Home » What Will Classic Electric Car Ownership Be Like In The Face Of Battery Degradation?

What Will Classic Electric Car Ownership Be Like In The Face Of Battery Degradation?

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It’s the year 2048. It’s Sunday morning, and you’ve just finished a delicious brunch of vat-grown sirloin orbs with your polycule. You feed the now synth-meat-juice-soaked bio-organic plates to your feli-canine hybrid dogcat, ironically named Covid, and turn off the holovisor because you’re sick of listening to President Skrillex’s campaign speeches. You’re going to meet some friends at your local Cars and Coffee, which now all start no earlier than noon thanks to an internationally-agreed upon binding UN mandate. You climb into your prized 2023 Renault Megane RS Ultime, which you just got, as it’s finally 25 years old and able to be imported, and you’re very excited to show it off. Now, here’s my question: Will you see any cool old electric cars at this event?

I ask this question because I was talking to our own David Tracy, who, as he has reminded all of us multiple times, is the proud owner of a 2014 BMW i3 electric car. Both David and I agree that the i3 is a fascinating car and has all the makings of a future classic: interesting technical design (even if, or maybe especially because, it was a dead end), novel and distinctive styling, historic significance, and so on. It’s absolutely the sort of car I’d like to see at a Cars and Coffee in 25 years. But will I?

Bmw16

It’s pretty uncommon to see people collecting vintage EVs now, and I think the main reason for that is there just aren’t that many that people actually want to collect. Sure, there are really old ones like a Detroit Electric that may be in museums, and some people have been collecting Crap Era EVs like the Citicar, but those use widely-available lead acid car batteries, and as such are relatively easy and cheap to keep going.

Detriotelect

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But something like an early Nissan Leaf? No one really cares, and, even if they did, getting replacement battery packs would be an expensive and difficult undertaking, costing between $5,000 and $10,000 depending on the age and size of the battery. Does anyone really want to drop that amount of money into a Leaf?

That said, there’s actually a lot of current EVs out there that should, by almost any definition, become future classic and collectible cars. Whatever you may think of Teslas, there is no question that Tesla ushered in a new era of EVs, and cars like the first-generation Model S have gobs of historical significance. In the year 2048, a well-preserved Tesla Model S should have as much gravity and relevance as, say, a well-preserved 1965 Mustang or a 1959 Mini or any number of other collectible cars. Tesla has a huge following of wildly brand-loyal enthusiasts, and it’s quite easy to picture a 2012 Model S owner in 2048 polishing their Tesla, maybe with those weird creepy little kid dolls leaning up against the car, desperately hoping you’ll ask them some question about the car that will trap you in a tedious conversation that ends with a reminder that one day Elon will return, his Starship wasn’t actually lost on the way to Mars like everyone said, and he will deliver all his believers unto paradise.

You may back away, but you’d never question why that car was there, being shown. Because it deserves to be there.

And yet, as David and I were talking about this, we realized that keeping and enjoying a really old electric car may prove to be a much more difficult task than doing the same thing with classic combustion cars. As you have probably already guessed, the problem is with the batteries.

EVs Lose Their Usefulness Over Time, Gas Cars Don’t

Right at this moment, my daily driver, a 1990 Nissan Pao, is technically a “classic car.” It’s 33 years old, and still performs just as it did three decades ago: slowly but reliably, and it goes as far on a tank of gas as it did in 1990, at generally the same speeds. And, it does all this with pretty routine piecemeal maintenance and repairs. Sure, I had to do a lot of work on it when I hit a deer, but even with the difficulties of getting hard-to-find parts from Japan, it wasn’t really all that expensive or difficult to get back on the road.

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The same goes for my other archaic shitboxes that I love so: my 1973 Beetle had been my daily driver since I got it when I was 18, and keeping it going has never been very hard, really. There’s a huge base of support, and parts are plentiful. My Yugo is, well, a Yugo, but it can be fixed with hose clamps and a rock, if needed. And, of course, my 1989 Ford F-150 will pretty much run forever, and you can find parts for that thing in convenience stores, practically.

All these cars are just as useful when 40 years old as they were brand new; they get the same range, they make basically the same power, and they take just as long to fill up. EVs, on the other hand, because less useful over time, and that’s interesting to think about in the context of classic car ownership, especially when you realize that mending that loss of utility means replacing what will then be archaic batteries.

But let’s think about a car like David’s i3 or a Tesla Model S that’s over 30 years old [Editor’s Note: I really don’t know that this discussion is as relevant to the Model S. For one, its batteries seem to hold up reasonably well (they seem to lose about 10 percent or so over 200,000 miles and 10 years based on what I’ve read), and two, it’s got so much range that even if it lost 50 percent after 50 years, you could still take it to car shows and even commute with it. That’s not the case with the i3 or Leaf. -DT].

Sure, EV battery life has proven to be better than many anticipated years ago when cars like the first Nissan Leafs started to hit the market, but they’re not magic, and they’re still subject to the laws of chemistry and physics. There’s a reason why David was able to get the battery in his i3 replaced for free when he bought it, and that is because California mandates that the high voltage batteries of plug-in hybrids be guaranteed for 10 years or 150,000 miles, which is more generous than BMW’s own eight-year guarantee. After just nine years, the battery in David’s i3 was, charitably, garbage, with a displayed range of under 50 miles. In short, not very useful. And just imagine if the car were 20 years old and had driven over 250,000 miles; yikes.

If David had to change that battery pack himself, pay out of his own rust-filled pockets, he’d be out at least $16,000, according to the SAE. And, that’s pretty much about average: battery replacement costs for Teslas like the Model S or Model X or Model 3 are around $13,000 to $16,000, for example, and those are still currently being made, of course. What about when these things are old enough to be classics? Will there be an industry for making very old legacy EV batteries? Maybe! Will there be aftermarket companies making modern batteries that could be retrofitted into old cars? How complex will that integration be? How expensive? Will the new batteries play nicely with the rest of the electronics?  Maybe there will be innovations that make these batteries cheaper and easier to use? But it hasn’t happened yet.

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The problem is batteries just aren’t like other car parts, in that they will fail over time, no matter what. Batteries decay over time, and it’s not an if, it’s just how it is. If you find a 57-year old 2012 Tesla Model S in a barn in 2069 (nice) and you want to drive it again, there’s really no way to get around the fact that the entire battery pack may need replacing, and that’s a monolithic cost – it’s one unit, one part, and the car won’t work if you don’t fix that, even before you address anything else about the car. (Of course, the Model S would likely have been easier and cheaper to maintain over its lifespan than an equivalent ICE car, given how few moving parts are in an EV powertrain).

Iso Tesla

Conversely, if you found a 57-year old combustion car in a barn today, say a 1966 Iso Grifo, you could get that thing up and running pretty easily, swapping out the Chevy V8 used in there with a used one or even a brand new crate motor, complete with carb and distributor and everything, for about $6,000. Sure, there’s other stuff you’d need to fix, but it’d be mostly parts that you could get one at a time, at whatever pace you needed to do.

Now, the Iso example is maybe a bit of a cheat, because it has an engine that is still being made, in some compatible forms. but even if you found something like a Corvair or another car decades out of production, you can still find plenty of used parts to get that going again, even whole used engines that have been sitting for decades. But unlike a battery, you can get an engine that’s been sitting for decades going again. And you can take your time doing it, buying parts you need as you can afford it.

So, really classic EVs will face two major battery-related issues: batteries will go bad over time and to replace them, it will require a significant one-time infusion of cash. And then there’s the issue of who will actually be building obsolete battery packs? There could be a thriving aftermarket for this, if there are enough people collecting cars of a particular make and model, but if not (and it’s very possible that during the “danger period” of a car — that is the period after it’s lost its novelty and before it’s become classic — these cars will just be junked, especially if range is already compromised) what could you do? Could you assemble your own battery packs using some sort of off-the-shelf cells and a used housing, connectors, and electronic control equipment? Maybe? I don’t want to say no, but it does seem like an order of magnitude more complex than a current-day classic car owner who may just need to install a new intake manifold on an engine or something. Especially when you consider how many new EVs are using structural battery packs, where the battery pack forms an integral part of the car’s chassis. [Editor’s Note: The modules are usually replaceable, however. And they each have certain characteristics that could be replicated, in theory. The integration with the electronics/cooling system could be tricky, however. -DT].

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Currently, pretty much anyone who wants it enough can have a vintage car that is drivable and usable. Sure, it takes money, but there’s a lot of options for non-rich people, myself included. If every vintage car I looked into getting would definitely need one part that cost over $10,000, before any other work on the car was done, could I be in the position I am now, with a driveway full of old cars, both in drivable and project car status? Hell no.

Some Cars’ Batteries Won’t Last And Will Need To Be Replaced, But By What?

I don’t know for sure what this means for the future, for a future where the hobby and lifestyle of collecting and using and enjoying old cars is still viable and within the reach of many. Sure, there will still be many combustion cars that can be collected and enjoyed, but they’re getting older and older and older. Is it realistic to think that a car show in 2050 will be filled with tons of 80 year-old cars? How many informal car meetups have you been too that were mostly 1930s Hupmobiles or early 1940s Packards? Are we currently building cars that are truly disposable, and don’t even have the option to be kept as classics decades hence?

Will David have to get rid of his i3 in 10 years, when the battery has degraded again? I’m not sure.

I know that a solution to this would be something I’ve long thought the whole industry should go to for electric vehicles: standardized and swappable batteries. Batteries that are unique to a particular model and integrated into the structure of the car are pretty much the standard for mainstream EVs, and that’s why used EVs and then classic EV ownership is going to be such a huge slice of clusterfudge. If batteries came in standard sizes, with standard connectors and output, they could be changed and upgraded as new developments in battery chemistry occurred, and a thriving and competitive aftermarket of battery manufacturers could develop. Then when you pull a 40-year old EV out of a barn, you know you just need to add in some number of affordable standardized battery packs to at least get it mobile again.

Of course, that’s not a direction the industry seems interested in going. And that’s why I’m so uncertain if any of the currently produced EVs on the market will ever be viable classic cars to own when our kids or grandkids decide they’d like to get into vintage cars, and want the vintage cars they grew up with, just like how Boomers collect Bel Airs or how the Radwood and Litwood collector movements started.

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I’m worried about i3s, because if David’s battery died after 9 years and 134,000 miles, how many of these things cars will even be left in 30 years?

I think it’s something worth discussing, at the very least. BMW/third-party shops aren’t going to stockpile new old-stock i3 batteries like they could engines, for a number of reasons including battery longevity and safety. For certain cars, there will definitely be companies that step up to provide solutions, and maybe there will be technological breakthroughs that render all of my hand-wringing moot. I sure hope so. Because I’d hate to see this whole passion and interest in old cars become something only for rich people who can either afford to own and maintain incredibly aging combustion cars or who can be willing and able to drop large chunks of cash on bespoke EV battery packs for their vintage EVs.

Maybe I’m missing some key element here. Maybe we can have EV classics in the future. Maybe one of you in the comments has a solution. I sure hope so, so let’s talk about this.

[Editor’s Note: I’ll reiterate that I think modern Teslas (and other modern high-range EVs) will be fine even after 50 years. Per the company “Even after 200,000 miles of usage, our batteries lose just 12% of their capacity on average.” Obviously, time is a factor, and the company only warranties batteries for eight years:

Screen Shot 2023 05 03 At 9.01.53 Am

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But owners have reported sub-10 percent range losses after 10 years, so that’s good. And with over 300 miles of range, many Teslas will still have useful utility in 50 years even if they do lose one percent per year (which seems plausible). But it’s the earlier EVs with lower range that I’m more concerned about.-DT]. 

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Jason Grant
Jason Grant
30 days ago

I agree, and I think you hit the nail on the head, it is going to become a Rich Mans game at that point. You are forgetting about the price of gasoline and scarcity and with “barn find EVs” would you want one sitting in a barn 30 years? Think about what bugs and Rats do to electrical systems in combustion engine vehicles could you imagine all that sweet wire it would be a CF…

JaredTheGeek
JaredTheGeek
1 month ago

This article is all FUD. Battery prices have dropped and will continue to do so. New technology will come out and give new life to the cars. People are already tuning and modding electric cars. It will be the same in the future. This is the same complaints from the boomers for newer than 1974. Hell you can buy kits to drop electric motors into old cars now. It’s a whole new era of modding and hot rodding.

Jagoff
Jagoff
1 month ago

I will be one of those people everyone complains about because I didn’t keep the original energy storage containers (batteries) in my 2019 Jaguar I Pace and instead swapped them for a brand new Mr. Fusion generator. Regardless, the I Pace is still the baddest EV at the 2048 cars & coffee.

stefthepef
stefthepef
1 month ago

Ugh, if our generation keeps the creepy time-out dolls at car shows, I’m going to scream.

I like the Puffalumps. They have eyes. Beady little round eyes that stare directly into your soul. (Also, they’re just really soft and extremely wonderful in every regard.)

samplecat
samplecat
1 month ago

I think that your foreseen problem is because you’re looking at a future problem with current technological solutions. It’s quite likely that in 20yrs we’ll be using a wholly different type of battery chemistry that’s either cheaper, or way more energy dense, and probably both. If 20yrs from now you can buy a 100kwh pack that is the size of a shoebox and cost $6k, that really changes things. I agree that manufacturers integrating the battery pack into the structure of the car is going to make it more complicated but again, if the replacement battery is significantly smaller, you can replace the structure with some tube and a welder, or just 3d print one.

Space
Space
29 days ago
Reply to  samplecat

100kwh in a shoebox? You have two* choices fusion or fission, people don’t like those in cars.
(RTG’s could generate 100kwh in that size but over an unusable or unsafe amount of time)

fredzy
fredzy
1 month ago

I could see an option for at least making classic EVs mobile will be modding them to accept a stand-alone battery. Think a briefcase sized battery sitting in a frunk or even on an unused seat, big cables running to wherever they need to go to jump it into the loop. Who knows, by then you might be able to buy a 30lb battery for $1000 that gives you full functionality and 100+ miles of range or something.

Cheats
Cheats
1 month ago

Eh, I’ll be dead. Let someone else figure it out.

Autocar
Autocar
1 month ago

The future does not bode well for classic electric cars, it seems…

Ron888
Ron888
1 month ago

You’re comments about ‘classic’ Teslas made me laugh.Can they be called classic if those made 25 years from now still look the same?
Because Tesla probably wont have made styling updates, even then

Last edited 1 month ago by Ron888
Defenestrator
Defenestrator
28 days ago
Reply to  Ron888

There’s still going to be the die-hard fans that care deeply about all the little changes. I’m betting the first-gen model S with the black grille nose will be particularly sought after.

srosslx1986
srosslx1986
1 month ago

I can just imagine it being horribly tough to get some Cadillac ELR parts for a restoration in 50 years

JaredTheGeek
JaredTheGeek
1 month ago
Reply to  srosslx1986

Not with the expanse of 3D printing and cnc. When I was young you couldn’t get parts for most Dodge classic muscle cars. Now there are body panels and other parts for all kinds of random vehicles. Manufactuing low volume is getting easier and cheaper. 3D printing, even if you are doing that to make a cast to CNC machines are all way cheaper as are 3D scanners to scan in parts to put them in CAD.

b3n
b3n
1 month ago

it’s got so much range that even if it lost 50 percent after 50 years, you could still take it to car shows and even commute with it.”
I don’t think batteries actually work this way. Sure, you lose 10-15% in 10 years but between 10 and 20 years it just falls off a cliff due to old age.
I don’t think there’s any way around replacing or rebuilding batteries, they just don’t last a long time.
Think of a 1st gen iPad or iPhone, I don’t think there’s any of those left with functioning original batteries.
Maybe replacements will be cheap enough by then that it’s worth replacing a vintage Tesla battery. But with the price of raw materials going up as they get more and more scarce, I’m not convinced.

jmfecon
jmfecon
1 month ago
Reply to  b3n

Exactly!

The problem is that these battery technologies of today degrades the more charge/discharge cycles you put in.

Given that, the degradation will accelerate when the battery gets older, because it will retain less energy and it will be cycled more frequently.

Add environmental variables like excessively hot summers or cold winters and for sure those cells will degrade quicker than 1%/yr.

Sure, I do remember when Tesla announced Model S, with that gigantic touchscreen, and analysts were wondering how the math would work because that unit alone would cost $5/6k, and now similar stuff is found basically everywhere. Damn, I would trade my current monitor that I use for work for one of those things that comes in BMW 7 series.

My point is: given the current technology and knowledge, is expensive, but it will get cheaper along the way. It will be easier to find cells and people who is able to crack them open and fix them.

My bet is that in the future, the problem to fix any car (ICE or eletric) won’t be components but software. I hope that more car companies embrace OSS or have the decency of opening it to the community once it reaches EOL.

Defenestrator
Defenestrator
28 days ago
Reply to  b3n

Cell phones are a bit of a different case, though. In addition to more frequent cycles, they tend to get charged to the absolute limit with no buffer and periodically get discharged to zero with no buffer, and they have no active cooling and minimal thermal protection.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens to early Teslas. So far their degradation has been low and linear, but the oldest ones are just hitting 11 years. Maybe your predicted cliff will arrive soon, or maybe it’ll continue to be linear.

I think raw materials won’t be a big issue long term. There’s plenty if lithium available, but it’ll take a bit longer for production to rise to match demand. Solid-state sodium ions batteries are likely to also take the pressure off a bit longer-term, as will lithium recycling.

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
1 month ago

I say this as someone who has still not been successful at fixing carbs but has built several Lithium batteries out of reclaimed cells.

It won’t be any harder to keep these going than any vintage technology. The screens are the most difficult thing to work on, and making sure the Canbus doesn’t command a chip to brick itself. Dala, a computer mechanic in Norway (or some Scandinavian country) has been doing amazing work breaking into the schematics of various protocols and BMS.

There are plenty of us who will be able to make the batteries work, and others who will get the computers to talk, and others who will plasma cut and weld to make things fit.

phuzz
phuzz
1 month ago
Reply to  Jalop Gold

I agree. If you look at the vintage computing community, there’s people who are motivated enough to produce parts to repair/resurrect old computers, and often to use modern technology to make them more capable. It only requires one enthusiast to dig into the details far enough to document them for everyone.

JaredTheGeek
JaredTheGeek
1 month ago
Reply to  phuzz

I have friends still coding games for Atari 2600s and selling cartridges. With the cars you can put new controllers on or swap the drive train.

Ron888
Ron888
1 month ago
Reply to  Jalop Gold

I found your carb comment fascinating.I couldnt imagine a future where electronics gets easier for me, yet i’m super comfortable working on carbs

stefthepef
stefthepef
1 month ago
Reply to  Jalop Gold

Yeah—where there’s a car, there’s a way. I think folks will figure out how to retrofit newer battery tech or rebuild the existing batteries in a way that’ll absolutely keep ’em going.

(Part of me wants a crap-era EV, though. Maybe a Jet! That EV’s actually from Austin—as much as a converted Plymouth can be, anyway—but like, founded here as a company, not moved over from out-of-state.)

zeppelopod
zeppelopod
30 days ago
Reply to  stefthepef

Personally, I want to see you hotrod one of those little cheese-wedge city cars.

JakobKsGarage
JakobKsGarage
1 month ago

I just love that you photoshopped that stupid doll into the cover picture!

Vinc
Vinc
1 month ago

Very well thought out piece!

I own a Tesla Model S and a BMW i3. Both of them are from 2014, and both of them are still running perfectly fine. Range drop has been the expected 10% or so.

Interestingly though, the main drop happened in the first few years, and range has been pretty much unchanged since. My understanding is that NiCd batteries don’t degrade linearly. After certain threshold, they just keep going until dying a sudden death.

Also, a big chunk of the battery’s health has to do with externalities, like charging habits, temperature changes, etc.

This all to say that with proper care, I would not be surprised if some current EVs are still drivable decades from now. And for those that don’t, there are companies already developing the equivalent of a crate engine, but for batteries.

https://www.caranddriver.com/news/a38668912/750-mile-ev-battery-michigan-startup-our-next-energy/

Last edited 1 month ago by Vinc
GranulatedMiscarriage
GranulatedMiscarriage
1 month ago

Another thought: maybe not in 2048, but not much later, the main people still hale enough to attend car shows will have grown up only driving and being driven in electric cars. The same way there’s a whole generation who’s never used or seen a floppy disk or land line phone, or a music CD, or a cassette. They won’t have the attachment to obsolete ICE tech their parents and grandparents had. Hell, I don’t want to own or operated a car with a carburetor. I don’t go to player piano conventions or CRT monitor/TV enthusiast meets. So all this hand wringing about something that will be a complete non-issue is unnecessary.

Last edited 1 month ago by GranulatedMiscarriage
ghostpedalsyndrome
ghostpedalsyndrome
1 month ago

What if I just absolutely love wringing my hands?
Because it feels good, and it’s fun.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
1 month ago

“Because it feels good, and it’s fun.”

Have you experienced the sublime spine tingling thrill of chucking car batteries into the ocean?

Bentleyboy
Bentleyboy
1 month ago

Where is this player piano convention you speak of……

Jason Grant
Jason Grant
30 days ago
Reply to  Bentleyboy

And this Perverse CRT enthusiast group

GranulatedMiscarriage
GranulatedMiscarriage
1 month ago

The same way people are doing EV conversions of old ICE cars for the lulz, maybe in 2048 people will be doing clandestine ICE conversions of Leafs (Leaves?) And i3s.

GranulatedMiscarriage
GranulatedMiscarriage
1 month ago

I had forgotten Jason owns a Yugo.

Why?!

Don’t answer that, we know why. It was rhetorical.

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