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Electric & Disposable Vehicles: The Latest Example of Fast Fashion?

04.26.24 | Blog | By:

Is repairability the Achilles’s heel of EVs? If their useful life is limited by poor repairability, is it another trick from car manufacturers to keep on selling new cars, fast-fashion-style and in the standard capitalist approach, till Kingdom comes, circumventing the threat of planetary resource limitations and the necessary drive toward circularity in the economy?

Why this question, on top of the serious doubts about electromobility affordability and range anxiety, top hurdles today to reach mass market status? Doing away with the linearity of production has become an evidence, as our capitalist economic system, based on ever-increasing growth and profits for the few, over-consumes the limited resources of our only planet.

Going circular, forcing repair, re-use and recycle, makes sense, and the easiest way remains to extend, for as long as possible, the useful life of all the equipment we have gotten addicted to since the industrial revolutions. Which implies repairability, and not programmed obsolescence, a devious way to force consumers to keep on buying. Several associations and NGOs have bloomed around the world to monitor the progress of repairability, which has become legally binding, if not incentivized, in some countries. Stop Obsolescence is the motto.

EVs have recently come in the cross-hairs of the Stop Obsolescence watchdogs, who sharpened their tools on home appliances, including smartphones. EVs are easier to manufacture than Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles (ICEVs), fewer parts, full of electronics and of data management systems: a promise of future lower costs, which is the good news. But, bad news, also a threat of fiercer competition, as entry barriers like mastering the complexity of an energy efficient and optimized thermal engine, are lower for new competitors in electromobility. (Just look at how BYD became an electromobility giant, in a short time, without any previous experience in car manufacturing.)

As a consequence, the cornerstones of EV manufacturing, the battery, one good third of the production cost, and the assembly cost reduction, are heavily “protected”. Batteries are often physically sealed, assembly of mega-parts of the vehicles (like front or rear halves) is becoming the manufacturing standard, called giga-casting, both of course limiting the repairability.

Moreover, some manufacturers consider imposing the digital impossibility to replace some critical parts of the vehicles, even the battery. This hard, possibly obtaining legal status, constraint, enforced on this new generation of cars, that some call “electronics on wheels”, would kill the second-hand market, which exists today for ICEVs, on a big scale, where re-use, repair and spare parts interchangeability have become the standard, benefiting from an ubiquitous network of professional repair shops and stores.

Focus on the battery. This bleak future, of an EV supply chain where circularity would be limited to the use of recycled materials, is downplayed by electromobility supporters, arguing the useful life of batteries has been proven better than expected on earlier EVs. Though not eternal, and, as for the future, no one knows how much fast-charging may alter this performance. The battery must be considered a normal spare part, able to be easily replaced, like in an ICEV, as many times as necessary to extend the life of the car as much as possible. As for the useful life of electronic parts, micro-chips and such, one just has to check how many times a sudden failure occurs on a modern appliance.

Besides, according to insurance companies, accidents with EVs prove to be much more severe in terms of structural damage, due to the increased weight and the over-use of the acceleration power of these cars, and much more costly, due to the intricate connection of the battery with the frame and the hazard posed by a potentially damaged battery. Leading to junkyard disposal more than often, due to the impossibility to repair. Which leads to increased insurance premium, and, to add insult to injury, without any guarantee of conservation of value in case of accident.

A shame to dump such an expensive equipment, qualifying EVs as “disposable”, fast-fashion-style. Once bitten by this sudden loss of wealth, the motorist may become twice shy to buy another EV. This concern may represent another reason to hesitate to adopt electromobility, another hurdle for the switch from early adopters, wealthy, technology- and environment-conscious but limited in numbers, to the average Joe, for which 25,000 Euros already represent a significant investment in mobility, which cannot disappear overnight.

To be fair, the deed is not done yet, the European car manufacturers may not go the Tesla and Chinese EV manufacturers’ way, which “protection” techniques have been above described, when re-inventing themselves around electromobility, but the cost challenge remains key. The civil society may eventually play the role of savior of a circular model in this sector. As much as politicians, if they are brave enough to adopt regulations and standards preventing EVs to become too easily disposable, even at a higher cost for electro-motorists.

The fight against climate change is a marathon, although some sprinting may help to avoid an acceleration of dire consequences, which gives a bit of time to remodel mobility along good principles, circularity being one thereof, especially for Western car manufacturers, late comers in electromobility, but with a serious knowledge of responsible vehicle manufacturing. The technological leadership in EV may be today with the Tesla, BYD and MGs of this world, but future sustainable mobility is not only about technology or profit, and the US Big Three, the European Volkswagen and Stellantis may bring responsibility in electromobility.

Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and  Innovation Platform (ETIP).

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