Automakers Need to Start Worrying About the Batteries Lurking in Older EVs

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
automakers need to start worrying about the batteries lurking in older evs

After a few years, most of us begin to notice our smartphones have developed an inability to hold a charge like they used to. The fix used to be pretty simple, no worse than swapping a couple of AAs into the remote. Order a new battery online, pop off the back of the device, and replace the run-down cell with a fresh one. Unfortunately, this simple act grew more difficult as manufacturers gradually decided to seal off access to your phone’s internals — mimicking the plight facing EV owners whose energy source is losing capacity.

A number of electric vehicles in the United States are about to celebrate their 10th birthday. A bunch of them are Nissan Leafs, the first mainstream BEV made widely available in the U.S. market. At the same time, customers have begun complaining about diminished range, with some asking for a battery refurbishment program like the one enjoyed by customers living in Japan.

So far, the best they’ve received is a confident “maybe” from the manufacturer. It might behoove them to expedite things and pull the trigger. Automakers are running behind in terms of establishing a global solution to aging EV batteries, and they’re risking a lot by not already having one in place.

For many consumers, swapping an old battery pack with new one is prohibitively expensive. Replacing the comparatively small units found in a hybrid vehicle can cost anywhere between $2,000 to over $7,000. However, the worst you’ll have to endure on a hybrid up until that point is a slew of warning notifications stating your battery is dying until the car finally fails to start. In the interim, you might also notice a modest MPG reduction. But you’ll probably have to start worrying about other major repairs by the time that happens, perhaps propelling you into a new car.

Purely electric vehicles are different. Range will gradually become an issue, worsening every year until the car becomes unusable for anything other than a trip around the block. As if that weren’t enough, their larger batteries cost quite a bit more.

Automotive News highlighted this fact in an interview with an early adopter named Ravi Kan-ade. Since purchasing his 2012 Nissan Leaf SL, he’s watched its charging capacity diminish by half over 60,000 miles of driving. That’s not ideal, especially considering the car’s 24-kWh battery started out with an operational range of just 84 miles. He’s dying for the refurbishment option.

While Nissan said it was considering extending the program to North America when it launched in Japan last year, potentially opening the door for kWh upgrades, nothing has been confirmed. It might not even make sense for Nissan to expand the program in its current penny-pinching state. But it would instill a warm, safe feeling inside its customer base.

In Japan the Leaf battery refurbishment costs around $3,000 and units come via a new battery recycling plant inside the country. That’s not cheap, but it’s better than the alternative.

“A refurb program is needed to help owners who were affected by Gen 1 vehicles,” Kan-ade said. “I believe that these early battery failures are part of a learning curve that was passed on to the consumer. Nissan offered a battery replacement program for $5,500, but unfortunately they quietly raised the price to $8,500.”

Despite Nissan being among the first automakers to confront these issues, it is not the only one that has to confront them. Other automakers are facing similar problems stemming from hybrid cars, and we’re just a few years away from a glut of all-electric Teslas coping with an identical plight — followed swiftly by every other automaker that decided to build BEVs at scale.

Among the biggest concerns is resale value. With no refurb solution, owners will essentially be forced to throw a car onto the secondhand market needing thousands in repairs. Sure, they could foot the bill themselves, but why bother replacing the most expensive component in your vehicle just to sell it? Likewise, why would the average used-car buyer choose to spend the cash when they’re already in search of a bargain? Wouldn’t it make more sense to go the internal combustion route or simply splurge on a new EV with superior range?

Yep. You can already see this manifesting on the used market. Almost no one is buying a used electric; as a result, they’ve become dirt cheap — though the tax incentives affixed to new BEVs and lower fuel costs also contribute. The situation is less pronounced with hybrids, but they’re also likely to deprecate a bit faster than their un-electrified counterparts.

From Automotive News:

When people come in to buy a used Leaf, they aren’t asking about the interior, or the electric motor, said Dave Marvin, dealer principal of three Nissan dealerships in Texas and Southern California.

“Their No. 1 concern is the health of the battery,” Marvin said. “Having an affordable, well-thought-out battery replacement program would be a great benefit because it helps address that concern.”

Spending $8,000 on a new battery pack and related components for a first-gen Leaf does not make financial sense, Marvin said.

“It makes that hard to pencil,” he said. “You can’t get enough value back out of the car when you have had to put that kind of investment into the car.”

Unless you’re an electrical engineer hungry for an at-home project, the only sensible solution is to just lease these cars from the start and have someone else deal with it later. But even that’s just kicking the can down the road; it does nothing to address the larger problem. Leasing agencies won’t be happy auctioning a car that has deprecated to nothing and dealerships absolutely aren’t going to want to dump huge investment into a used EV that forces them to sell it at a loss. As for the factory, establishing a procedure to fix up old batteries has to be done in a way that’s financially viable. Otherwise, they won’t bother.

And that’s unlikely to change unless EV sales continue to rise like they did in 2018. Adoption rates may begin to stall unless mainstream consumers feel truly confident they can get the most out of their vehicle’s battery — or at least have it refurbished/repaired for a reasonable price. That makes this a bit of a Catch-22, one the industry has spent billions of dollars setting up. If it doesn’t want to see those funds flushed down the toilet, it might be worth spending a little more to establish a better support network.

Another solution would be to engineer the batteries better — something most automakers are working on. One of the reasons the initial Leaf has such a hard time maintaining capacity (especially in warmer climates) is that it uses an an air-cooled battery. Liquid cooling is gradually becoming the norm, saving cars from bleeding range at an advanced rate. Sadly, these sorts of improvements will also make older vehicles seem even more outdated and less desirable when the time comes to sell them.

[Image: Bondvit/Shutterstock, Nissan]

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  • Sam Hall Sam Hall on Aug 06, 2019

    When the demand gets high enough, the free market will provide a solution. For most kinds of BEVs, the solution will likely be something resembling a rebuilt engine with a core exchange -- you drop off your car and pick it up in a day or two with a rebuilt battery pack. On the back end, the refurbisher will open up the battery packs, find a relative handful of dead cells, and replace them to completely restore the original capacity. As this procedure becomes more common, automakers will design their products to make battery replacement quicker and easier. Eventually, at least some will enter the battery swap business themselves. I was a BEV skeptic in the beginning, but they have become economic for large numbers of people and are here to stay. The only real caveat remaining is that there haven't been any breakthroughs in battery _materials_, only in the way battery packs are engineered. The battery revolution is all in the electronics that manage the cells to squeeze maximum life out of them. The cells themselves are still your father's batteries.

    • See 2 previous
    • Redgolf Redgolf on Aug 07, 2019

      @TheDumbGuy "And China needs to figure out the same issues. I suggest that we watch them do it first, and learn from them." But China might beat us to the moon! Oh wait! that was the Russians!

  • Tstag Tstag on Aug 07, 2019

    Renault have this right with the Zoe. You can lease or buy the battery. If you lease the battery then Renault replace it automatically every few years. Nissan should take a Leaf out of their French friends book.

  • Jim Bonham Full EVs are not for everyone, they cannot meet all needs. Hybrids do a much better job of providing the benefits of EVs without most of the drawbacks. I have a hybrid sedan with plenty of room, plus all the bells and whistles. It has 360 hp, AWD, does 0-60 in just over 5 sec.(the instant torque is a real benefit), and I get 29 mpg, average. NOT driven lightly. I bought it used for $25k.Sure, it's a little heavier because of the battery, motor, etc., but not nearly as much as a full EV. The battery is smaller/lighter/cheaper and both the alternator and starter motor are eliminated since the motor assumes those functions. It's cool to watch the charge guage show I'm getting energy back when coasting and/or braking. It's even cooler to drive around part of the time on battery only. It really comes in handy in traffic since the engine turns off and you don't waste fuel idling. With the adaptive cruise control you just let the car slowly inch along by itself.I only wish it were a Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV). Then, I'd have A LOT more EV-only range, along with even more of that instant torque. The battery would be bigger, but still a fraction of the size of a full EV. I could easily go weeks without using much, if any gas (depending upon my commute) IF I plug it in every night. But I don't have to. The gas engine will charge the battery whenever it's needed.It's just not as efficient a way to do it.Electric companies offer special rates for both EVs and PHEVs which lower your operating cost compared to gasoline. They'll even give you a rebate to offset the cost of installing a home charger. You can still get federal (up to $7,500, plus some state) tax credits for PHEVs.What's not to like? My next daily driver will be a PHEV of some kind. Probably a performance-oriented one like the new Dodge Hornet or one of the German Hybrid SUVs. All the benefits, sound, feel, etc., of a gas vehicle along with some electric assist to improve fuel economy, performance, and drivability. None of the inherent EV issues of cost, range anxiety, long charging times, poor charger availability, grid capacity issues, etc. I think most people will eventually catch on to this and go PHEV instead of going full EV. Synthetic, carbon-neutral eFuels, hydrogen engines, and other things will also prevent full EVs from being 100% of the fleet, regardless of what the politicians say. PHEVs can be as "clean" (overall) as full EVs with the right fuels. They're also cheaper, and far more practical, for most people. They can do it all, EVs can't.
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