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Electric Vehicles

EVs Require So Little Maintenance, It’s Almost a Problem

Electric vehicles are so gloriously light on routine maintenance, people keep forgetting they still need some attention.

A car mechanic.
Heatmap Illustration/Library of Congress, Ford

Tires wear down. Nothing could be more ordinary. And yet, when I suffered a blowout in my Tesla Model 3 this winter and decided to get a new set of four, I found myself pulled back into an unwelcome place: Pep Boys, or more specifically, the world of basic car maintenance.

EVs feel novel, like breaking with the clunkiness of the past to join the future. And in several ways, this sensation is true: The experience of driving, refueling, and, yes, maintaining your electric car is miles apart from the combustion life. EVs have the potential to require far less routine maintenance than what has come before. The difference is so stark that some EV owners may be lulled by their vehicle’s futurism into thinking it cares for itself.

But don’t be. This is still a car, after all, and it still requires your attention.

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  • The most noticeable part of maintaining an EV is what doesn’t require upkeep. An electric car doesn’t have engine oil or an oil filter that needs to be replaced during an inconvenient trip to the mechanic every 3,000 miles, one that carries the risk of being upsold some other service. It doesn’t have a radiator asking to be refilled with antifreeze. There are no belts and hoses beneath the hood that must be swapped out (there’s just the frunk, which is where I keep my shopping bags).

    The absence adds up, especially when considering the calculus of car ownership over time. As has been widely noted, EVs typically carry a higher sticker price than their gas-powered counterparts. Federal and state tax incentives begin to cover the difference, and can make EVs very affordable if you live in a generous state like Colorado. Electricity (depending upon where you live) could be cheaper than gasoline, which lowers the lifetime cost of an electric compared to gas. The lack of oil changes and other basic maintenance can be a money-saver, too. I’ve now driven my Tesla more than 52,000 miles, which would have required 17 oil changes in a traditional vehicle.

    Automakers will recommend some service on an EV, such as the occasional tire rotation, but nobody is going to make the happy-go-lucky EV owner actually do this (you should, though). Among the only chores that remind you an electric car is still a car are the need to put air in the tires and top off the wiper fluid.

    The dearth of required basic maintenance creates an illusion, making it startlingly easy for owners to treat an EV like a mobile smartphone that needs no upkeep beyond the occasional software update. Look no further than the YouTube celebrity who ranted that his Tesla was unsafe to drive, only to have the entire internet point out the real problem: He had worn his tires down to the bone.

    I carry an orange notebook in my glovebox to jot down major moments in my car’s life, a habit I surely picked up from my father. Over the first four years of EV ownership, it has remained mostly empty. This year, after replacing the tires at just past 50,000 miles, I also had to swap in a new 12-volt battery. (This is the small one like gas cars have — the place where you have to jump-start them. Tesla uses it for low-power applications like the windows and doors, so you don’t get locked inside if the big battery taps out.) In terms of routine maintenance, that’s about it.

    What’s yet to come is something of an open question, since we still don’t know everything about how EVs age. Take brake pads, the parts that exert the physical pressure to slow down the car. Their lifespan can vary wildly based on how and where a person drives. If you glide to a gentle stop, they last. If you drive on lots of hills or constantly slam on the gas and the brake, they don’t.

    On a normal maintenance schedule, I’d be due for new brake pads soon. With EVs, though, comes a complicating factor: regenerative braking. The vehicle slows itself down when the driver lifts her foot off the accelerator, feeding the recovered energy back into the battery. Once a person learns to drive this way, they need only hit the actual brake pedal when they suddenly need to stop very quickly. At one point, Elon Musk said this feature would negate the need to ever replace the brake pads in a Tesla. Although that, like many of his statements, was hyperbolic, I’ve learned to extend the life of my Model 3’s brake pads by barely using them.

    Tires may be more problematic. EVs are heavy, and heavier vehicles tend to wear down their tires faster than lighter ones. This puts more microparticles into the environment and causes drivers more pain in the wallet. Given the glut of very heavy mega-EVs coming to the market, owners may find that the need to replace their tires negates the savings from gasoline not bought and oil changes not taken.

    Unless they get a lemon — something with a manufacturing defect that requires frequent trips to the service center — EV owners should find that they invest less time and money maintaining their vehicles, at least in the short and medium term. The big question is, what happens in the long term?

    As Heatmap has covered before, we simply don’t know yet. Of mass-market EVs, only the oldest Nissan Leafs and Tesla Model S’s have passed a decade on the road at this point. Once EVs have been on the road for a full lifetime, we’ll have a much better idea how much longer-term maintenance they need — for example, whether motors or crucial electrical components will wear out. And, crucially, how long those expensive batteries will really last.

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    Andrew Moseman

    Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read More

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