Six Problems With Electric Cars That Nobody Talks About

Electric vehicles are a favorite topic these days among automakers. Almost everybody has announced plans to build and sell EVs, while some brands already have electric cars on the market.
Charging plug of an electric vehicle - for illustration purposes 7 photos
Photo: Mercedes-Benz
2012 Ford Focus Electric assembly in MichiganChuquicamata, Chile, site of the largest circumference and second deepest open pit copper mine in the worldBattery pack for electric vehicles - unit from Volkswagen picturedMan working on Volkswagen BeetleElectric prototype of Land Rover DefenderElectric vehicle charging at public recharge point
While the electric vehicle is over a century old in concept, the modern electric car is far from it, because the technology is in development as we speak. Sure, there are a few models on the market that you can buy today, and some have been around for more than a few years.

Unlike internal combustion engines, which have surpassed electrics back in the day because of deficient battery technology at the time (slightly ironic, you must admit) there is a long way to go concerning electric vehicle powertrain development.

Electric engines are smaller, more compact, and more efficient than existing and even theoretical internal combustion units, while the batteries are getting better and better.

The problem today is that people do not like waiting, and it takes awhile to charge an electric car, not to mention planning trips. People want electric cars today, and they want them to be at least as great as conventional vehicles.

To be fair, these requirements are entirely reasonable from someone that is asked to pay installments for a few years for an asset that might have a sharp depreciation curve.

In other words, unless automakers will commit to updating the existing electric vehicles they have sold, within reasonable limits — evidently, the EVs found on the market today will be obsolete in less than ten years.

The level of obsolescence will far exceed that of a conventional vehicle, because batteries should become exquisite in 2026, while charging times should also be drastically reduced.

The resale value of such an automobile could become a significant burden for those that own them, if anyone will want to buy a 10-year-old electric vehicle. Imagine buying a “Palm Treo” phone from 2006 (Go ahead, Google that), which was considered a “smartphone” at the time.

It will probably be awful, battery life will be disastrous if the original unit is used, and features and functionality will be unimproved since 2006, thus obsolete like an 8-track system in the year 2000. Alternatively, today, for that matter.

Considering the rapid advancement of electric car technology, we decided to look away from the bright side of things and think about the worst parts of this technology.

We agree that a vehicle that brings no tailpipe emissions is good for the environment, but this article focuses on the other aspects of this technology — the hidden and unadvertised bits.

Manufacturing on multiple continents — complicated shipping requirements

2012 Ford Focus Electric assembly in Michigan
Photo: Ford
Most conventional cars tend to be built with parts sourced close to the factories that make them. Many automakers opened facilities in other continents to cater to the needs of different markets at lower costs.

It was and still is cheaper to build cars on one continent and sell them exclusively in the respective markets than to use a single facility. The situation changes only for exclusive brands, which do not care that much about final costs, but also for automakers that have access to significant shipping deals.

When the first hybrid cars came to market, they were criticized for using Ni-Mh batteries. Those used metals sourced from mines found in isolated places in the world, and the rare substances had to be shipped across the world to be turned into batteries, and then they would be sent again to the factory that made hybrid cars.

Things have not changed dramatically for electric vehicles, except for the fact that automakers have begun making batteries in-house. However, that does not mean that the shipping chain does not lead back to a country that is far away from the factory, and that expensive metals have to be transported great distances to build batteries for electric cars.

Lithium and other rare metals — where do they come from and at what cost?

Chuquicamata, Chile, site of the largest circumference and second deepest open pit copper mine in the world
Photo: Reinhard Jahn, Mannheim - posted on Wikipedia
As we wrote above, electric vehicles need precious metals for their batteries. At first, hybrids used Ni-Mh batteries, but competitive electric vehicles rely on the Li-Ion technology. The expensive part is called Lithium, and it is getting more expensive these days. However, where does it come from?

According to a 2015 US Geological Survey, Australia is the world’s biggest supplier of lithium. It is followed by Chile, Argentina, China, and Zimbabwe in the top five.

Just like oil, lithium is a finite resource, and it is becoming more expensive because of the demands made by automakers. Until something better comes along, lithium could become extremely costly. At the same time, electric cars will also have a bigger price because of the cost of lithium.

The problem with electric vehicles is that lithium is not the only rare material used in their construction. Other “rare earth minerals” like “dysprosium,” “lanthanum,” “neodymium,” and “praseodymium” are used.

For exemplification purposes, the electric motor needs neodymium and praseodymium, and "a touch of" dysprosium. The old batteries in Ni-Mh hybrid cars required lanthanum, but the new ones still need some of these precious rare earth minerals. They are mined in conditions that are not optimal, and their demand hurts the environment.

Battery recycling — is everybody ready for it?

Battery pack for electric vehicles \- unit from Volkswagen pictured
Photo: Volkswagen
The first Prius is almost 20 years old. Its batteries have surely not been in service for that long, and they must have been replaced. If the advent of electric cars will follow the predictions announced by automakers, we will have a lot of Lithium Ion batteries to recycle in 2045.

The year 2045 is not a typo, because it comes 20 years after the predicted boom of electric vehicles, which is expected to happen by 2025.

While Lithium-Ion batteries can be recycled, and so can Ni-Mh ones, we do not have a massive market for those that recycle Lithium-based batteries. A few companies exist in the field, but there is nobody that stepped out and said: “hey, we will take care of those batteries, we are good for it.”

While we find the fact that Lithium recycling facilities do not exist at the scale required when all of those electric cars will be parted out and meet the crusher, we do understand why. The world does not have a big market for electric cars yet, and the conventional ones do not get recycled properly in the first place. So do not throw that stone just yet.

Toyota has a collection program for its old batteries, which involves giving a new life for the units that used to sit in Prius models. The cycle can still be improved to make these vehicles truly eco-friendly.

Goodbye easy fixes and jump-starts

Man working on Volkswagen Beetle
Electric vehicles will not bring any easy fixes for their owners. Except for a flat tire or a burnt light bulb, your DIY days are over with electric cars. People do not work on modern cars because they have become too complicated nevertheless, but offering someone a jump-start will not happen with electric vehicles.

While this means that those vehicles will have to be more reliable than conventional ones, one does wonder what will happen to an unlucky owner of an electric vehicle that is out of a warranty and has a significant powertrain malfunction. With a conventional car, things can be fixed in most workshops at reasonable rates, depending on how bad the damage was.

No self-governing service unit knows how to fix electric motors of automotive grade, and most do not have the tools needed to work on those cars. So, instead of getting your car fixed at a workshop, they will politely send you off to the dealer. If the said dealer were to overcharge you, tough luck.

No adventures into remote areas for you

Electric prototype of Land Rover Defender
Photo: Land Rover
Remember the Land Rover Camel Trophy? The pictures and video footage of those adventures have brought a profound respect for that brand from many people, myself included. Those Land Rovers could handle everything that was thrown at them, and big jerry cans solved the problem of fuel.

While some people have managed to drive electric vehicles from one point to another, embarking on thrilling adventures in some cases, none of the trips has targeted remote areas.

We do not expect that to happen too soon, if ever, because it will take many years for electric cars to attain a “comfortable” range on a single charge. It would have to give someone the level of trust in the machine’s ability to cross difficult terrain, across vast distances, without becoming a very expensive forest decoration. Pun intended.

In other words, electric cars will not bring the complete death of the conventional vehicle. Not in remote areas, and possibly not in places where the climate is unfriendly. The same applies to Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles, which also require a complex fueling system and procedure.

Renewable electricity and hydrogen, please?

Electric vehicle charging at public recharge point
Photo: Go Ultra Low
Roses are wonderful flowers, but they have thorns. They can be removed, but you must be careful. The same goes for electric cars and even hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. No tailpipe emissions from these two categories of vehicles, but electric power usually comes from non-renewable sources.

Governments in most countries are focusing on obtaining “green energy,” but progress is rather slow. If you live in a house instead of an apartment building, you can get solar panels to power it, and an electric vehicle can be charged from them. However, solar panels are not cheap, and those needed to power a car are not on the lower side of the price scale.

At this point, you probably think that hydrogen is the best way forward, right? Well, not exactly, because large scale manufacturing of hydrogen extracts the gas from methane, and it generates carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

A tad ironic, right? Fortunately, both of these problems have theoretic fixes, but they need a significant volume of potential customers to be implemented, along with government subsidies and support.
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About the author: Sebastian Toma
Sebastian Toma profile photo

Sebastian's love for cars began at a young age. Little did he know that a career would emerge from this passion (and that it would not, sadly, involve being a professional racecar driver). In over fourteen years, he got behind the wheel of several hundred vehicles and in the offices of the most important car publications in his homeland.
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