So You Bought An Electric Car. What Could Go Wrong?

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An electric car is different than a diesel or. gasoline powered car.  It doesn’t have thousands of gizmos and doohickeys spinning around to make the wheels turn so the car moves forward. In general, there are just fewer things to go wrong with electric cars. Recently, a member of the reddit EV forum asked this question: “What sort of emergencies do EVs have and what do you do when one happens?”

The Two Biggest Emergencies Are …

That post has gotten 54 responses (so far). If you thought the biggest issues drivers of electric cars face are failures of the main battery or other drivetrain issues, guess again. It turns out the number one item according to reddit members is a dead 12 volt battery.

Wait … what? EVs have a good old fashioned lead acid 12 volt battery? Yes they do. They are used for minor things like power door locks, interior lighting, and such. And like all conventional 12 volt batteries, they are negatively affected by temperature extremes. It’s a little known fact that more car batteries expire from too much heat under the hood than extreme cold.

Here’s the thing. That 12 volt battery gets recharged from the main battery — when the car is in operation. If it sits for long periods of time, it doesn’t get charged and can go flat. There is anecdotal evidence that these old tech devices may not last as long in an EV as they do in a conventional car. Two years seems to be their limit, if you believe the scuttlebutt online. 3 to 5 years is more normal for the batteries in conventional cars.

Editor’s note: Teslas now provide a warning that your 12V battery is getting close to its expiration and to schedule a service appointment to replace it ASAP. Keep your eye out for that warning on the touchscreen, and don’t delay too long in getting that service appointment scheduled. I’m sure it will prevent a few headaches. I have also been told about 2 years is normal on a Model 3 or Model Y while approximately 3 years is on a Model S or Model X. —Zach Shahan

If the 12 volt battery goes flat in your EV, you may not be able to open the doors if it is locked, and even if you do, the car may not initialize properly so you can drive it. The solution? Spend the money to replace it every 2 years. Lithium-ion 12 volt batteries are starting to become available. Although they cost more money, they should also last longer and may save you some aggravation down the road. But if you get hit with a dead battery, AAA or another roadside assistance program is your best friend.

According to the reddit forum, you can also “jump” the dead 12 volt battery with jumper cables (assuming you have a pair) just like in a conventional car. That will allow the main battery to initialize so you can drive the car.

Second on the list are flat tires. Many electric cars come without a spare (or a jack, for that matter) to save space and weight. But EVs aren’t the only cars being delivered without spares. It is becoming common practice in the industry to omit them from new cars.

Part of the reason is that tires today are so much better than they were even 10 years ago, and punctures are less of an issue than they used to be. Part of it is that the weight of the spare and the jack can tip a vehicle over into a different weight class with different emissions rules. And part of it is the manufacturers may just be cheap and don’t want to spend the money.

Whatever the case, you should have a plan for what to do it you have a flat while away from home. Tesla drivers can call for a service vehicle and many other companies offer roadside assistance, but that means waiting for a service vehicle to arrive. A can of tire sealant and a small electric air compressor may save you time and aggravation. Put the sealant in, pump it up if necessary, then drive yourself to the nearest tire store.

Be Prepared

The lesson here is, “Be Prepared.” Thoughtful motorists used to anticipate potential problems and plan for them before leaving home — a compressor, a real lug wrench, a few hand tools, and a can of tire sealant as a minimum. Nothing has changed just because your car is electric.

One other word of advice: Never, ever, under any circumstances leave home in your electric car without bringing a charging cable and an assortment of adapters with you. Even if you have to plug in to a 120 volt wall outlet and wait a while, in an emergency that is preferable (and cheaper) than paying to have the car towed or transported via tilt truck.

Tesla for some unknown reason (see “no spare tire” comments above) has decided to stop providing a charging cable with its new cars. This is a horrible decision by the mercurial Mr. Musk and proves that smart people are still capable of doing dumb things. An electric car with no charging cable is a disaster waiting to happen. Don’t be the one to find this out the hard way.

The  Takeaway

You might think the biggest issue with an electric car is spending a gazillon dollars to replace the main battery, but evidence is beginning to emerge that EV batteries last longer than expected. Instead, it’s the little things like that anachronistic 12 volt battery and flat tires that cause the most problems. If you expect them to happen and prepare for them in advance, you can keep those problems from becoming major headaches.

We do have one word of caution for you, however. Pay attention to the road you are driving on and try to avoid debris in your travel lane if possible. There is a lot of wiring and plumbing in and around the battery pack. If it gets damaged, repairs may be costly and probably can’t be done by your local shade tree mechanic.

One unfortunate Tesla driver ran over something in the road last year that cracked a coolant fitting on his battery pack. According to The Drive, Tesla said it couldn’t be repaired and that the entire battery needed to be replaced — at a cost of $16,000. Ouch! The resourceful owner came up with a solution for that cost him only $700, but if you are 1,000 miles from home and don’t have access to a well equipped garage nearby, you may not be that lucky.

The message is, if you are driving an electric car, bring along your tire sealant, air pump, and charging cable wherever you go. Then don’t worry. Drive happy!

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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