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Will There Be Beater Cars in an EV World?

Every used car was once a new car. And every beater car was once a late model used car. These cheap, nearly worn-out-but-still-running vehicles are transportation lifeblood for students, low-income workers and the terminally cheap. But will they be a vanishing breed in a new automotive landscape where electricity replaces internal combustion?
Prompting these thoughts was the news that General Motors would no longer support the Chevrolet Spark electric with replacement battery packs. GM later released a statement saying that they would continue to provide new batteries and that the unavailability of replacements was more of a supply chain issue. Still, it doesn’t mean at some point that could happen in the future.

While manufacturers do support their vehicles with replacement parts, at some point they are more interested in building new cars than keeping old ones alive. The inability to either fix or replace a defective or worn-out battery pack could spell the demise of more electrics than just the Spark EV.

There are some older electric vehicles, like the first-generation Nissan LEAF and Fiat 500e that fill the role of sub-$5,000 cheap transportation. But, with their reduced range and high expense of replacing a worn-out battery pack, their potential as serviceable beaters far into the future are limited.

There is plenty of debate on what to do with reduced capacity battery packs. Solutions include recycling their materials or converting them to store solar and off-peak electricity. Often left out of the discussion is what to do with the rest of the vehicle, which may have some useful life left.

For the electric beater to emerge, battery costs, whether new or refurbished, must come down considerably to make these vehicles competitive with their gas-powered counterparts that have lives extending into the hundreds of thousands of miles. I don’t expect to see that happen until a replacement battery pack, which can cost upwards of $5,000, reaches parity with an internal combustion engine’s rebuild cost, which is about half that.

Perhaps at some point, a few enterprising companies will jump into the second-hand market to provide the battery technology, and infrastructure to refurbish and resell EVs at affordable prices. An electric specialist alternative to CarMax or Carvana wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Scale is the other obstacle to the emergence of the electric beater, at least in the current environment. EV penetration in the overall vehicle fleet is miniscule despite rising interest and sales of new electric cars. Once the numbers of EVs approaches critical mass, we may see more companies taking an active interest in serving the used electric vehicle market.

Further complicating matters for those looking for any kind of beater is the coming ban on the sale of new internal combustion vehicles by some authorities. Unless the sale of gas is prohibited, there still will remain a second-hand market for cars and trucks that burn fossil fuels. As the supply of new ICE vehicles dries up so will the supply of these used vehicles begin to decline. Which will, in turn, create higher prices for all used cars. We may see a situation not unlike Cuba, where there’s a thriving market for vehicles that are decades old.

Granted, there are solid environmental reasons for getting rid of beaters. Older cars pollute more, aren’t as efficient as newer models and in some cases, are genuine eyesores. On the other hand, in places not served by mass transit, beaters serve a purpose in proving mobility to individuals who have little else. It would be a shame to leave them behind in an automotive world bent on going all electric.

It will be interesting to see what this market looks like in 20 years’ time. As one who appreciates the value of a beater, a clapped-out Tesla Model S or Ford F-150 Lightning would bring a smile to my face.


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