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 MoreRead More
EVs May Prove to Be Remarkably Durable. There’s Just One Problem.
Repairs are hard when you need them.
Hansjörg Gemmingen drove his Tesla Model S past the 1-million-mile mark last summer and he’s still going. The world record-holder for electric mileage hopes to soon pass 2 million kilometers (about 1.25 million miles). His EV didn’t reach this eye-popping total on its original equipment, though. InsideEVs notes his Model S P85 is on at least its second battery and eighth electric motor.
Most EV owners won’t travel the equivalent of two round trips to the moon. Yet Gemmingen’s experience may tell us something about how long electric vehicles could last, how repairable they are, and what it will take to keep them rolling for decades.
EVs are simple — mechanically, at least. Set aside a Tesla’s complex, proprietary software, and its hardware boils down to a big battery, motors, and other electric components, and about 20 moving parts. Compare that to a typical gas car, which is a maddening amalgamation of pistons, belts, and around 2,000 other moving parts waiting to go awry. Electric vehicles’ simplicity may bestow extra longevity. Car and Driver finds a new EV is expected to average about 50% more miles than a new gas car (300,000 vs. 200,000 miles).
Car owners have always faced hard questions about when it’s time to stop sinking money into a vehicle, especially when another major repair may be right around the corner. “There’s a cost of keeping the car on the road, and eventually the costs of maintaining the vehicle are going to be greater than the costs of replacing it. And so at that point, somebody’s going to retire it or part with it,” says Hanjro Ambrose, a vehicle electrification expert and researcher at the National Center for Sustainable Transportation at the University of California, Davis.
With an electric vehicle, the calculus could be subtly different. With fewer things to go wrong, repairs might be less frequent but also more expensive, particularly if a battery needs to be replaced. Fixes might also be more annoying because so few mechanic shops are ready to service EVs.
The battery is the big question, since it contributes so much to the cost and vitality of an electric vehicle. CEO Elon Musk has said Tesla’s older batteries are rated to last for 300,000 to 500,000 miles. (It would make sense, then, that Gemmingen had to replace his at least once on the road to a million miles.) If that longevity holds up, then owners could replace parts that might go bad at 100,000 or 200,000 miles — say, the electric capacitors or motors — with the confidence their investment will pay off. And, if the hype is to be believed, new EV batteries coming down the pipeline could last for a million miles of driving. It would take a normal person the better part of a century to drive that far. A million-mile battery could mean a car that lasts a lifetime.
Maybe. Despite such promises, the batteries in most new EVs are warrantied only up to about 100,000 miles. If the battery fails at any time after that, the driver is in a tough spot. Car-sized lithium-ion batteries remain notoriously expensive — it may cost $20,000 or more to replace an EV’s kaput battery pack, which happened to some Tesla Model S early adopters because of a manufacturing issue. In certain cases, it may be possible to repair a single defective cell rather than an entire battery, but that’s still an expensive fix and a tough pill to swallow for a car that’s already old.
Now, most EV batteries won’t randomly die — Ambrose estimates that less than 1 percent will suffer such a catastrophic failure. But all of them will age. Most battery warranties only guarantee the battery pack won’t fade beyond a certain percentage of its original capacity by the 100,000-mile mark (70 percent, in Telsa’s case). As a result, a driver still using the original battery at 200,000 miles or more will probably find that their car’s range has degraded significantly. “If you were barely hitting 200 miles to start, those reductions in range after 10 years might be pretty significant,” Ambrose says. “So much so that your vehicle might not be very useful for your normal commute.”
Still, if a modern EV can keep even half its original range, it will remain more than good enough for the short and medium-sized trips that make up the bulk of everyday driving. Many owners could conceivably keep their aging cars on the road for decades with occasional fixes. But another problem emerges: Who’s going to do the repairs? The professional mechanics qualified to work on EVs remain scarce. Pete Gruber, owner of EV-focused Gruber Motors in Phoenix, Arizona, has said that vocational schools are still churning out mechanics trained solely for internal combustion vehicles. When he wants EV mechanics for his shop, he often has to train them himself.
Today’s electric cars aren’t exactly DIY-friendly, either. Even before the EV revolution, modern cars were becoming complicated enough to deter the weekend garage mechanic. This may not be a bad thing, since few have the electrical engineering expertise to safely tinker with an EV. But many new electric vehicles are black boxes that require proprietary technology to diagnose and fix, discouraging owners from considering repair shops outside of the automaker’s ecosystem. Just last week Tesla faced a new class-action lawsuit alleging the automaker effectively makes drivers bring their cars to Tesla shops.
In addition, Ambrose says, EV manufacturers are moving towards integrated manufacturing — for example, where the battery is part of the frame and thus more difficult to replace. “It might make it cheaper to make EVs in general, and make better EVs,” he says. “At the same time it’s going to make it harder to repair a vehicle, right? Because if you think about it, it’s just like now in modern laptops, everything’s glued together. I can’t take anything apart anymore.”
If it sounds like the planned obsolescence of smartphones and other tech is coming to EVs, you wouldn’t be wrong. What the industry needs to be more sustainable may be the opposite — a car repairable and modular enough that a determined owner could make it last forever.