One of the big questions I'm asked is, "Should I buy an electric car?" They're asking, essentially, if they're going to get hosed financially, as well as plunged into range anxiety. In truth, these cars aren't for everybody, but at least one parameter is totally in your favor — maintenance.
A new study by the Institute of Automobile Economics at Nürtingen-Geislingen University in Germany concludes that, overall, routine maintenance will cost 35 percent less with an electric car. The comparison was between the maintenance schedule of a typical compact car and an EV like the Nissan Leaf, and the bottom line was a savings of $1,700 over an eight-year period.
This makes perfect sense, because EVs don't have all that many moving parts, or many components that will wear out regularly. There's no ignition, exhaust system or spark plugs. They don't need oil changes — electric motors don't need lubrication, or really any maintenance at all. They're essentially sealed for life — I've never heard of an electric motor going bad.
The German survey shouldn't be taken as gospel, because it leaves out the big wild card here — potential battery pack replacement. According to PlugInCars.com, "Critics raised concerns with the study. They say it was based on eight years of driving, prior to a potential need to replace batteries. Even though battery replacements are likely to occur on very few EVs, a longer period of evaluation could raise average costs. Conversely, the study assumed only 5,000 miles of driving per year, well below average distances traveled by American drivers. More vehicles traveled would potentially increase the benefits of electric vehicles in terms of lower maintenance costs."
EV batteries should be strong through 500 to 1,000 cycles, but then start to deteriorate. On the Tesla Model S, maybe that means 100,000 miles in safety. It's pretty difficult to calculate battery replacement costs at that point in the future, because prices are likely to have dropped considerably. Tesla's thinking ahead, though, with a reassuring battery replacement policy for its huge packs, which can be as much as 85 kilowatt hours.
Tesla is allowing owners to pre-purchase a replacement battery that will be available after eight years. The packs would cost much more now, but Tesla is offering them for $8,000 (the cheapest 40-kilowatt-hour models), $10,000 (60-kWh) and $12,000 (85-kWh). That looks insanely generous now, but it might not be in 2020. Tesla is thinking ahead.
Most of the EV owners I talk to are happy, but they tend to be a self-selecting group of early adopters predisposed to like the cars. Even they would be upset if hit early on with a $20,000 bill for a new battery pack.