Just to start out, I love electric vehicles. They have some very clear advantages to Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles, largely due to their independence from a limited fuel source that is fossil fuels. On top of that, they’re getting cheaper, more common, and the charging infrastructure is slowly building up better and better over time that people are becoming less worried about range anxiety. The cars themselves aren’t what I’m worried about. It’s the industry trend to increase sales and profits that I think paints a pretty bleak future of electric vehicles.
To illustrate my point, let’s consider one huge advantage of ICE vehicles: accessibility and repairability. I’m not talking about routine maintenance like oil changes, spark plugs, filters, coolant flush, or whatever typical thing you have to do to maintain an ICE, I’m talking about what happens when the vehicle breaks down on the side of the road. On an ICE vehicle, this could be due to a number of reasons. Most of the time, it’s something simple. For example, a common issue with ICE is that a thermostat goes out and they overheat. A thermostat is a cheap thing to replace. At worst, it might be a couple hundred dollars for a mechanic to do, or you could even attempt to do it yourself to save some money. Let’s say you needed to replace the entire cooling system. Quickly looking at some prices from Summit Racing, a popular auto parts store, you’d be looking at less than $1,000 for a radiator, hoses, and water pump. That might sound like a lot initially, but typically these parts are things that’ll last you at least a decade, if not a couple especially if that routine maintenance is done on schedule. Worst case scenario you need to buy a whole new engine. Those can range anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 depending on your car, or could potentially be cheaper if you get something remanufactured from another car. Another advantage of ICE vehicles is they can limp – meaning they can run slowly even with a major issue. You can often limp them at least somewhere safe before needing to get towed.
What happens when an electric vehicle breaks down? Many people would argue this is extremely rare due to their simplicity, but the elephant in the room is the battery pack. These will degrade over time, and they will eventually need to be replaced. ICE vehicles can sit in a tree row, never running for a period of 15 to 20 years, have some basic parts thrown at them for a tune up, and drive off into the sunset. An electric vehicle? Likely the battery has degraded to the point that it won’t hold any charge, and it’s an expensive and difficult replacement to make – you won’t be doing it out in the trees. Owners of Tesla vehicles have reported needing battery replacements to the tune of $22,000 on a vehicle less than 10 years old. That’s the same price as a brand new Honda Civic. Brand. New.
For an emerging industry this doesn’t seem so bad. Many electric vehicle owners are privileged enough to pay the premium for an EV, and may not even want to keep it for longer than a few years because they’ll upgrade to a newer model. Not everyone is like that, though. Not everyone has the resources to buy a new vehicle every few years. Some can only afford a junker out of a tree row.
Where this situation will get worse is through regulation – rather, bad regulation. The state of California is already working on legislation to ban ICEs. While that sounds like an environmentally good thing, you must consider the impact this will have on people. They will be forced to buy a more expensive electric vehicle that may initially seem more reliable with lower maintenance and running costs, but as soon as something goes wrong it will most likely be an extremely expensive repair or you just need to replace it entirely. This is further exacerbated to people that can only afford a used vehicle, which means the battery will already have aged some before you buy it.
The issue with battery replacement is it’s not accessible. Every EV has a different battery pack configuration and they aren’t built in a way to be replaced easily. It requires a specialist with special knowledge and tools, and most of the time it essentially means dismantling the entire vehicle to get to it. This will be a huge parts and labor charge if done out of warranty – and you can bet the point at which the battery has degraded to require replacement almost certainly will be out of warranty.
We have seen this trend happen in another industry: smart phones. While a smart phone is expensive, it’s not always life changing when you are forced to buy a new one. It might hurt for a couple months, but it doesn’t carry the same burden a vehicle over $30,000 does. For some people, that’s about a year’s worth of wages if they work for $15/hour for 40 hours a week. That is not sustainable. The tech industry as a whole is going to a place where the device you buy is meant to be replaced when it goes bad. Not repaired.
How can we fix this? We should be implementing standards for EVs before mandating a ban on ICEs. EVs could be designed in a more modular way with easier to replace batteries. A standards organization could create a battery pack standard that all EVs must use to adhere to the standard. This battery pack could be small enough that it’s modular and varying vehicles could use any number of battery packs required depending on their use. This standard would drive costs lower, and it would make repair more accessible. Rather than having to spend a premium on a specialist, your typical neighborhood mechanic could do it cheaper. You could potentially do it yourself as well, just like people can work on ICEs in their own garage with some basic tools.
This is just one thing I’m worried about when it comes to EVs. I haven’t even mentioned their dependency on software that is constantly updated over the air when the vehicle isn’t in use. Eventually these updates will stop as companies move on to other things. Will the EV still work? Maybe, but as we see in the PC and smart phone industry, when software support is dropped the device just becomes a brick. Some companies like Framework are disrupting that industry with their easy to repair and modular laptop that also looks sleek and performs well, but we’ll need more companies to step up, proper regulation, and consumer adoption or demands that the industry change for it to be successful. Otherwise, companies will continue the current path because they’ll make more money that way and stifle competition.
We can’t depend on companies to standardize for us. They are too focused on shareholders and profits to do something that would allow their competitors to use the same battery. I have some hope for Tesla since they are looking into allowing other EV brands to charge on the supercharger network, but they are also working on their own battery cell technology that may or may not be available to other companies.
What are your thoughts? Let me know if you feel differently. Again, I think EVs of some sort are the future. But if done wrong, it could further separate the income and wage gap we already have in the world leaving those less fortunate without adequate transportation or being further burdened financially to have it.