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BatteryGate: EV Edition? Tesla’s Battery Shenanigans Spark Lawsuit...and Bigger Questions
Tesla made its EV batteries all but impossible to repair, and issued software updates that crippled battery performance. That sparked a class action lawsuit, and questions about the future of EVs.
The prospects of self-driving and emissions-free electric cars, once deemed revolutionary, now face an unsettling reality.
Gustavo Henrique Ruffo at Auto Evolution recently highlighted the issue of limited battery pack lifespans in battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and how it condemns them to be toys for the rich. Left unaddressed, this could ultimately kill the used EV market, he warns.
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Though a problem throughout the industry, Ruffo criticized U.S. automaker Tesla in particular for treating battery packs as disposable and not offering customers any discount when replacing them. Looked at purely from the standpoint of curbing carbon emissions, this lack of battery repairability may ultimately keep people from buying EV’s in general. If battery lifespans are short and replacements remain expensive, the total cost of ownership of vehicles increases, and consumers could be discouraged from buying used electric vehicles altogether.
The inability to cheaply swap batteries could drop the resale value of used electric vehicles, making them less attractive to large swaths of potential buyers. And EV affordability is already perceived as a major obstacle to wider adoption. Data shows that owners of EVs (in 2020) were predominantly middle-aged white men earning more than $100,000 per year.
With concerns over both reliability and charging associated with EVs, modular, repairable and swappable battery packs are a solution. But a lack of transparency from automakers on the true lifespan of battery packs and the cost of replacements is complicating matters. Tesla’s “batterygate” -- an EV version of Apple’s famous dust up with consumers and regulators - is, perhaps, the most prominent example of that.
Batterygate: the EV edition
A variety of issues plaguing Tesla owners have spawned legal action against the company in recent months. First, a class-action lawsuit filed in California in May accused the company of intentionally reducing the performance of Model S and Model X vehicles through automatic software updates, depleting the battery and reducing driving range by at least 20%. The lawsuit alleges that some updates rendered batteries totally inoperable, requiring expensive replacements.
The suit follows a July 2021 ruling that found Tesla guilty of temporarily cutting battery performance in more than 1,700 vehicles via a software update in 2019. Tesla agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle claims and CEO Elon Musk expressed regret over the incident.
That incident was similar to “BatteryGate,” the 2017 incident in which Apple throttled iPhones’ processors if the phone detected the battery was worn down, as is commonly the case in older phones. The company failed to alert users to the change in configuration or the need for battery service, pushing many to seek device upgrades for their (suddenly) lethargic devices. Consumers outraged by Apple’s decision to throttle phones and lack of disclosure launched a class action lawsuit. The company, in March 2020, agreed to pay a $500 million settlement to owners of affected iPhones.
In the latest class action, filed on behalf of Tesla owners, the plaintiffs argue that Tesla’s ability to use software updates to “deliberately and significantly interfere with the car’s performance” including “reduc(ing) the operating capacity of the vehicles.”
According to the suit, Tesla’s automatic software updates have, without warning, depleted the battery in Model S and Model X vehicles, reducing the driving range by at least 20%. “Car owners will be compelled to pay a third party a significant fee ($500-$750) to reverse the software update so that the car owners could continue to experience the battery performance they had before the update,” the suit (PDF) states.
The plaintiffs say that Tesla is violating a number of state and federal laws with its actions, including the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, California’s Computer Data Access and Fraud Act, and California’s Unfair Competition Law.
Repairability could be key to people buying EV’s
The bigger question is what the impact of EV ecosystems and business models like Tesla’s may have. Transportation emissions are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, accounting for 29% of total emissions in 2021. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cars and trucks are responsible for 57.5% of transportation emissions in the United States (accounting for roughly 17%~ of overall emissions).
Greater use of EVs versus gas-powered cars will cut down on greenhouse gas emissions from cars on the road. But it doesn’t mean a move to EV’s will create a carbon-free world. A study by the University of Michigan found that the embodied carbon of a Tesla Model 3 is about 15 tons of CO2, the equivalent to the emissions from driving 38,453 miles in an average gasoline-powered passenger vehicle.
Clearly, as gas-powered cars are phased out and EVs represent a bigger share of cars on the road, the right to repair EV’s will become an increasingly important issue. Companies like Tesla are being incentivized to sell as many cars as possible, but that may be fostering indifference or outright hostility to repairable vehicles. The repair restrictions we see with traditional car repair won’t stop with EV’s. Recent headlines of removing “super-charging” capabilities on salvaged Teslas and our reporting on their use of part pairing that makes it less safe to use non-Tesla tow hitches shows that much.
Similar to portable electronics, the manufacturing of new devices represents a considerable chunk of the total environmental footprint of a vehicle. And since repair allows cars to last longer, and keeps more cars from needing to be built, the availability, accessibility and affordability of repair play a key role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions of EV’s. Given that cars have such a large footprint and that the share of EV’s on the road is expected to grow, the ability to sustain and extend the useful lives of those vehicles, via repair, will be key in helping to meet broader environmental goals such a net-zero targets.
Batteries are one of the most important parts of an electrics vehicle, and if there aren’t actions taken to make repairability a key part of the entire product lifecycle, the credibility behind the “green” image of EV’s will be greatly diminished.
Beyond EVs: fixing a dystopian car-first future
Let’s also take a second to zoom out. Instead of thinking of individual car owners and individual cars we can instead focus on our infrastructure as a whole. Writer Paris Marx is a vocal proponent of a bigger picture view of infrastructure and false promises of new technology.
Marx argues that the current system of mass automotive production prioritizes the interests of auto and oil companies, rather than focusing on efficient and affordable transportation for people—and that a move to electric cars won’t change the incentive structure of these markets.
Although we often consider things like the national highway system in the US as a given, it is important to note that the majority of the system was largely finished by the 1980s, while investments in public transportation in the U.S. have stagnated for much of the last half century.
In other words: a better question than “gas powered car or EV?” might be “car or no car?” Our dependence on cars is not an innate (or longstanding) aspect to life in the US—nor does it have to define our future. Electric cars alone cannot solve transportation challenges; reducing reliance on cars and investing in public transit and cycling infrastructure are even more necessary says Marx.
While at first it might seem like splitting hairs to pick on EV companies for their repair-practices, the degrees to which something is “green” matter. This is true from individual cars all the way up to infrastructure. But for Tesla, this means a swappable battery is a hell of a lot less ecologically damaging than the current un-repairable design.
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