Less Maintenance, More Glitches
One of the main reasons people choose to switch to an all-electric vehicle is to save money. You save when you buy a new electric car, as available federal, regional, and local incentives can reduce the purchase price by thousands of dollars – often making EVs less expensive than a similarly-equipped gasoline equivalent. You save money every day, week, and month on fuel – savings that are further amplified as gasoline costs rise – and the more you drive, the more you save. Finally, thanks to the simplicity of electric drivetrains, you should save money on maintenance and service as well. There are no oil and fluid changes to worry about, brakes should last longer thanks to the use of regeneration to slow the car, and after years and years of driving, you’re not going to have to adjust valves, replace exhaust systems, or deal with other major mechanical issues that often plague traditional gas vehicles. Because of all this, electric cars should be more reliable, right?
Well, a couple of recent studies – one by Consumer Reports in the U.S., and another one by Which? in the UK – suggest that electric vehicles are considerably less reliable than gasoline ones, at least in the first four years of ownership. The good news is that, while issues with electric vehicles do crop up, they are typically covered under warranty, and do not usually involve complex mechanical issues.
Which?, a “consumer champion” organization in Europe that’s the UK’s equivalent of Consumer Reports, surveyed almost 50,000 drivers, and found that 31% of electric vehicles had at least one issue, compared to just 20% of gasoline-powered vehicles. More interestingly, the best-performing vehicles in the survey were actually conventional hybrid vehicles, of which only 17% had issues. Plug-in hybrids fell in between the two, with 28% of vehicles developing issues between purchase and four years of age.
More Technology Means More Issues
Does that mean that electric drivetrains are less reliable than their more complex gasoline counterparts? Absolutely not. Digging deeper into the numbers, the vast majority of issues that arose in electric cars had nothing to do with the drivetrains. Most issues, in fact, were with technology features like infotainment screens, reversing cameras, and other gadgets.
Consumer Reports, a non-profit U.S. organization, had similar findings. Most problems developed by EVs – which had a far higher “issue rate” than gasoline cars – were associated with infotainment or other technology features, and not with their drivetrains. In fact, Consumer Reports notes that the cheapest EVs with the most simplistic technology like the Nissan Leaf performed much better.
Tesla Ranked Among Least Reliable
A quick survey of the tech available on electric vehicles today validates Consumer Reports’ contention that car brands save their best and most complex tech for electric vehicles. For instance, the Mercedes-Benz “Hyperscreen,” a 56-inch display encompassing three separate touch panels, is only available on the company’s electric models, and not on even the most expensive top-of-the-line S-Class. And Tesla, widely seen as a technology leader with its semi-autonomous driving capabilities, multiple cameras, and sophisticated infotainment, finished second-last in terms of reliability, beating only Lincoln in the brand rankings. Conversely, the top-rated brands for reliability – Lexus, Mazda, and Toyota – have a very conservative approach to new technology and are often viewed as being behind the curve by the market in terms of sophistication. Until lately, they have also been the brands that have shown the greatest resistance to implementing full EVs, focusing more on hybrid technology.
The UK findings echo what Consumer Reports found in the U.S.; most issues that came up with electric vehicles were software glitches – often solvable with a reboot, an over the air software update, or a visit to a dealer. Which? mentions that it’s spoken to many experts that will “reboot” electric vehicles to solve minor issues.
On the other hand, the UK study found that if a dealer visit is required for an EV, it tends to spend longer being fixed – spending an average of five days off the road instead of three. EVs’ software is far more sophisticated and complex than the software running a typical gasoline vehicle and requires attention from specially-trained technicians, which might be one reason.
The organization also found that Tesla, which is often lauded for its sophisticated technology, was not a paragon of reliability, ranking dead-last among brands. However, the simpler and popular Kia E-Niro, an inexpensive competitor to the Nissan Leaf, scored tops – and was found to be almost entirely fault-free for its owners. If you're shopping for an EV, comparing how many high-tech features are fitted may give you a good sense of how reliable your purchase will be.
With the amazing sophistication of the software running electric vehicles, and the fact that they are still new technology, it should come as no surprise that new features, gadgets, and infotainment might be the cause of some reliability challenges. But, there’s good news in these findings as well – they are clear in stating that actual mechanical issues are almost non-existent, and due to the age of EVs generally, are almost always covered under warranty. Finally, most faults can be fixed with software updates, which means that the driving and ownership experience of an EV continues to get better and better over time.