Every Car Has Compromises

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Originally published on EV Obsession.

People (especially advertisers) are fond of calling plug-in hybrid and long-range, fully electric cars “no-compromise cars.” In fact, there’s no such thing as a no-compromise car… and I’m a little tired of hearing the nonsensical term.

Nissan LEAF 4
My younger sister in front of CleanTechnica’s new Nissan LEAF SL.

The compromises of short-range electric cars are obvious: driving over 60 or so miles in a day becomes more challenging and may take longer unless charging is conveniently possible in the midst of all that driving. Long road trips become a serious challenge since the driver needs to stop more frequently and probably has to wait longer than desired at each charging point.

A Mitsubishi Outlander Plug-In Hybrid I test drove in Poland.

Plug-in hybrids (like the Audi A3 e-tron and Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV) and extended-range electric cars (like the Chevy Volt and Cadillac ELR) have their own limitations and compromises. When you do go beyond your electric range (which is less than every pure electric car’s range), you have to use gasoline or diesel. This is bad for the planet, bad for your pocketbook, bad for your country’s oil independence and economy, bad for the air and thus human health, and also reduces the quality of the driving experience (the car is no longer as smooth and peppy). In the case of extended-range electric vehicles, at least this doesn’t happen until you actually run out of electricity. In plug-in hybrids, due to the gas engine kicking in at certain acceleration rates, at certain speeds, and in other specific cases, it happens much more frequently than I think any driver likes. In my experience, it makes the drive quality about half as nice as the drive quality in a fully electric car. While I would consider leasing an extended-range electric vehicle, I personally am too turned off by the drive quality and emissions of plug-in hybrids to consider one.

Cadillac ELR 5
A beautiful and quick Cadillac ELR I test drove in Cocoa, Florida, during the EV Technology & Transportation Summit.

Aside from all of the above, plug-in hybrids and extended-range electric cars also have a lot more components under the hood that could break, need regular maintenance checks, and bring up the cost of the vehicle. That’s the hassle many of us are eager to avoid when switching to electric driving.

Tesla Model S Brown Amsterdam
A beautiful brown Tesla Model S in Amsterdam. (Can you tell that I like brown?)

What about long-range, fully electric cars? They don’t have any significant compromises, do they? Of course they do. Adding all of that extra range isn’t free. Additionally, it adds weight to the car, which reduces efficiency. If you have to pay $25,000 more for that extra range, wouldn’t you call that a compromise? If you lose 25 MPGe, wouldn’t you call that a compromise? What more could you get in a car for the $25,000 you plopped down for a bigger battery?

In the end, each of these options comes with compromises, and each of them comes with its own benefits. The average American household has two cars. Given that we drive under 50 miles ~99% of the time and drive under 70 miles ~90% of days, an electric car with 70 or 80 miles of range seem extremely logical as one of those two household vehicles, or an electric car with ~100 miles of range if you don’t have workplace or convenient public charging. Anyhow, ~99% of days, someone in the household should be fine with one of these cars’ range. The ~1% of days when going a longer distance, there’s a good chance the person is going with someone else in the household or a colleague and can carpool in a long-range vehicle.

I imagine it’s a very small percentage of the population that wouldn’t benefit from a low-cost, short-range electric car like the Nissan LEAF. Opting for two long-range vehicles and no short-range electric vehicles is a huge and typically illogical compromise… in my humble opinion. It is a decision often made out of ignorance or illogical fear.

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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34 thoughts on “Every Car Has Compromises

  • I agree, 100 miles of range is functional for 99% of the time. The challenges are cold weather impacts and year over year degradation. Most people in the USA keep their cars a minimum of 10 years (last statistic I saw was closer to 20 years). With these 2 factors taken into account, people need a BEV that will have 100 miles of range at the end of 10 years of use in Feb. with -10F weather outside. Once we get to that point, these cars will be seen in a better light. I think the 200+ mile cars start to approach this standard.

    • I disagree with this. The economics of batteries are much better because you can upgrade. Tesla Motors has shown the market that upgrading the battery pack of a car is relatively easy, i.e. drop in upgrade.

      This upgrade path in car technology is brand new and hasn’t been seen before. It completely invalidates earlier financing metrics surrounding power trains.

      Upgrading an ICE power train is extremely difficult and requires tearing the whole car apart. Upgrading an EV power train is as easy as dropping a new battery into your smart phone. There’s a battery module, the electric motor module, and the power electronics module. That’s it, you’re done.

      • But upgradeability is itself a compromise. Create a non-upgradable component, and it can become an integral part of the entire vehicle system, part energy store, part structural rigidity, and mechanical energy absorber in a crash. Of of the mechanical characeristics, such as vibration, and crash worthiness can be highly optimized. Start field upgrading significantly large components and all that goes out the window. As Zach says, every vehicle is a compromise, and upgradability versus optimized design is one of them.

        • Something more substantial like a bigger motor and so on, probably true.

          IMHO, the structural and safety impacts of an upgraded battery are minimal.The pack gets its mechanical properties from the pack and the cell casing. Take as an example the Tesla 90kwhr battery pack vs the original 60kwr. Thats a 50% improvement and the pack mechanicals probably did not change at all. The exterior shape and size is constrained.

          That really is different from ICE. The pack interconnections to the rest of the car can be standardized.


          The 60kwhr vs 85kwhr and 90kwhr packs differ by the number of cells (they packed more in later) and (mostly) improvements in cell chemistry. Musk says expect 5% increase per year. That alone makes battery pack upgrade desirable over the years. This all depends on plug standardization, but that is doable.


          The outside casing is the same.

          It really does make sense.

          Ironically, under normal use, the Tesla pack could go well over 200,000 miles.

          EVs come the closest to a reusable vehicle. Regular wear items like brake pads, tires, and windshield wipers just keep getting changed.

          Long term, the interior needs to be refurbished. The motors essentially last forever. The controllers last a long time, but can also be replaced.

          EVs have two aging things going for them that ICE does not.

          Heat and oil. All the rubber and plastic under the hood dies with heat and oil. Thats a major pain. An ICE gets rid of 70% of the energy as heat, but an EV hardly loses any energy at all. The under hood (more like under the trunk and under the chassis) temperatures are pretty modest.

          Early Tesla power train failures were two types.

          Gear (my surmise) and battery. Those are really early life or early design and quality issues that should disappear over time with experience.

          There is no reason an EV cannot be a lifetime vehicle, if desired.

      • Thanks for the reply. It’s always good to get different perspectives. I agree, the paradigm will shift and battery packs will be easily upgraded. In order for the economics to work, the BEV would have to be less than the ICE vehicle. How much less? The cost of a second battery pack. Most people spending $20k on a car, can’t afford another $4k+ in a few years. If they can work out the economics so the car + an upgrade battery pack comes in at the same price as an equivalent ICE car, this should be a popular offering.

        • I doubt we’ll need battery replacements. Tesla is projecting 200,000 miles before range drops 20%.

          At 13,000 miles a year that’s a 15 year old car, not the sort of car someone who makes a lot of all drives would use. A 15 year old car with well over a 150 mile range would likely be sold off to someone who needs a really good commute car.

          • Sounds good to me. Now all we need is the core functionality of the Tesla Model S in an affordable package. 2018 and the Model 3 can’t come fast enough.

          • “2018 and the Model 3 can’t come fast enough.”

            Amen to that!

      • To emphasize your point, if an EV is a lifetime thing, you pay for it once, and then just keep upgrading the battery pack every 10 to 15 years. That is a lot cheaper than an ICE you have to replace completely every 10-15 years.

        Well the seats would have to be replaced, but all the other wear items like tires are no big deal, standard. And the chassis and body depend on road conditions and weather, but a car can be made to not rust out. And there are the usual dings and dents. But we know how that can be improved a la Saturn panels. Wear items like seats, steering wheel, and carpets could all be replaceable.

        It would not make much sense to junk a P90D in 15 years because the ashtrays are full. (not that it has any) 🙂

        There are many things manufacturers could do to make cars last.

        There are too many things that go wrong on an ICE to keep the average ICE going forever. Its just easier and cheaper to junk it and start over.

        • From:

          “Edmunds.com, the widely-read automotive website, bought a Tesla Model S for long-term testing in February 2013. After nine months and 11,000 miles, the car developed an ominous grinding noise under acceleration and deceleration.

          Under warranty, Tesla replaced the drive unit, which is essentially the car’s entire drivetrain–motor, inverter, and gearbox.”

          I have two 200K mile Hondas which have had fewer problems. I am not clear why you think an EV is any less likely to fail than an ICE.

          • At least part of the answer is: High acceleration and a car company started 12 years ago by non-car people.

          • That is a reply to a different question.

            My question was “why would you think an EV is less prone to failure than an ICE?”

            I think the answer to my question is likely to be “cuz Teslas are really cool so I’ll say anything without checking facts to convince myself of that and I’ll post it here because I can rely on confirmation bias from everyone else here to reassure me that I must be right.”

            It is called “epistemic closure” or more colloquially “living in an echo chamber”. Also try “confirmation bias”.

          • How about much fewer and simpler components?

            Electric motors are dead simple compared to IC engines and known to have very long service lives with very few failure rates. This is well established by vehicle types that have been using electric motors for ages (like forklifts, electric trolley buses…etc).

            EVs don’t actually need a gearbox since their rpm range is so wide and maximum torque is available at 0 rpm. Reduction gears are used to avoid high rpms (e.g. the Leaf). Gearbox problems/failure is very common during the lifetime of an ICEV (esp. manual trannies used here in the EU)

            The emission control system and fuel delivery systems are also much simpler or can be omitted. This is no small part, since the emission control system is a very complex part of current ICEV models and its failure can cost you heavily (e.g. not being able to go into EU green zones if it breaks down and you get a brown sticker). As the VW scandal shows, this is getting very important and will be enforced strongly. Just take a look how much it will cost for VW to retrofit the emission control systems that are actually in compiance with current standards (which are still very lenient and will get stricter).

            Even the battery and its control systems are not necessarily more complex than ICE fuel storage and related components (more expensive though atm). E.g. the Leaf uses a very simple air-cooling system which is not optimal but may be enough for new chemistries (new battery chemistries are typically better at tolerating elevated temps)

            Also, the utility factor of the EV can be better since even the Tesla ModS with its 90kwh battery gives you a frunk. As battery energy density is increasing, the more space you have for the passenger compartment or for f/trunk.

            Tesla is simply not (yet) as reliable as it should be, because they are a very new company and they are still learning the trade. I imagine the Nissan Leaf is much less prone to failures because there is much bigger automotive experience behind it. Tesla will probably catch up fast and the Mod3 will be a fairly reliable car by the time they start making it. We can thank ModS/X owners that they subsidize this for the less wealthy of us.

          • Great reply to Michael G.

          • Not sure what you mean by reduction gears are used to avoid high rpm. It is the opposite, a Tesla has a 9:1 reduction gear which gives a nine times torque multiplier but the motor rpm is consequently nine times higher (around 18,000 rpm at top speed) than it would have been had the drive been direct. Without that reduction gear moving away from a stop would be slow, even in a Tesla.

          • Michael – You should know that early Tesla power train problems had to do with reduction gearboxes and battery packs, not inverter, motor, etc. Those issues seem to be under control now. They keep having that annoying door handle problem, too. Those issues don’t bother the Leaf. But then it doesn’t have hundreds of horsepower, either. It has other problems.

            You can make a bad or good EV or ICE. No difference.

            Hondas are pretty good cars. Even so, I bet you had to replace a lot of things. Still, what do you do with those 200k mile Hondas? Pretty soon they go to the junkyard. You just can’t fix them in any meaningful way.

            Electric motors don’t wear out like internal combustion engines. What we call maintenance on ICE is the constant wear out of items like belts, hoses, and all those working fluids that have to be replaced. We only call things that get replaced before the maintenance schedule, “repair” or items that are beyond 100,000 miles and so there are no standard failure rates, like alternators.

            Even an ICE could be better designed for long term. But there is little economic incentive to do so, since the basic design just wears out and uses up too much resources as it ages. Thats what heat and oil do to rubber and plastic.

          • Replaced on 1990 Civic: Tires, brakes, oil, spark plugs, front strut rubber housing, windshield wipers.

            That’s it. Stuff that is either on a BEV as well, or is insignificant in terms of maintenance costs. Other Toyota and Honda owners have similar records.

            Let’s go with “you can make a good ICE or a bad BEV and vice versa” and quit touting maintenance as a factor in decision making on BEVs.

          • If it was a 1990 Civic, the timing belt had to be replaced every 60k or so. Thats an example of what we call “maintenance” on an ICE. Its expensive.

            Even more expensive if you don’t do it, the valves are done for and its even more expensive.

            So lets take a look at that shall we?

            The references I read say the timing belt is a big job, so you should replace the water pump, tensioner, and whatnot at the same time.

            Comes out to about 1k $. Thats a lot to spend every 60k miles or so. Especially since its not the only thing. Thats considered normal maintenance. On top of the usual brake pads, oil and filter changes and so on. Over 100k it needs a radiator flush and new fluid. The transmission needs new fluid. The brake fluid needs to be flushed and refilled.

            The radiator can go on an old car sometimes and it should be expected. Eventually they cake up and don’t work well.

            Clutches need replacement, but normally they last forever. Automatics are less reliable and need band adjustments.

            Catalytic converters last a long time, but most cars need to replace them. If you are lucky, that doesn’t go, but the oxygen sensors usually do.

            I seriously doubt the car lasted over ten years without replacing belts and hoses even on a Honda. Thats just standard and expected. And the battery gets replaced every 6 years max, more like 4 to be safe.

            All this requires labor and that drives up expense. Of course you can get your hands dirty and DIY, but that takes time away from other chores.
            I could do without that. I am replacing an alternator on an 84 Toyota pickup, probably the original. So yes, Japanese cars can be really great. Parts are cheap. Time is not so much.

            What I find is that most ICE owners forget all the maintenance they do or have done. They claim their cars never had any repairs and don’t remember all the “maintenance”. Well its probably true about the repairs for a good car. But the maintenance is always there. Going over 6 years or 100k without replacing belts, hoses, and batteries is asking for trouble, so a good mechanic will replace them to avoid trouble, all good maintenance procedure to avoid more expensive repairs.


            On an EV, that doesn’t all go away, it still has brakes. But like on a hybrid, they get used way less and last much longer. So pads last longer. The fluid gets replaced more often because of water. That should and could be fixed by design.
            But there are no pulleys or belts, and filters – there is only cabin air filter.
            The Tesla has a battery pack cooling system, but its low temperature and a lot smaller. The Leaf has no battery pack cooling system.

            So on an EV, the tires and windshield wipers. Maybe once in a while brake pads. On a Tesla some coolant maintenance. And the silly thing is, they both still use a lead acid battery for ancillary. How stupid. They both should use a lifetime LiFeP or LiTi battery that literally lasts forever. There is no need for cold start or the heavy lead battery hassles.
            But that should be it.

            The other repair issues like the Tesla door handles are a screw up, pure and simple that should be fixed. The early reduction gear failure and battery pack issues, same. Leaf had the hot climate battery issue. All warranty. And those are being addressed and fixed. You should not expect to see those in the future. And Tesla packs should last over 200k miles for an average driver with short 30 mile daily trips.

            A simply huge difference in maintenance. Truly, its no secret why Tesla can get away without big dealerships and says existing dealerships have conflicts of interest that make them not want to sell EVs. Dealerships could get as much as half their income from parts and service.

            They want you back. You don’t.

            So no, I doubt I will quit touting maintenance as a factor in BEVs, LOL.

    • I believe you confused car lifetime with ownership. The average car is about 10-11 years old which means that most cars go to about 20 years. But they get resold about every 6-7 years. 2/3 of all car sales are used cars every year which means each car goes through three owners.

      But your main point is intact, that BEVs need to show little degradation over that time or else replacing a battery needs to be a lot cheaper than it currently is.

      Currently most ICE cars have a range of 300-450 miles. Since the gas tank is pretty much the same cost regardless of size, we need to assume that 300 miles is the minimum acceptable by car and truck buyers. That is a lot of battery weight and cost to be used only on the occasional long trip.

    • It means that 99% of the time, you are carrying unnecessary battery weight! Unless the energy density becomes higher and the price per battery capacity lower so that the car’s battery has a minor weight contribution to the car, long range BEV cars like the Bolt, all Tesla models are carrying extra baggage that reduces the car’s efficiency 99% of the time.

      • Marion’s solution is to haul around a gasoline engine and a tank of gas that most would use only once in awhile. And to abuse her batteries by cycling them more often. But Marion loves her some Volt. One might call Marion a Volt-fanatic the way she keep pushing the Volt and trying to tear other solutions down.

        Interesting, that’s what Marion is. Simply interesting….

      • Marion,

        As I drive 100 miles round trip each day I do not view a larger battery as extra baggage. I view it as a needed reserve should it be extra hot (AC) or cold (heater on), I live outside of Boston so this is called Tuesday. Not all of us can charge at work.

        At at least once a month I need to travel 216 miles round trip to visit my mother and I prefer not to have to rent to do that.

        Do you view a 15 gallon gas tank as extra baggage? Have you replaced yours with a 4 gallon tank to save on weight?

        I cannot seem to understand your position most days, other than anti-Tesla, what is it you want to see? Define your dream car..I am truly interested in what it would be.

        Mine: 100% electric, 240 – 270 miles battery pack, $40 – 60,000.
        My current plan is a used AWD Tesla in 2017.

        Was hoping for a Tesla next year but my timing is off, the Leaf is too short a range and I am not wanting to make the move to a Volt.

      • While I agree 200+ mile battery pack add weight to the car and the full battery capacity won’t be consumed as often as the first 20%. What’s an alternative people will accept? By the same argument, a gas car with a 15 gallon tank carries around unnecessary weight 93.3% of the time. A person with a 30 mile round trip commute using a 30 mpg car should only have a 1 gallon gas tank to avoid carrying around unnecessary weight.

  • Perhaps best for transportation:
    A good public system, bus rail etc., short range EV for each street (communal use and auto drive), Hybrid or high efficient ICE (again communal use and auto drive) for the same street again).
    Would such a system cover 90 to 95 % of all personal travel?

  • Great analysis, thanks!
    We got a Leaf 2.5 years ago and it has worked out very well for us. I constantly make the same point that you do: Most 2 car families can switch one of the cars to EV, then we will save a lot of fuel usage, with zero pain.

    • It’s a shock to me that this point is left in the closet so often. Almost nobody covering the topic mentions this.

  • “Fifty-seven percent of U.S. households have two cars or more, the accounting and consulting firm said. But, as people flock to cities, that number may go down to 43 percent by 2040, said Gary Silberg, national automotive industry leader for KPMG and author of the report.”


    Currently 43% of households have only one car. That is a large number of households. Recall also that 2/3 of annual car sales are used cars so we are looking at a large number of people for whom money is a limiting factor. They are less likely to feel comfortable renting a car for the weekend trip to visit grandparents, or to go camping.

    Here is a study I got from one of your EV “drops”. It is well worth a read in its entirety:


    They propose a solution of battery and fuel cell hybrids where the battery does all the local driving and driving long distance is covered by RE electrolytically derived hydrogen. It is not an either-or situation but a combination of what works best for each situation.

    • Sorry for the delay. Yes, I’m intrigued by that idea. Have seen it pitched by others. Curious to see where it goes.

  • Excellent, well-written article! As a current two-car household, it made absolute sense to have one BEV (Ford Focus Electric). We have been a one-car household in the past & may look to go back to that by getting a used Model S when our Focus Electric lease ends. I don’t like driving our PHEV (Fusion Energi) on long trips because I’d like to get completely off gas. Two years ago when we got it, there was no satisfactory BEV option. The Supercharger network was way too small back then. We’ll see what it looks like a year from now, it may still be too small in our area (MN) to be possible to have a Model S as our only vehicle.

  • “I imagine it’s a very small percentage of the population that wouldn’t benefit from a low-cost, short-range electric car like the Nissan LEAF. Opting for two long-range vehicles and no short-range electric vehicles is a huge and typically illogical compromise…”

    Except for the people who live (and work) where their situation prevents them from being able to charge their car. Someone who lives in a suburban apartment with street parking, and works somewhere where there’s no charging capability, as much as they might want an electric car, it simply won’t work. There just isn’t a significant enough infrastructure in the vast majority of the US for this to be practical for a large percentage of the population.

    I know several people who are in this exact situation, who wish they could get an electric car, but until things change, it’s not going to happen.

    Does anyone have any statistics? I would be curious to know what the percentage would be, and if it is as small as Zach believes. (I would guess it’s probably somewhere around 50% of the US population that would not have access to either home or work charging)

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