Electric vehicles are not always cheaper to maintain than ICEs

  24 January 2023

Electric vehicles may not be cheaper to repair and maintain than internal combustion equivalents in every case. Analysis by e-commerce firm Epyx, which specialises in facilitating SMR transactions for fleets, has revealed circumstances in which they fare both better and worse in similar types of usage, along with variations by model.

The firm compared a series of equivalent electric and ICE vehicles across three metrics: the number of visits to service outlets, the number of days off the road due to SMR issues, and workshop costs including tyres and repairs.

The first example was a common fleet hatchback on a three-year, 25-30,000-mile cycle. The EV averaged 5.7 visits to service outlets, 3.2 days off the road, and workshop costs of £431. Across the same three metrics, the petrol version averaged five service visits, 4.5 days off the road and workshop costs of £412. Epyx said there were “no obvious EV benefits” in this case.

The second comparison was a “large prestige SUV from a major manufacturer – one petrol and one a purpose-built EV” at two years old and 20-30,000 miles. The EV averaged 3.4 days off the road, with workshop costs of £645 and 4.1 service visits. The petrol averaged 4.9 days off the road, workshop costs were £996 and service visits were exactly four days. The firm described the EV as “superior” in the former two areas, and both models as “comparable” in the latter.

The final example was a van in electric and diesel guises over a three-year, 25-30,000-mile cycle. The EV had 5.7 service visits, 2.2 days off the road and workshop costs of £239. The diesel had “comparable” service visits of five days and 2.9 days off the road, but workshop costs of “more than double” at £522.

The firm stipulated that the number of true equivalent EV and ICE vehicles is relatively small. Out of more than four million company cars, vans, and trucks on its 1link Service Network SMR platform, it said there were “only around 170” EVs of ages and mileages for a true comparison.

Learnings for retailers

While the analysis was very much geared towards fleet, there are implications for retailers going forward as they look to align their aftersales operations for a greater volume of EVs, with the assumption that the reduced complexity of electric vehicles will lead to significantly reduced aftersales revenue.

Looking at the experience in the fleet market, Epyx’s strategy director, Charlie Brooks, told Auto Retail Bulletin: “To assume all your vehicles, when you’ve transitioned to EVs, are going to cost 35% less, I think, is very dangerous. We have some dashboards that show the average repair value of vehicles, and for [certain EVs] it’s relatively low up to about 45,000 miles. Then, suddenly after that, when it has a repair, it’s a very expensive repair, whereas for ICE vehicles you see the average repair value increasing gradually over time.”

He suggested that early technical issues plus the differing characteristics of individual vehicles could contribute to maintenance time and costs. “I believe, from a pure SMR perspective, they [EVs] will cost less, but I don’t believe that is necessarily the case across the board. At the moment, we [also] have a number of teething problems, where vehicles are going in a little bit more frequently than you might expect.

“I’m loath to say that this is the future of EVs… this is more what we’ve found to date, because I still feel it’s going to vary significantly by make and model.”

Lack of evidence

Some experts believe EVs represent such a small amount of the vehicle parc that it is too soon to draw broad conclusions about their maintenance habits and costs. Auto Trader’s head of TCO, Mark Jowsey, said: “Prior to the arrival of Tesla, the majority of EV ownership was private and low-mileage… the bulk of Leafs were actually in private ownership, rather than with corporate buyer, although I would argue that we’ve had EVs for 10-12 years… there is not enough evidence to be really objective about it.”

Others argue that EVs are cheaper to maintain, including fellow SMR specialist Fleet Assist, which manages 850,000 cars and vans. Battery-electric vehicles accounted for 9% of its jobs in 2022 and for those carried out between January and October, average labour times were 33% less than for ICEs. Over the same period, the cost of EV parts, labour itself, and fluids were reportedly 51%, 26%, and 39% lower.

The company added that “average BEV mileages are still tracking lower than the equivalent ICE or hybrid vehicles,” with one-, two-, and three-year-old EVs recording 19%, 21%, and 14% lower mileages respectively at the time of their services.

“The overriding position is that BEVs are shining through as cheaper on overall SMR costs,” said managing director, Vincent St Claire, who added that both labour time and the types/cost of the most common replacement parts were weighted in favour of EVs. For ICE vehicles they were pads, discs, bulbs and oil and pollen filters. For EVs, they were collectively cheaper items: pollen filters, bulbs, key fob batteries, wipers and brake fluid.

The average age of EVs on Fleet Assist’s books was 1.6 years, compared to 4.6 years for ICE vehicles. St Claire conceded that this would make a difference but claimed overall SMR costs would still be less for EVs – to a point.

“The general mileage profile will make BEVs look better as an average comparison today, absolutely, but there still is an underlying trend that you can’t get away from – even if you were to take a one-year-old BEV and ICE vehicle, you’ll find that the labour times are less, and the parts required are less.

“Where they [EVs] will potentially [be] costlier is where a[n older] vehicle may have had two sets of brake pads during its life and a set of discs.”

For retailers, some good news is that higher tyre prices and wear rates can offset the allegedly lower cost of EV maintenance. Steve Chambers, senior editor for SMR at Cap HPI, explained that EV rubber is “generally bigger, therefore more expensive, and wears more quickly, but it is offset by the fact that we could, as a broad brush, say the service component is 50% [cheaper].”

Data from Epyx shows that electric vehicle tyres typically cost around £120 more than those of an equivalent ICE model, and that cost can increase. “Across all the tyre data that we have, EVs, on average, have a tyre that is one inch larger than their ICE equivalent,” says Brooks. “That extra inch that you add to a tyre’s diameter costs about £30 on each tyre. There’s a greater and greater demand to have larger tyres on these vehicles, and they kind of start off at £30, then they start getting exponentially more expensive at the higher end.”

Chambers says the comparative absence of wearable components swings the advantage back in EVs’ favour, but he also questions whether a relatively low-mileage retail buyer would notice the difference if they stuck to their vehicle’s tyre replacement schedule.

“When we look at other items, like timing belts, water pumps, alternators – they are never going to be an issue for battery-electric vehicles.

“There are all sorts of things at play but, fundamentally, EVs do cost less to run. If you are a retail customer, though, the question is whether or not you’d feel it that much if you are doing very low mileage. If it’s a case of ‘I’ve got to replace two tyres this year,’ do you look back in 24 months and say, ‘I replaced them in the first 12 months, and this is the second time I’ve had to do it’?”

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