The latest technology often takes a while to become as reliable as what it replaces. It was years before you could count on your mobile phone to make a call without cutting out – while the landline was reliable, each and every time.
The same is true in the automotive industry, where the penalty for being an early adopter is often to sign up to be a beta tester.
So what’s the situation with electric cars? EVs have been in the mainstream for over a decade now, but it’s only in the last three or four years that truly usable and desirable models have made it to market and been seen as a real alternative to a petrol or diesel.
The advantages of EVs are numerous and well-publicised. They produce no tailpipe emissions, making your local environment cleaner and endowing them with free road tax and exemption from London’s congestion charge. They can be charged up at home on a cheap overnight tariff, potentially saving you a fortune in fuel bills – not to mention eliminating the need to visit a petrol station.
But are they reliable? There’s unfortunately no yes or no answer, nor is anything true in every case. There will always be the occasional lemon – but if you’re considering placing an order, or you just have, then you can rest easy that EVs aren’t any less reliable than their combustion siblings.
The fact is that they are reliable and unreliable in different areas, so opting for an EV might require something of a change in perspective.
EV reliability – pros
Electric vehicles should in theory be more reliable than a petrol or a diesel car. While combustion engines have dozens of moving parts that all need to work in perfect harmony, electric motors have barely any. In fact, motors are so simple that it would be difficult for them not to be reliable.
Electric vehicles are also less sensitive to maintenance. There are no fluids to replace (other than screenwash…) and there are fewer consumable items like belts, chains, or clutches.
This is a boon when buying a secondhand EV, as it’s nowhere near as likely to have been spoiled by years of poor maintenance as a neglected petrol or diesel car.
Early concerns that electric cars would require a full battery replacement after just a few years have so far been unfounded. Though a few fringe cases will have experienced failure, in most cases batteries are holding up better than anybody could have expected, retaining almost all of their charge even after a hard life.
Most manufacturers provide a separate battery warranty against loss of capacity, anyway, the most generous being Toyota’s which covers the battery for a million kilometres (621,000 miles).
Other points to note? Well, the presence of regenerative braking means that EVs aren’t as hard on their brakes or tyres as combustion-engined cars – though a lot of this is cancelled out by their additional weight.
EV reliability – cons
So far, at least, electric vehicles have proven to need more visits to the dealer in order to fix problems. A survey by Which? found that 31% of EV owners had had a fault with their car, versus 29% of diesel owners and just 19% of petrol owners.
Those findings should be taken with a pinch of salt, though. In the vast majority of cases, the problems with these high-tech machines were software-related. Software glitches aren’t uncommon in cars of any kind, but we’ve personally seen a lot of them in EVs. It’s not entirely surprising, as they’re often presented as the flagships of a manufacturer’s range and given access to the latest technology – not all of which will be appropriately bedded in.
Most software problems can be fixed with an ‘over-the-air’ update, or even a system reset (the IT managers among you will already have been screaming ‘turn it off and on again!’). That’s not to say they’re less valid than mechanical failure, though – and in many cases, they still require a trip to the dealer and a proprietary repair.
Which brings us to repairability. While a regular, cheap garage can perform work on almost any car, very few of them are certified to repair EVs – which means that even when you’re out of warranty you might struggle to get your car fixed unless you return to the manufacturer you bought it from.
This is changing, with more garages getting training in repairing electric cars. But change takes time.
What about hybrids?
Hybrid stats may well have been skewed by the fact that, for many years, the most popular hybrid in the world by a country mile was the Toyota Prius. Toyota’s known for making very dependable cars and the Prius is no exception – so it’s no wonder that it’s proved an incredibly reliable car. You just need to take a look at any big city, where you’ll find Toyota Prius taxis on half a million miles or more without any major mechanical concerns.
The Which? survey actually found that hybrid vehicles were the most reliable vehicle type of all, with just 17% of owners reporting a problem. Plug-in hybrids were a different story, with 28% of owners reporting a problem.
So are EVs more reliable?
Mechanically, yes. Overall, no. But as technology improves they’re likely to become more and more dependable.
The crucial takeaway here is that an electric vehicle won’t be constantly breaking down and leaving you stranded, so you should feel confident in your purchase and take advantage of the numerous other benefits of electric motoring.