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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