Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Myth of the Maintenance-Free Electric Car

Like it or not, the new age of electric cars is upon us. The Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric, and Tesla Model S are the latest generation of pure electric vehicles to go on sale in the US.

Now I am not against the idea of electric cars. As a motoring enthusiast, my curiosity is piqued by anything with wheels and and engine, regardless of whether it runs on gasoline, diesel, propane, biofuel, electricity, or expensive champagne. However, there is one glaring inaccuracy about electric vehicles that I feel the need to correct.

I have read a great deal of news articles extolling the benefits of electric vehicles. Indeed, if you live in a city and primarily use your car for commuting, an electric car is a smart, environmentally sound, and efficient way to get around.

The part that gets me flustered is when a reporter claims that electric vehicles are "maintenance free." I can't tell you how many articles I've read that mention how the drivetrain in the Tesla Model S is so simple, it only has 3 moving parts. Buy one and all you will ever have to do is plug in the charger, right? Wrong.

While it's true that an electric car will never need to have its oil changed or a muffler replaced, there is still plenty of maintenance to be done.

Because it is still a vehicle that travels on the road, electric cars rely on rubber tires which must be rotated and kept at the proper pressure. By virtue of the fact that it has wheels, electric cars also need wheel bearings to help the car roll smoothly and brake pads to help the car stop - two more components which have a finite service life.

Electric cars have moving parts in the suspension and steering that use bushings which will, over long periods of time, wear out just like a fossil-fuel powered vehicle. Electric cars also have traditional car parts which are prone to breaking such as power windows, hinges, handles, and latches. Many of them have cabin air filters for the air conditioning system - another user-replaceable part.

Besides that, there are a number of specialty systems on an electric car which may need to be serviced. A pure electric vehicle will often rely on an electric powered blower motor for the heat and air conditioning. In the case of the Tesla Roadster, the battery pack is cooled with liquid, much like antifreeze/coolant in a traditional engine.

Again, I am not saying any of this to put down electric cars. Yes, I am aware that electric car owners will never have to get their hands dirty to change spark plugs and wires, an air filter, or engine oil. The traditional "tune up" will be a thing of the past. What I want to do is disspell the myth that by buying an electric car, you will be driving a magical "maintenance free" machine. There's still a lot to keep track of as a safe and responsible driver.