Repairing or replacing an electric vehicle's battery is often so expensive that the entire car gets junked. So much for EVs saving the planet.
According to a report from Reuters, damage as minor as a scratch on the casing of a battery pack could be enough reason for an insurer to write an electric car off, even if the insurer does not know for certain that the pack's internals are damaged.
The report goes on to say that for those who are willing to repair, EV batteries either cannot be worked on or cannot be assessed, forcing the insurer to rather consider the entire car a loss. And if the car is worked on, what happens if the repair was not performed correctly? To avoid potential lawsuits over EVs that ought to have been totaled, many insurers would rather avoid the risk altogether.
And where do these potentially salvageable EVs end up? In the junkyard, exactly where EV advocates said an electric car would not.
The notion of a circular economy is a romantic one. In a perfect world, new cars use reclaimed or recycled materials throughout. When the vehicle - particularly if it is electric - reaches the end of its life, all or most of its components can be refreshed and reused. But manufacturers and their suppliers still use raw materials or newly made components to equip new vehicles; nobody is sourcing the ingredients for a new car from junkyards.
"We're buying electric cars for sustainability reasons," said Matthew Avery, research director at Thatcham Research, a firm specializing in automotive risk intelligence. "But an EV isn't very sustainable if you've got to throw the battery away after a minor collision."
Cars like the Texas-manufactured Tesla Model Y are especially bad offenders. Munro & Associates tears down vehicles and advises various automakers on improving them. Its boss, Sandy Munro, said that the Model Y's battery pack has "zero repairability," adding that "a Tesla structural battery pack is going straight to the grinder." While the structural battery pack concept is good for minimizing parts and thereby reducing potential waste, the long-term effects are not so positive.
That's not to say that all automakers are oblivious or indifferent. GM has been helping Tesla owners with repairs, and back home, its own vehicles, as well as those of cross-town rival Ford, are promised to be more repairable. Even so, the scandalous costs associated with repairs may negate any design improvements made to facilitate easier maintenance work.
Tesla is even facing legal action over these sky-high maintenance and repair costs, but its CEO seems to think that insurers' estimates of EV repair costs are way off. However, Tesla is not the only company with EVs that are being thrown away. A Reuters search of EV salvage sales both in America and Europe revealed plenty of low-mileage Teslas but also EVs from BMW, Hyundai, Nissan, Renault, and Stellantis.
Managing director of the Allianz Center for Technology, Christoph Lauterwasser, said, "The number of cases is going to increase, so the handling of batteries is a crucial point," adding, "If you throw away the vehicle at an early stage, you've lost pretty much all advantage in terms of CO2 emissions."
So what can be done?
Sticking with combustion sounds like a great idea to many, especially with the advent of synthetic fuels and hydrogen technology. But the EV train is already moving at high speed, so there are only two feasible solutions, both of which should be implemented.
First, manufacturers should make battery packs that are designed to be repaired or, at the very least, replaced.
Second, automakers must allow public access to battery data. These companies will be hesitant to allow this as it creates an opportunity for rivals to discover innovations. But the trade-off would be that EVs can stay on the road longer, high repair bills won't turn customers off, and the environment can see less pollution and waste from electric cars.
Isn't making the world a better place exactly what Tesla and other EV manufacturers claim to be in the business for? It's high time that they prove it.
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