A few days ago, findings from a research that suggested electric vehicles have significantly higher repair costs compared to conventional combustion-powered cars were making the rounds online. But how true are its conclusions and were they motivated untowardly?
First of all, the research itself was conducted by Allianz Versicherung, which we all know is a major global insurance provider based in Germany, so that put a slight salty tinge on the information it presents as fair and truthful.
Many online readers (I hate the word netizen, so I won’t bother with it) took issue with its mildly inflammatory headline, which painted electric vehicles (EVs) in a bad light, accusing them of taking a step backward in cost of ownership and cost of repairs despite its more efficient zero-emissions powertrain.
Before we throw the book at Allianz, it’s worth going beneath the clickbait and delving a little deeper to ascertain if, at its core, lies a legitimately new discovery or an informed piece of conjecture.
When we examine the meat of this research, there’s far less to get agenda-driven tweaking and corporate lobbying to be found. In fact, much of the data it summarises and cites is pretty well established and corroborated mostly owing to the common sense deduction that EVs contain more expensive parts that, more often than not with regard to its batteries and motor(s), need to be replaced wholesale instead of in pieces.
If any entity has the experience and data to contrast the repair costs between cars powered by internal combustion engines (ICE) versus EVs, it would probably be a major insurance provider given the sheer volume of damage and repair claims they are bombarded with.
The study found that put simply, electric cars cost more to repair after accidents than ‘conventional’ cars - and considerably more so. Might I add that this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. According to them, the average damage cost in fully comprehensive insurance is roughly 10% higher for pure electric cars.
What’s really shocking here is that plug-in hybrids tend to be some 50% more expensive to repair than ICE cars due to their batteries. Not only do they cost a lot of money on their own, but safety removing the damaged set usually comes with its own unique set of headaches, making the labour required to carry out a repair even more prohibitive.
In general, battery-powered or ‘full’ EVs (a.k.a BEVs) are purpose-built to accommodate its unique drive system with the vast majority of components being at ‘ground level’ with the wheels and axles, just above the undercarriage.
On the flip side, plug-in hybrids are typically derived from existing combustion cars that have been extensively modified to accommodate batteries and an electric motor, albeit much smaller and less powerful ones compared to full EVs as they will be working in conjunction with the engine. In short, this means more complexity, more design oversights, less repairability, and more cost - not to mention the relative scarcity of people trained to perform these repairs.
Back to BEVs, Carsten Reinkemeyer, Head of Safety Research at the Allianz Center for Technology, was quoted saying: “We are about 30 percent higher in repairing collision damage with electric vehicles.”
This statement does muddy the waters a little as we don’t quite know whether he means hybrids and EVs or both of them grouped together. Both types of vehicles could require battery replacements, have damaged electric motors, and have similar limitations on skilled human resource.
For all its failings, the internal combustion engine is as notoriously difficult to fully kill off as it is to get to operate perfectly over the long term. Just take your car as an example, its engine requires regular maintenance, fluid changes, and can suffer from a multitude of smaller issues that might never be resolved, but is otherwise mostly tolerable.
Though it might be very irritating and dangerous, a typical ICE car can still be driven - but not for very long - with multiple misfiring cylinders, dirty oil, leaking coolant, a clogged induction system, a sticky clutch, or even a loose timing chain.
Each of those problem areas mentioned can also be addressed separately and over a period of time. Only in rare cases will the engine as a whole need to be replaced, but this is generally what is being done with electric vehicles.
Due to their more integrated nature and how they work in a tight system, should a few cells in a large EV battery array have taken damage, multiple rows of cells or all of them will need to be replaced. The electric motor on its way out? Time for a new one.
Reinkemeyer echoes the sentiment of Allianz Versicherungs-AG CEO Frank Sommerfeld, who estimates that battery replacements they’ve had to administer cost “up to 20,000 Euros” as underbody damage is a common occurrence in most collisions, which can easily damage the battery.
Puzzlingly, the study also noted that some manufacturers stipulate that the battery must be replaced after an airbag has been deployed. Ridiculous, isn’t it?
‘Maintainance vs Repair’ could also have been the title of this sub-section, but really they’re two sides of the same coin. Everything degrades - like our own universe sinking slowly into heat death, the integrity of components falls over time, but it affects EVs differently compared to ICE cars.
Common ground can be found with consumables such as tyres, brake pads, air filters (cabin), and the like, but where the majority of mechanical components wear away with use in a car powered by internal combustion - seals, gaskets…transmissions - they can usually be repaired or replaced piecemeal.
EVs, on the other hand, due to their systems lacking more than a handful of moving parts and almost entirely digitised, are much less prone to individual components wearing out. The big bottleneck here is battery technology as there is currently no way to prevent their degradation, meaning their ability to hold charge will decrease over time.
Heat does play a role and indeed exacerbates this degradation, which makes proper cooling a major consideration, but even without this external factor the mere charging, discharging, and recharging cycle takes its toll.
A typical EV might not ever face noticeable effects of this degradation over the course of a typical ownership cycle (let’s say 5 years), but it will be an issue for the vehicle’s second or third owner, and passing the buck this flippantly won’t help EV adoption gain traction no matter how much governments want to jam them down on throats.
When it comes down to it, you, the individual buyer, must decide on which inconvenience is more tolerable to you:
ICE - Numerous potential mechanical issues that are more or less rectifiable (even in an accident) but require regular maintenance to keep wear at bay?
EV - Almost no maintenance but with inevitable range/battery degradation and potentially very expensive or prohibitive repairs if major damage is incurred?
There's just something about cars. It's a conveyance, it's a liability, it's a tool; but it can also be a source of joy, pride, inspiration and passion. It's much like clothes versus fashion. And like the latter, the pursuit of perfection never ends.