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Gas Cars Are Embarrassingly Uncompetitive — Lifecycle Cost Analysis

CleanTechnica has published many excellent 5-year total cost of ownership (TCO) articles comparing battery electric vehicles (BEVs) against similar internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs). A 5-year timeframe is the norm for this type of analysis since many people flip their vehicles at this point. Invariably, BEVs prove to be cheaper than comparable ICEVs in these models, all things considered, even when purchase price of the BEV is higher. This is great to know, but if we want to understand the big picture — namely, the full impact of those BEVs across all owners for the vehicles’ entire lifetime — the 5-year comparisons do not capture this. Clearly, BEVs will continue to benefit their future owners with lower fuel costs, lower maintenance costs, and potentially longer life. A full life-cycle cost analysis captures this.

Computer Modeling — Garbage In / Garbage Out

To help my work as a management consultant, I learned to write custom computer modeling programs. Off-the-shelf software for this kind of thing doesn’t exist, so I learned how to design my own analysis tools. In analysis, garbage in equals garbage out, so making sure your inputs are sufficient and valid, plus having a high level of control over the model’s inputs, is super important.

Vehicle costing programs are relatively simple, but the models still need to use accurate information, and they need to be transparent in their assumptions. We regularly see analysts differ in their predictions, and the reason for this is because they are using different assumptions and/or they miss some important inputs. If the analyst does not post their assumptions, the reader has no way of knowing if the projection is valid. So, what are reasonable assumptions for a full life-cycle analysis?

Assumptions

Purchase Price — Purchase price varies by location and local incentives. For this analysis, I’m going to use Edmunds as the source for pricing and California as the location. I’ll also include the federal tax incentive for eligible BEVs at $7,500 — recognizing that some people will be able to buy for less and some will pay more.

Longevity — (160,000 miles) — This number may seem low to some people, as it did to me, but we need to keep in mind we are talking about an average. The global fleet average accounts for cars that are involved in accidents and/or those that simply do not achieve their full potential for whatever reason. Individually, cars can of course last longer, whether they be BEVs or ICEVs. I’m planning a future article on the global fleet that will address where this figure came from.

BEV Longevity — The idea that BEVs last longer than ICEVs is something industry analysts have largely been dancing around since BEVs were introduced (mostly by ignoring it). While it certainly makes intuitive sense that BEVs would last longer, given their simplicity, until recently, we had zero data to know one way or another. Now that BEVs have been on the road for over 10 years in decent numbers, we have more data and writers are getting more comfortable with the idea that, yes, BEVs may in fact last longer, provided their batteries are properly thermally managed. Which BEVs and how much longer they last is more the question amongst industry writers now, and they seem to be suggesting a range anywhere from 50% to 100% longer.

For this article, I’m not going to overthink it. The fact is we are still very much in the early days of BEVs and we just don’t have all of the data yet. To get around this important variable, I’m going to include two costing models, one where the BEV lasts only as long as ICE cars and one where the BEV lasts 50% longer. Readers can then decide for themselves, and, either way, they can see the impact if BEVs do prove to last 50% longer.

Miles Driven — I’m going to use a number a little above the US average (15,600 miles/year) since this is a lifetime cost model and I wanted to keep the projection to 15 years max (the US average is 13,500).

Salvage Value — We do not have great information on this variable, but, fortunately, it is the least material in the model. I used a range between $2,000 and $5,000, accounting for purchase price and battery size as appropriate. Battery salvage value is $42/kWh according to statista.com, but I chose to be conservative, limiting battery value.

Fuel Economy / Cost — I used government EPA figures for fuel economy, plus the IEA projected 2022 US average prices for electricity and gas at 14.9 cents/kWh for electricity and $3.97/gallon for gasoline.

Repair Costs — This was a hard one. I used repair costs from YourMechanic.com and cross-referenced against other sites. There is a big cost difference between vehicle class and make, with higher-end cars costing a lot more, and some brands like Toyota being lower cost than average. We do not have great data yet on BEV repair costs, but the data we do have seems to suggest 50% lower costs is a conservative estimate. Factoring in everything, I believe I hit a fair representation for this item.

InsuranceNerdwallet.com has a good breakdown for insurance rates for the vehicles chosen. Insurance is highly variable at the individual level, so I just used national average costs for good drivers.

Financing — I assumed full financing on all cars and modeled 60 months and 6.5% interest.

Cars compared — I chose two BEVs, the Chevy Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3 LR, as both are eligible for the full federal tax credit and are very popular. For gas cars, I included the BMW 330i xDrive 2.0L as a direct Tesla Model 3 competitor, and the Toyota Prius XLE 2.0L and Toyota Corolla LE 2.0L as potential Chevy Bolt competitors.

Results

The table above compares lifetime costs — including vehicle/financing, fuel, insurance/repairs, and total cost — for the selected vehicles. At the end of the 10-year model period, each car was projected to have 160,000 miles and was sold for salvage value.

Putting numbers to the table, the Chevy Bolt was the clear winner for lifetime cost in this group, at about $51,171, with the Toyota Corolla coming in $15,672 more at about $66,843. The Tesla Model 3 came in third at $7,000 more than the Corolla, and the Prius came in $1,160 more than the Tesla at $75,000. The gas BMW was $109,500, which was $35,700 more than the Model 3 LR and $58,350 more than the Bolt.

The cost of BEVs vs. ICEVs if BEVs last 50% longer provided startling results. In the table above, you can see the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3 were projected to last 240,000 miles, while the ICE cars stayed at 160,000. To reach the comparison target of 240,000 miles, 1.5 ICE cars were purchased and the fuel and repairs were averaged forward appropriately. I should note the math is not simply 1.5× to project BEV costs, since repair costs go up substantially as vehicles age. This model, for example, saw the Tesla repair/maintenance cost grow to $3,660/year in year 15, over $1,000/year more than the BMW maximum! This may prove higher than reality for a Model 3, but I wanted to be conservative.

In this 15-year model, the Bolt was again the clear winner, at just $70,200. The Corolla just barely maintained second place at $100,265, with the Tesla Model 3 just $2,550 more at $102,800. The Prius came in third at $112,390, and the BMW proved to cost well over double the Bolt at $164,290.

What Does This Mean?

No surprises — We have seen lots of 5-year analyses comparing BEVs vs ICEVs that demonstrate how the TCO for BEVs is lower for similar class vehicles, so these full lifecycle cost results should not surprise anyone. What is perhaps surprising is just how much cheaper BEVs are when their full life is considered — especially for the plus-50% model.

ICEVs are no longer competitive vs BEVs — This analysis suggests that new ICEVs are simply not competitive vs. BEVs anymore. When a premium BEV like the Tesla Model 3 can potentially cost about the same as a Toyota Corolla over 15 years, and a whopping $61,500 less than a same-class/lower-performance ICE vehicle, it won’t take long before buyers notice.

Used cars — Market price is market price, but sometimes markets do not reflect a vehicle’s actual value. This phenomenon can especially occur with new/unfamiliar products until consumers catch on. If BEVs really do last longer and are this cheap to own, it would make sense that they would retain more value on the used market. In fact, they should arguably depreciate at a rate closer to about 40% more slowly vs comparable ICE vehicles. We are, however, seeing BEVs depreciate at roughly the same or, in some cases, even higher rates vs ICEVs! This suggests the used market for BEVs may be an absolute bargain if they really do last longer.

Demand for Low-Cost BEVs — These projections make me wonder if there will even be much demand for sub-$25,000 BEVs in the future. The most popular car in the world is the Toyota Corolla, selling 1.12 million units in 2022. This is true despite cheaper cars being on the market. The fact is most people do not tend to buy these cheaper cars in the same volumes since they do not offer as much value. Price, in other words, is not everything. Based on history, people also tend to buy higher quality/value things when they can afford them. Considering this analysis suggests a Chevy Bolt, and arguably even a Tesla Model 3 LR, is already cheaper or as cheap as a Toyota Corolla, it is fair to wonder if buyers will simply move upstream into these better cars since they can afford to do so. With BEV pricing predicted to drop even more soon, I suspect this question is keeping many an automaker CEO up at night. What do you think?

By Luvhrtz

 
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