Is a lack of battery confidence halting EV adoption?

In conversation on BBC Radio4’s Woman’s Hour last month, I listened to a caller scoff at my advocacy of electric cars, with the argument that “It’s untested technology” and “For early adopters”.

The rough cut of our listener’s jib was that only a fool would venture into this strange new world of technology that was not yet tried and tested. I pointed out on air that the likes of the Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe and Tesla Model S have been with us for over a decade now, and the vast majority of car brands have had at least one electric model on sale in various countries for the past few years.

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It didn’t touch the sides. 

Time and again consumers ask me “What if…?” as if the world of EVs is still a land of dragons and any hesitant plunge into ownership is the equivalent of that backward lunge into the water shown on every Channel 4 series of “SAS: Who Dares Wins”. I mean, you could basically swap out traversing a gorge on a tightrope, blindfolded, in the series for buying an EV from a dealer – I’m not sure which activity the audience genuinely believes is more terrifying and more of a gamble. Buying the car, presumably, because the guy crossing the gorge has a safety line, whereas the EV consumer has nothing but the promise of depreciation.

The biggest “what if…” that is emerging from banks of recent quant and qual consumer data is “What if the battery fails?”. Battery health is a major blocker to EV purchases. Anecdotally, many of my peers (I’m 44 so in the ripe age category for making the switch) say they haven’t even looked at the used EV market, because they find the whole idea of a secondhand battery “dodgy”. That in itself is a tragedy, because used EV prices are soft at the moment, thanks to a surge in supply versus demand, so now is an excellent time to buy a three-year old electric car.

But this crisis in battery confidence is just staggering. And bizarre. Where did the rumours start? Where did the worry and questioning begin? It makes zero sense. Let’s look at a few silent facts.
  1. Every brand I can think of offers an eight-year battery warranty on its new EVs. That’s longer than the first and second owners of that car will typically keep it, based on two rounds of an average three-year finance deal. 
  2. I know of two Tesla owners with 200,000 miles on their cars and battery performance that has reduced by perhaps 10 per cent. As most people charge to 80 per cent every time, the owners haven’t noticed any actual difference to their lives with the cars. 
  3. Most internal combustion engines require the replacement of various parts well before they reach eight years old, whether it’s the alternator, water pump or turbo, thus rendering them a different engine from the one they started with. No one thinks “I won’t buy a petrol car because I’m not sure the engine is going to be 100 per cent fine when it’s eight years old”.
  4. In the recent Auto Trader report, “No Driver Left Behind, Women and the Journey to Electric”, a massive 65 per cent of women questioned just before they bought their EV said they were “concerned about battery degradation” but only 15 per cent of female EV owners had noticed any fall in battery performance (and I wonder how much of this is perception rather than reality – I don’t believe 15 per cent of EV batteries have degraded to the point where drivers actually notice, whether the cars are new or five years old).

And while we’re here, on the subject of batteries, let’s also debunk the idea that they have rare-earth materials in them: they don’t (the motors’ magnets do, but that’s for another time). Even cobalt is being rapidly phased out. They are also far more efficient at moving the car than engines – almost all the energy of a battery goes into moving the car, compared with about 16 per cent of the energy in a tank of fuel – most of the energy is lost through heat transfer.

But I digress. The main barrier for consumer confidence is battery health. To combat this, we need an industry-wide accepted standard for battery health: some sort of simple flag or colour code on the tech spec or price listed for a used electric car for sale, whether online or on a dealer forecourt. We need OEMs, retailers, media, the government and EV owners to be putting minds at rest and busting one of the biggest myths around EVs of all time.

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