Monday, December 04, 2023

Consumer Reports Says Electric Cars Have More Problems


In a comprehensive survey covering vehicle model years 2021 through 2023, the publication Consumer Reports found that electric cars, SUVs, and pickups had among the worst reliability ratings compared to either all-internal-combustion-powered vehicles or IC-powered hybrids (not plug-in hybrids, which were also problem-prone). 


Results varied by brand.  Tesla, the largest seller of all-electric vehicles, rose in the reliability rankings from 19th out of 30 automakers in last year's survey to 14th out of 30 in the latest study.  This reflects an overall tendency that is probably the main cause of reliability problems with electric vehicles (EVs):  inexperience.


The first time you do anything, you're not likely to do it perfectly.  Young people sometimes don't understand this basic principle of life, and it leads to unfortunate consequences.  My mother once sent me to take tennis lessons when I was about ten.  When I discovered I couldn't serve like a pro right off the bat (or the racket), I promptly lost all interest and closed myself off to a lifetime of tennis enjoyment. 


The same thing that is true of individuals learning how to do new things is true of automakers learning how to make EVs.  An Associated Press article on the Consumer Reports survey quotes Jake Fisher, their senior director of auto testing, as saying the situation is mainly "growing pains."  No matter how detailed and accurate computer models and laboratory prototypes are, a manufacturer can't simulate the myriad of unlikely situations that will arise when a product is made in units of thousands and sent out to the great unwashed public, who will do a lot of crazy durn things that the maker could never think of. 


This sort of thing has been going on with internal-combustion (IC) cars since before 1900, and the automakers are supremely experienced with what can go wrong with that technology.  It may be surprising to learn, but the reliability requirements of military-grade technology are nowhere nearly as rigorous and demanding as the requirements for hardware used in the automotive industry.  Jet aircraft are inspected and serviced every few hundred hours.  But Grandma just drives her car until it breaks, and expects that to happen very rarely. 


Combine that consumer expectation with a radically new powertrain, control system, and body, which is what EVs represent, and you're going to have problems, even entirely new types of problems.  The issue of autonomous vehicles is formally independent of EVs, but as some of the most advanced autonomous-vehicle systems are found in EVs such as Teslas, the two often go together.  And autonomous driving is only one of the multitude of new features that EVs make either possible at all, or a lot easier to implement.


An EV is more of a hardware shell for a software platform than anything else, and reliability standards for software are a different kind of cat compared to automotive reliability expectations.  Software is at fault in many issues involving EVs, although it can increasingly cause problems with IC cars as well.    


The hope expressed by many EV makers is that consumers will recognize the higher problem rate as something temporary, and won't allow it to tarnish the overall reputation of the technology.  This depends on the age and psychology of the customer to a great and imponderable degree. 


Just last night, for instance, I was talking with a friend who bought his first Tesla about five months ago.  If he's had any problems with it, he didn't mention them.  I asked about charging times, and he said it was no problem.  He can charge his Tesla at his house overnight, and he knows where there are supercharging stations that will do it in only 30 minutes.


His attitude reminds me of a scene in the Woody Allen movie "Annie Hall."  In a split-screen scene, Alvy Singer's therapist asks him, "How often do you sleep together?"  Singer replies forlornly, "Hardly ever.  Maybe three times a week."  In the other half of the screen, his partner Annie Hall gets asked the same question by her therapist, and Annie says with annoyance, "Constantly.  I'd say three times a week."


My friend, a power engineer and Tesla enthusiast, sees charging an EV in thirty minutes as wonderful, hardly any time at all.  Someone like me, who is a dyed-in-the-wool IC traditionalist, can't help compare that half hour to the five minutes I usually spend at the gas pump, and the Tesla suffers by comparison.


The true-blue EV proponents will undoubtedly overlook or tolerate minor issues with their vehicles and rightly regard them as temporary stumbling blocks that will grow less frequent as the makers learn from their mistakes and improve reliability overall.  The big question is, are there enough such proponents to support the overwhelming market share growth that the automakers hope for, and that the federal government is standing by to enforce with a big stick if it doesn't happen?


The same AP article notes that the initially explosive growth of EV sales has slowed by about half in the last year.  It's a genuine open question as to where EV sales will stabilize, if they ever do, with regard to IC sales.  The problem that the automakers face is that as things currently stand, they must comply with the so-called CAFE standards for overall fleet fuel economy, or else pay heavy fees for non-compliance.  And the Biden administration has proposed steep increases in the fleet-mileage numbers that will require a large fraction of all cars on the roadways to be EVs in the coming years. 


One can question the propriety of government interference in the auto marketplace.  If left alone, the market will let all the EV enthusiasts satisfy their wants without driving up the overall price of cars or causing artificial scarcities of IC vehicles.  Both of these downsides are likely if the government forces Adam Smith's famed invisible hand to deal only the kinds of cars the government wants, without regard to consumer preferences or needs. 


Electric cars will become more reliable, but it's by no means clear if consumers will want enough of them to warrant the current pressures to overthrow the century-long reign of IC cars. 


Sources:  The AP article "Consumer Reports:  Electric vehicles less reliable, on average, than conventional cars and trucks" appeared on Nov. 29, 2023 at  I also referred to IMDB for the "Annie Hall" quote at, and for CAFE standards at

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