% charged when we left home.

What happened exactly before we were entirely immobilized because of a lack of battery charge?

First of all, the car system alerted us several times through visual and sound alerts, with “Low battery level” and “Very low battery level” signs. These alerts were set off when the autonomy indicated on the dashboard was under 12 kilometers (7.5 miles). The navigation system in the car also automatically suggested a search for the nearest charging station.

We continued to drive on, quite fast, to see if there was any loss in power: nothing at that point. After a few kilometers, the screen on the dashboard didn’t show any more numbers for autonomy. We were able to continue driving for a few more minutes until the car clearly lost power, and went into “Turtle” mode. This is designed to enable the driver to drive for a few more meters in order to park the car in a safe place.

The turtle mode of the Nissan LEAF

The turtle mode of the Nissan LEAF

Turtle mode restricts the speed of the car to 60 km/hour (37 mph) and then, after a few hundred meters, this is limited further to 40km/h (25 mph) After a few more meters, the car doesn’t move any further: it’s prudent to park the car quite quickly, or you may find yourself having to push it. I made sure that I pulled over when I heard the warnings.

One important point needs to be mentioned here: equipment in the car, such as the dashboard and the hands-free kit installed in the car still work at this point, even if there is no more battery to keep driving. This type of equipment is charged using a 12V battery, which is separate from the main car battery. I was able to call for assistance using the car’s hands-free kit.

I called Nissan Assistance for help. Nissan offers assistance during the first 3 years under guaranty. This guarantee applies for running out of battery during the first year, and is not limited to a number of incidents during the first year. With an electric car, it isn’t possible to bring a gas can and partially fill up the tank, as one would do with a combustion engine. This means that you need to be taken to the nearest charging point, which can be expensive.

Nissan LEAF Assistance asked me some questions, and at the end of a few minutes, I received confirmation that a tow-truck would come to tow us away. Half an hour later, a brand new tow-truck (only 400km, or about 250 miles driven since new) came to put the car on the truck bed.

I talked to the tow-truck driver, who told me that this was his first EV rescue, but said that he had towed a few hybrid vehicles in Strasbourg. He also mentioned that he had been to a special EV and hybrid assistance training program, but that the process was very similar to assisting standard vehicles.

Once we had loaded the car onto the tow-truck, we were taken to the Nissan dealership where we were able to charge up the car with a rapid charge, and get going again. 10 minutes of rapid recharge and a coffee later, we we able to leave with 50 kilometers (31 miles) of autonomy: enough to detour into central Strasbourg to do some shopping before getting home!

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