Electric Vehicles Continue The Same Wasteful Mistakes That Limit Longevity

A while back, I sat in the newish electric car that was the pride and joy of a friend of mine, and had what was at the time an odd experience. Instead of getting in, turning the key, and driving off, the car instead had to boot up.

The feeling was of a piece of software rather than a piece of hardware, and there was a tangible wait before the start button could be pressed. It was a miracle of technology that could travel smoothly and quietly for all but the longest journeys I could possibly throw at it on relative pennies-worth of electricity, but I hated it. As a technologist and car enthusiast, I should be all over these types of motor vehicles. I live for new technology and I lust after its latest incarnations in many fields including automobiles.

I want my next car to have an electric motor, I want it to push the boundaries of what is capable with a battery and I want it to be an automotive tour de force. The switch to electric cars represents an opportunity like no other to deliver a new type of car that doesn’t carry the baggage of what has gone before, but in that car I saw a future in which they were going badly astray.

I don’t want my next vehicle to be a car like my friend’s one, and to understand why that is the case it’s worth going back a few decades to the cars my parents drove back when when jumpers were goalposts, and the home computer was just a gleam in the eye of a few long-haired outsiders in California.

When Rust Buckets Ruled the Open Road

The FIAT 127 is better known for rusting than for modernity, but under the skin it's the precursor of your car today.
The FIAT 127 is better known nowadays for rusting than for modernity, but under the skin it’s the precursor of your front-wheel-drive car today. Thomas doerfer / CC BY-SA 3.0

By the 1970s, the basic design and layout of a car had begun to reach its zenith. Lift the hood on a VW Golf Mk1 from 1974 or a FIAT 127 from 1971 and you’ll find the same transverse engine with a front-wheel-drive transmission stuck on the end (Pay attention, in-sump-gearbox Mini enthusiasts!) of it that most of you will see in the car on your driveway today. In the rest of their construction you’ll see earlier iterations of the safety and comfort innovations you’re used to.

Throughout the world, the vast majority of cars on the road today use this configuration, with rear-wheel-drive, longitudinal engines, and rear engines having become something of an oddity.  While the designers had nailed the basic format though, the materials hadn’t quite caught up with the demands of the product. The better 1970s cars were on the whole pretty reliable and easy to fix when they went wrong, but as any older car enthusiast will tell you today, the quality of their metallurgy and paintwork left something to be desired.

They rusted, and they did so with frightening rapidity. Scrapyards were full of rusted-out models less than ten years old that were otherwise fine mechanically, and running a car over that age meant becoming familiar with the art of using the welder and plenty of fibreglass body filler. These were the vehicles my generation had as our first proper transport, and some of them were good cars, but at the same time truly awful good cars.

An Audi 80 heads for a watery but ultimately rust-free grave.
An Audi 80 heads for a watery but ultimately rust-free grave.

Making cars that didn’t last a decade was good business for the automakers who hoped to sell more cars, but ultimately damaging for their reputations and their bottom lines. Thus one of the biggest selling points for a car in the 1980s was its rust resistance, as can be seen in Audi’s commercial for their new Audi 80 near the end of that decade in which they dropped the car in the sea to highlight its galvanised body. By the 1990s most cars simply didn’t rust, or at least if they did it was relatively minor and cosmetic compared to the serial disingtegration of their 1970s stablemates.

Outside my window I see a descendant of those Golf Mk1s made in 1998 that has just received its first piece of structural welding, a patch on a perforation the size of a nickel. That would have been unheard of in a 22-year-old car that had spent its life driving through British winters when it was made, yet now it is quite normal. Cars still end up in scrapyards, but by and large they no longer do so due to bodywork rust.

From Rust Rot to Bit Rot

Most of these cars probably had surprisingly little wrong with them when scrapped. Carolyn Williams / CC BY 2.0
Most of these cars probably had surprisingly little wrong with them when scrapped. Carolyn Williams / CC BY 2.0

So why do cars get scrapped in 2020, if modern rust proofing has made their bodies near-immortal and a combination of good metallurgy and synthetic oil has left their engines bulletproof? Aside from legislatory changes such as for example those surrounding diesel emissions,  a modern car is significantly more complex than its equivalent of a few decades ago. It has a whole variety of subsystems devoted to achieving lower emissions, better safety, and increased fuel economy, and its interior is festooned with gadgets unknown in times past.

Headlights no longer turn on with a switch and a wire, instead the car’s computer sends a CAN bus instruction to a microcontroller behind its bulb which turns it on. All this extra complexity has made modern cars significantly more reliable than their predecessors, but at a price. When those headlights fail the replacement part is no longer a $5 switch but a $1000 electronic module behind the dashboard, probably more than the car is worth so it heads for the crusher. I’ve more than once been offered just such rather nice cars for pennies; sensing money pits I have so far wisely declined. There is no motivation yet for the manufacturers to improve this situation because the shortcomings of their cars are not as obvious to the owners as the bubbling rust was in the 1970s, but they’ve achieved the same feat of making cars that only last ten years or so.

Complexity is the Enemy of Longevity

You wouldn't believe how much this box of electronics from a VW cost me to replace.
You wouldn’t believe how much this box of electronics from a 2001 VW cost me to replace back in 2009? I did it because I liked the car, but many people wouldn’t.

Electric cars offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something about all this. Instead of an engine with hundreds of moving parts and a brace of computers to keep it running within its emission and fuel economy parameters, you have an electric motor with one moving part. There are still electronics, but a motor controller is now a simple enough unit to have become genericised.

As a demonstration of that versatility New Electric Ireland for example put a Lexus electric drivetrain with a Nissan Leaf motor controller in a BMW estate car. It would be difficult to imagine a corresponding situation in which the brains of a Nissan internal combustion engine drove the lump from a Lexus. An electric car can at its very minimum have electronics only in its motor controller, battery charger, and safety systems such as anti-lock brakes, making it at a stroke infinitely simpler than the internal combustion vehicle it replaces.

Unfortunately though, the manufacturers seem intent on taking electric cars in the opposite direction, bringing me back to the car I sat in at the start of this article. Right now electric cars are technology showcases in which complexity and unnecessary features are viewed as desirable, and the very environmental benefit of having the electric car is negated by their inevitable demise after a few years when the feature overload starts to bite the dust. Instead we need to see longevity become a selling point, and unnecessary complexity merely for the purpose of limiting vehicle life come to be regarded as environmentally detrimental as rolling coal from a big diesel V8. There should be no greenwash afforded to a manufacturer whose so-called environmentally sound offering doesn’t have a likely service life almost into its third decade even if that requires a replacement battery, because if we are serious about CO2 emissions our aim should be to make fewer, better cars rather than simply make more cars. Anything else is mere hypocrisy.

Header image: A 1914 experimental electric car. Unknown author / Public domain

374 thoughts on “Electric Vehicles Continue The Same Wasteful Mistakes That Limit Longevity

  1. “Outside my window I see a descendant of those …” Fiat 124 – my VAZ-21011 celebrating its 40th anniversary with a coctail of rust. That car was made the same year as myself, yay!
    There is also my Audi 80 B3 1.6 TDI (1991), that i got a few months ago – luckily just in time before the local law ruled out the 23y.o. LPG bottle in the VAZ and the sudden country-wide shortage of new bottles.
    If it wasn’t for the LPG legal issue and the somewhat risky level of rust, i’d still drive daily the VAZ.
    After getting used to the Audi, i realized it made me a (kind of) lazy driver…

  2. Jenny, you make every good point in this story, but sorry to say you’re pissing in the wind on this one. I know it hurts. This problem exists everywhere, and electric cars are a current missed opportunity. They’re just bigger than cell phones, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fridges with touch screens and cut rate compressors, etc, etc, etc. It’s an “increasing shareholder value” problem. Plus, people have been bitching that “Cars are all computers now!” for the past 40 years. Hell, I remember when everybody was outraged when they had to get metric socket sets. You’re 100% right though, And it 100% sucks, but I don’t see too much of a way out.

    Think of how lucky the Hackaday crowd is – We can usually fix things, and with the economy currently going to complete hell, coupled with all the free time, we’re probably going to be doing a LOT more of that. And this new crap is a lot more complex, but like I say to every kid that asks – “A person, with two hands built that thing. You have two hands also.”

  3. Lots of fraud under various names. Hypocrisy and protection schemes abundant. Can’t really blame the manufacturer alone. They learned it from govt. That new electric car was probably checking by radio/satellite if the owner has been paid up or that CAN bus has detected a fault in the system and needs to verify if safe to proceed. Like a burned out light bulb or other critical equipment. Dirty air cabin filter maybe. Takes a bit in outer areas or when the network is busy. Not necessarily software or boot time issue alone.
    Like to say there’s somebody to pull that 100K$ + car and the good intentioned 65K$ gas sucking modded 4WD out of the field with a 1940s Willys CJ2A PTO winch but there aint many of us. All because some wank has misplaced belief in “traction control” and ABS. Then theres the goofy 4WD baby thinking he cant get stuck.

  4. 1968 VW microbus. Rebuilt engine, ran it for 100,000 miles. Kept toolbox in it and complete idoits guide for repair. It broke, I repaired, wash, repeat until sold. Body fine but old. Could have rebuilt for many years.
    I would love to have a Microbus that was electric and a Complete ifiots guide for repair.
    I think taxi cabs could have been made electric and bodies to last nearly forever. I don’t think major car manufacturers would like that. It would make too much sense for the planet and humanity.
    Solar and wind plus batteries for electric power for heat, ac, transportation, manufacturing. But KISS.
    Don’t make it complicated by design,

    When the bus quit I parked it on the side of the highway, got out the tools and fixed it, drove off. Which 2020 or 2021 vehicle are going to do that with?

    Back in 1973 at the University I started and electric car project. I also graduated and got a job and left the University.

    Please design a folks wagon for tomorrow and beyond. And the owners manual should include The Complete Idiots Guide, for repairs wherever.

    1. What if you don’t want an update , or a computer to brake and steer the car for you for that matter ? Buyers should be given a choice. Personally I’d like something simple with no computers at all , ok maybe some sort of processor in the stereo system but nothing else. A bit like my current diesel car with mechanical pump, injection and manual window winders and a key to lock the doors. Only thing that went wrong with it in the past 15 years of ownership and had to be replaced was the aftermarket stereo that came with GPS and MP3 player which I used and lots of other functions which I never do. I replaced it with another one for the convenience of the GPS navigation system and because I foolishly threw away the original radio cassette system or I’d be using the mobile phone for navigation.

  5. Don’t judge EVs by your one experience in a non-Tesla. Tesla is the number one EV for a reason. It is on when you open the door, there is no “Start button”, the UI is better than any car UI ever.

    Tesla has merged multiple ECU’s, microcontrollers, chips and such into a double redundant general purpose computer. It is even more reliable and replaceable with a board swap of an $500 eBay part if not under warranty.

    You comment about reliability are strange because VW “simple switch” fails often require ripping out the wiring due to loose or frayed connections. It was so bad that repair folks near me did not even want to touch it.

    Just about everything you say about clean simple vehicle is true for a Tesla Model 3. It just gets rid of everything that can fail. Fuses are replaced with solid state circuits the reset themselves.

    1. Except for booting, though, Tesla is the poster child for the author’s complaints. Teslas will have an artificially short lifespan due to the fact that you simply won’t be able to repair them. When something fails, it’s going to require replacement of a complex, expensive centralized processing unit that you either won’t be able to get, or won’t be able to justify the cost of. This is already starting to occur with a cottage industry forming around repairing Tesla electronics for big bucks. Makes sense on a car less than 10 years old… but there’s no reason a Tesla can’t last 25 years if not for the electronic complications that are their brand signature. You will see Model 3s with perfectly good drivetrains and perfectly good batteries scrapped in a decade.

  6. Way back when we had the ability to hack and modify our cars and even build out own. There was a some levels of insanity at play when you grafted V8’s in to thing like Mini’s and Fiat Bambina’s. I had a few mates who had big V8’s in things like Vaxhual’s. In most cases these transplants were done by people who knew their stuff and had plenty of engineering experience making sure that the suspension was up to the task, strengthening the chassis etc. Then came the Fun Police, a bunch of people who decided that if you wanted to do these things you needed all sorts of certifications. Welding needed to be done by someone who had a ticket. The chassis needed to be certified by an engineer while it was being built. Then the car had to pass a bunch of other inspection tests making the whole process insanely expensive.

    Car Wreckers would sell whatever parts they could salvage from cars and there was big business in it and you could repair your broken vehicle with little drama but car manufacturers were not keen on this and started to make things that not only weak points but also making vehicles near on impossible to repair or making it so only those with the correct specialized tools could fix the cars. Putting parts that regularly fail in areas that are just impossible to get to.

    Jeep Cherokees have a TDC sensor mounted to the bell housing between the fire wall and bell housing that requires an etorx to get to. because of its position you nearly have to drop the engine to get to the bloody thing. A $120 part that costs you more in labour to replace than you really should need to spend and even worse the sensor in reality is nothing more than a $2.00 hall effect that has been potted and sealed in plastic.

    With electric cars coming on to the market it would have been AWESOME to see a chassis built that would allow you to mix and match things. Have the basic frame like a skateboard deck. Then you can add your choice of powered wheels, your choice of suspension dependent on what kind of ride you wanted. A battery system that just slots in. A controller that again is designed for what you want, something that will either dump power in to the motors for speed etc or something that is a little less aggressive for normal and every day street use.
    Then finally you can bolt a body over the top kind of like skinning your chosen platform.

    But dreams are free.. in the meantime the manufacturers have us all over a barrel, we get to only use what they want us to use and self maintenance is becoming a thing of the past.

  7. With EVs, there is an opportunity to solve this. We can make the cars last a million miles and build far fewer. But we’ll have to make a big adjustment because we can’t make them last the 80 years that an average driver would take to go a million miles. We need to put each car through that million miles in as few years as possible – preferably somewhere around 5-7 years because the features go obsolete so quickly now.

    The only way we can consistently utilize million mile vehicles in 5-7 years is to share them. The only way we can reasonably share them to that extent is through fleets enabled by self-driving. Without self-driving, the boon of reliability EVs enable will be a bust due to time. In fact, the current norm of 14 or so years and around 200K miles is the most we’ll ever be able to utilize. Obsolescence will overtake it if rust and plastic deterioration doesn’t.

  8. The author is spot on here. What the world needs are strict production limits on the number of new vehicles produced.
    Manufacturers should be encouraged to look at remanufacturing.

  9. This article is detached from the truth. EV are always on a kind of sleep mode when it is “turned off.” It is normally never completely turned off unless the battery is completely dead, just like the anti-theft device on ICE cars. Did you confirm with your friend that they needed to “boot up” every time before they drive?

    As another commenter mentioned, did you confuse starting the phone app (not needed for driving) vs. starting the car?

    As you wrote, complexity is the enemy of longevity. But that applies to mechanical complexity like the ICE. Software don’t “wear out”. Tesla electronics hardware also have redundancy to handle hardware failure. Not wanting complexity anywhere (electronics, software) is akin to living in the past.

    Also, the implications that current day EVs don’t last for many years is unsubstantiated. You seems to be aware that electric motor outlasts ICE yet you are claiming the tech reduces the usable life span of the vehicle. No, not if they are done right. Also, electronics in cars (both ICE or EV) can be replaced if they do break as yourself have done, and that is completely contrary to the rust problem of the past.

    Mentioning the rust problem of the past was totally red herring.

  10. Adding all the unnecessary extra technology in electric cars give the manufacturers a good profit margin and continuing returns as software is constantly updated. A bit like the navigation software, you buy it with maps included then 2-3 years down the track when you want to update the charts the cost is nearly as high as a new software package. Ideally some manufacturer will start mass producing kits to convert popular ICE cars and save them from the scrap yard.

  11. Having owned a GM Volt and a BMW i3, I find many of these comments surprising.

    Electric cars are silent. The lowering of noise pollution seems to get no cred.

    Maintenance is less than minimal.

    The torque is awesome from a dead start.

    Unfortunately, if you do not live in a stand alone home charging can be challenging.

    My goal is to never own another car which is not electric.

  12. I was thinking the same, that an electric car should be able to last for a really long time if the design isn’t compromised to prevent it. I think rear wheel drive is a good idea in electric cars, so I bought a BMW i3 recently. I despise the rubber-booted CV joints in front-wheel-drive cars, because they always get damaged and/or wear out prematurely; otherwise I might have gotten a Leaf. But I worry about planned obsolescence, and about the attitude of the company as shown by the fact that the components are well-hidden under a cover under the hood, the car doesn’t come with a jack or a spare tire, etc.; it seems they expect you to be a dumb, dependent consumer. Of course you can’t get a car that isn’t loaded with lots of airbags in every conceivable place anymore, either.

    Could’ve gotten a Tesla, but they are too expensive for my taste, and too big for the small parking spot that I have available. I hope after the cybertruck that they will make a compact version with similar design; nobody is making the electric replacement for the little Datsun and Toyota pickups of the 1970’s and 1980’s yet, so that’s a big hole in the market. A 2-seater with cargo space would be ideal for me now. I imagine in 20 years or so they might be ubiquitous, but I hope I don’t have to wait that long.

  13. I’ve had only minor problems with my TESLA from 2013. At 100K miles this car looks like it will go 200K more without issues. I believe this author is badly mistaken about EV’s in general.

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