The shop’s manager, William Broomfield, said 60% of his customers drive cars with combustion engines and 40% drive hybrids. Next to the truck, there’s a little Smart car up on a platform getting some work done, and a cluster of four Toyota Priuses are lined up outside.
What the shop doesn’t see, though, are fully electric vehicles. No Teslas, Nissan Leafs or Chevy Bolts.
“It’s been working great with the hybrids,” Broomfield said. “Most independent shops are very terrified of working on the vehicles. They’re overwhelmed, and they just won’t even touch ‘em.”
There are a few reasons for that, Broomfield said. For one, only dealers have access to replacement batteries for those that go out. And dealers are very protective of their technology.
“A lot of the fixes on these cars require proprietary software, downloads and so forth,” he said. “And so the customers are forced to go to the dealer.”
Electric vehicles also have fewer moving parts, so they don’t require as many repairs.
“You don’t have to change your oil, you don’t have as many spark plugs and all of these different facets,” said Camron Proctor, a former engineer at Sandia National Laboratories who worked on a study published by the Department of Energy looking at the total cost of electric vehicles. “You don’t have an exhaust system, right? Many of these things don’t exist.”
The study found that over the ownership life of an electric car, an average driver will save about $8,000 on maintenance.
Proctor said the main goal of that study was to answer a few simple questions: “What is going to encourage people to purchase an alternative fuel vehicle? Is it cheaper upfront costs? Or is it cheaper fuel prices? Is it lower maintenance?”
Depending on how someone purchases an electric vehicle, they could start saving quickly, according to Chris Harto, a senior policy analyst in transportation and energy at Consumer Reports.
“You’ll start saving money in Year One,” he said. “Even though you ‘paid more,’ your savings on fuel and maintenance will make up for the increased payment on that vehicle.”
But even the director of the vehicle technologies office at the Department of Energy, David Howell, said that unfortunately, that’s not what people think about when buying a car.
“The upfront cost is a key,” Howell said. “People buy vehicles pretty much based on how much it’s going to cost them right upfront. You know, purchase price.”
He said as batteries get cheaper, so will the upfront cost.
Of course, it’s not that electric cars are maintenance-free. They have wheels, brakes, lots of sensors and pricey batteries. Then there’s what the folks at J.D. Power call “dependability” — basically, how many problems car owners deal with over the course of a year.
“Most of the problems that customers report with Teslas really aren’t related to it being an electric vehicle,” said Dave Sargent, vice president of automotive quality at J.D. Power. “It’s much more due to Tesla being relatively new at manufacturing vehicles at all.”
In J.D. Power’s annual survey, Teslas ranked 30th out of 33 brands, but not necessarily because they’re alternate fuel cars.
Those are the kinds of things Broomfield at Happy Hybrid can help people with, even on electric vehicles, but he can’t charge a lot for that kind of repair.
Teslas often have squeaks and rattles, and sometimes doors just don’t close right, Sargent said.
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