Considering buying an electric car for the first time? You may be wondering about the likelihood of a breakdown. After all, breakdowns are stressful and potentially costly.
The short answer is that while the latest electric cars are bristling with innovative technology, they still do break down - only less often than petrol or diesel cars.
Electric engines are more reliable than petrol or diesel motors because they have fewer moving parts. With fewer components to wear out or fail, reliability is improved. Maintenance requirements are also reduced.
With no conventional clutch or gearbox to worry about in an electric car, these breakdown risks are eliminated. There are also no oil filters to replace.
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But just like any other road-going vehicle, there are parts in an EV that do wear out or fail over time. These parts include:
- Tyres (punctures, wearing out)
- Suspension systems
- Windscreen wipers
Other ancillary components that can fail include:
- Hot seats
- Infotainment systems
EVs usually come with two batteries: one for supplying the motor with power, and the other for powering the rest of the car's low current systems - such as the critical safety systems, infotainment, lights etc. If either of these run flat, you may find yourself stranded by the roadside.
The main reason most EVs have a separate 12V battery is to maintain critical safety systems in the event of a high voltage power failure. If the main battery fails or runs flat, the 12V battery will still provide current to emergency blinkers, airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, brake boosters, etc. EVs generally use AGM (absorbed glass-mat) batteries as opposed to traditional lead-acid cells. AGMs last 3-4 years, but lifespan can be reduced with heavy usage.
That said, 12V batteries will age quicker if the car is driven infrequently.
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Generally speaking, an EV's lithium-ion battery powers high-drain systems, including the motor, the AC compressor, the cabin air heater, and battery coolant heater.
Running out of power is therefore a key breakdown risk for EV owners. However, such situations are currently fairly uncommon, which has been attributed to the fact early adopters are more aware of their vehicles' battery range. As time moves on this may change - particularly as more employees are given company EVs to drive, and with the expansion of EV car share schemes, when drivers might forget to plug in their cars after use.
EV batteries are designed to last up to 10 years if driven carefully. However, by that time capacity will be reduced by as much as 70%, which will reduce range. For reference, Tesla currently offers a Battery and Drive Unit Warranty of 8 years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first.
Replacing an EV’s out-of-warranty lithium-ion battery can be expensive, although this may be partially offset by some cashback schemes for old batteries.
With some EVs - such as the Renault Zoe - the battery is leased, so owners don’t have to worry about buying a new battery if and when the time comes.
At present, when an EV runs out of power, it is usually towed to a charge point to be re-charged. This solution is quicker than having to wait for a roadside assistance operative with charging equipment. Currently, access to such equipment is limited, but this is certain to change as EVs become more commonplace on our roads. To date less than 1% of the UK's 37.5m cars are pure electric.
Care needs to be taken when towing EVs, which are often automatic and four-wheel-drive, and therefore easily damaged. For example, the Nissan Leaf owners manual states: “Never tow with the front wheels on the ground or four wheels on the ground (forward or backward), as this may cause serious and expensive damage to the motor.” Nissan strongly recommends broken down vehicles are placed on a truck rather than towed.
Similarly, Tesla's policy states, “damage caused by transporting is not covered by the warranty”.
Some EV problems are software-related. These can often be fixed remotely by the manufacturer.