EVs Could Last Nearly Forever—If Car Companies Let Them

An electric car capable of running for 1 million miles is within reach. In April, a group of people in a red Tesla driving through the Moroccan desert were glued to the odometer on the car’s giant touch screen. “Two million, Hans! Two million,” exclaimed the front-seat passenger to the owner and driver, Hansjörg von Gemmingen-Hornberg. His 2014 Model S had become likely the first electric vehicle to drive 2 million kilometers, or more than 1.2 million miles. The car could have traveled from the Earth to the moon and back, twice, then circled the equator 11 times. The journey wasn’t entirely seamless. The car has had its share of repairs, including several battery and motor replacements. A handful of gas-powered cars have driven farther, most of all a 1966 Volvo that racked up some 3 million miles over five decades. But such fantastic mileages are becoming far easier to accomplish for ordinary commuters with electric cars.

Unlike gas-powered engines—which are made up of thousands of parts that shift against one other—a typical EV has only a few dozen moving parts. That means less damage and maintenance, making it easier and cheaper to keep a car on the road well past the approximately 200,000-mile average lifespan of a gas-powered vehicle. And EVs are only getting better. “There are certain technologies that are coming down the pipeline that will get us toward that million-mile EV,” Scott Moura, a civil and environmental engineer at UC Berkeley, told me. That many miles would cover the average American driver for 74 years. The first EV you buy could be the last car you ever need to purchase.

Gas cars are already astonishingly durable. In theory, they can just keep getting repaired (that’s how you get classic cars). But after they get to be about 12 to 15 years old, major problems such as a shot engine or a broken transmission are frequently not worth the cost of repair. Even without problems, a newer car is likely to have much better gas mileage than an older one, making a trade-in appealing. EVs are still so new that few of them are a decade old, meaning we have yet to figure out the exact limit of their life span. The ones that do exist give us some sense. Several older Teslas and Nissan Leafs have topped 300,000 miles—as did the first three batteries in von Gemmingen-Hornberg’s million-miler. His first Tesla, a Roadster purchased in 2009, has itself traveled more than 400,000 miles.

The biggest factor in EV longevity is the batteries. Just like those in a smartphone, they degrade over time. A battery might lose 1 or 2 percent of its maximum range each year, depending on how it is charged and used—meaning that after 15 years, a car’s range might have slipped from 300 miles to 210 miles per charge. Repairing a car’s battery is difficult, if not impossible, and replacements are expensive, Ed Kim, the chief analyst at the consulting firm AutoPacific, told me. Many EV warranties today will cover replacements to a battery for either eight years or 100,000 miles of driving, and they are considered due for replacement once they’ve dipped below 70 percent of their initial capacity, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Batteries today are expected to take far longer to lose that much of their maximum charge—potentially 300,000 miles, or about 15 to 20 years.

The life span should only improve. Batteries are “one of the most active areas in EV development,” Kim said. Prices are plummeting, which will make battery replacement more feasible. And as the range of new EV batteries keeps going up, longevity will also benefit. Some EV batteries, including the one in the Tesla Model 3 Standard Range, can already last for some 500,000 miles on the road, Moura said. One Chinese manufacturer recently announced a battery warranted for nearly 1 million miles. And even more durable battery designs, Moura said, are in the works. A researcher at Tesla has tested a battery that he claims could drive for 4 million miles, or roughly 100 years, under the right conditions.