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My Electric Car Has A Battery. Should I Be Worried?

People thinking about buying an electric car have questions, like how long do the batteries last and what happens if they fail? Here are some answers.

I was sipping tea at the News Feed Café inside the Boston Public Library this week with friends. One of them — call him Al — reads the stuff I post on CleanTechnica about electric cars. He has ridden in my Nissan LEAF and gets a smile on his face when the instant torque of the electric motor whooshes the car forward.

electric car battery

Image credit: Ford via YouTube

My friend is an F-150 kind of a guy and rightly so, as he hauls a large camping trailer up and down the East Coast on a regular basis. He was blown away by the video of an electric F-150 pulling a trainload of trucks that Ford put out earlier this year. I think that’s when the idea of owning an electric vehicle someday first implanted itself in his brain.

People who are thinking about EVs have a lot of questions about range and how to find chargers along the way. They worry about making a bad decision and so they have questions. Those of us leading the EV revolution are comfortable with our electric cars, but others still have doubts.

After our luncheon, Al sent me an e-mail. He had questions. What happens if the battery in an EV fails? How much does it cost to replace it? Those are excellent questions. People are familiar with internal combustion engines. If something breaks, you fix it. But what if the battery goes kaput? I bought a Toyota Prius in 2007 and my number one concern was how much would it cost to replace the battery if it failed? It was warrantied for 100,000 miles so when I got to 89,000 miles I sold it. So I understand why people have concerns about battery life.

Last night at the weekly brie and brandy soirée at CleanTechnica world headquarters, I asked my colleagues about battery life. They all drive Teslas, so they were somewhat dismissive of the concerns people have about batteries. The batteries in the Tesla Model S and Model X come with an 8-year/unlimited mileage warranty. Few people keep a car for 8 years, so there’s really nothing to worry about. The Model 3, however, has a more traditional 8-year/100,000 mile battery warranty. That is extended to 120,000 miles for the Long Range version.

While surfing the web looking for information, I came across a very useful article from MYEV.com. It points out that federal law mandates a warranty of 8 years/100,000 miles for the batteries of all EVs sold in the US. (Damn those job killing regulations, huh? If someone wants to sell an electric car with a warranty that expires as soon as you drive it off the lot, they should be free to do so, right? But I digress…..)

What Does The Warranty Cover?

Not all warranties are the same, however. The federal regulation only covers complete battery failure. But what if the battery simply degrades to the point where it no longer functions adequately? Early examples of the Nissan LEAF had durability issues, especially in hot, dry climates like Arizona. The problem was fixed more than five years ago but urban legends have long life spans. Lots of people have heard about the difficulty Nissan had with early LEAFs and so there is still doubt in the back of their mind.

MYEV.com points out that BMW, Chevrolet, Nissan, Tesla (Model 3), and Volkswagen will replace a battery if it loses 30 to 40% of its capacity during the warranty period. Others may not. As always, it is important to read the fine print.

Executive editor Zachary Shahan noted while reaching for his fondue fork that JB Straubel, former chief technology officer for Tesla, has said Tesla batteries may still have 80% of their original capacity after 20 years. In fact, Elon Musk has been saying recently that Tesla batteries should soon be good for 1 million miles of driving.

How Difficult Is It To Replace A Battery?

My friend had another question. If the battery is an integral part of the car, how difficult is it to replace? Another good question, and one I had not thought much about until now. Electric cars tend to have battery packs that are mounted under the floor of the car. The battery cells themselves are encased in a protective shell that keeps them from getting damaged in a collision. In many cars, that outer casing adds rigidity to the passenger compartment, which is an important consideration in how good a job the car does of protecting its occupants in a collision.

But they are not welded in. My recollection from watching the assembly process at the the Volkswagen factory in Zwickau recently is that the battery pack itself is held in place by 8 bolts. In total, there are about 24 bolts that connect the MEB skateboard, with all the powertrain and suspension components attached, to the unibody shell of the car.

To replace a battery, should that ever become necessary, simply disconnect the power cables and coolant lines that run between the battery and the chassis, undo the bolts holding the battery in place, and remove it from the car. Slide a new battery in place, bolt it to the chassis, make the power and coolant connections, and you’re good to go.

What About Recycling?

Batteries used to power vehicles need to be able to discharge large amounts of electricity in a short period of time in order to get those vehicles up to speed from rest. In general terms, once a battery loses about a third of its original capacity, it is no longer able to meet the demands associated with powering vehicles. But that doesn’t mean it is no longer useful; it is still fully capable of providing stationary battery storage. The battery in your Nissan LEAF may have lost its urge but it would make a dandy backup unit for a home or business.

China requires all battery makers to have a battery recycling program in place. Other countries have yet to follow China’s lead, but old batteries have lots of recyclable materials inside, including the cobalt and lithium that are part of battery chemistry today and can be repurposed for other duties. New business opportunities for battery recyclers are emerging. We are not going to throw old batteries out in the woods the way we did with old tires for decades.

FUD

How do we know that failed batteries are not a major issue? Because the forces of evil, spearheaded by Charles Koch and his minions, are not filling the news with horror stories about people being forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars to replace the batteries in their electric cars.

The merchants of fear, uncertainty, and doubt take every opportunity to bash anything that threatens their fossil fuel-based kingdoms, but there has been no drumbeat of stories about battery failures. Make no mistake; if there was an opportunity to scare people with stories about early battery failure, it would be exploited by the FUD crowd.

The Takeaway

Electric cars are different from cars with internal combustion engines. We have had over 100 years of experience with conventional cars, so there are few questions left unanswered. The EV revolution is just beginning, so there are still a lot people who don’t know very much about electric cars.

In general, cars cost money to own and maintain. A conventional car has more than 10,000 moving pieces between the engine, transmission, and drivetrain. An electric motor has three moving parts. Which one is more likely to breakdown and how much will it cost to repair? Zachary thinks the cost of a new battery should be between $5000 and $7500. How much does a new engine or transmission cost?

The cost of electricity needed to drive one mile in an electric car is less than half what it costs to drive an equivalent distance on gasoline. Most internal combustion engines are less than 35% efficient. Most electric motors are  more than 90% efficient. Regenerative braking means few brake repairs. Electric cars are still more expensive to buy than conventional cars but over 5 years they cost less to own.

When people ask those of us who own electric cars about the EV experience, the message we should give them is this: “Don’t worry. Drive happy.”

 
 
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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his homes in Florida and Connecticut or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.

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