With lithium-ion battery technology improving at the kind of breakneck speeds that far exceed traditional automotive progress, anyone buying an electric car today needs to come to terms with the idea that their cars range when new — while seemingly decent for the time — will quickly be considered inferior to the latest and greatest plug-in cars on the market.
An illustration of this can be seen in the latest 2016 Nissan LEAF SL and SV, which offer a 107-mile EPA-approved range thanks to a next-generation lithium-ion battery pack that squeezes 30 kilowatt-hours of storage into the same physical space once occupied by the original 24 kWh battery pack offered on original 2011 thru 2015 Nissan LEAFs. In a year or two, the range offered by 2016 Nissan LEAFs are expected to pale into insignificance with the launch of Nissan’s next-generation LEAF, a car that is rumored to include a 60 kWh pack for a range in excess of 200 miles per charge.
Even the Tesla Model S, a car which originally launched with a 40 kWh, 60 kWh or 85 kWh battery pack options, is now sold with larger, next-generation 70 kWh and 90 kWh packs offering improved range and efficiency.
This rapid turnover of electric vehicle technology, far faster than traditional internal combustion engine vehicle technology and closer to the evolution of consumer electronics than automotive technological advances, has left many electric car owners old and new to question why electric car companies don’t offer battery upgrades and drop-in improvements for customers.
The range of emotion attached to this question ranges from downright indignant fury to resigned acceptance. But on an almost daily basis, we come across someone who asks one simple question.
“Why can’t <insert name of automaker here> offer me a better (or longer-range) battery for my electric car?”
The answer? In short, it comes down to engineering challenges, engineering costs, development cycles, business models…and the restrictions doing so would place on a company.
Making a new pack for existing models isn’t easy
You may not realize it, but every time a new battery pack is developed for an electric car, small changes are made to the car itself to accommodate the change in battery pack chemistry. Even in the case of the battery chemistry change made by Nissan in order to tackle premature battery aging in extreme heat would have required Nissan to make some small changes to the way in which the pack integrated with the rest of the car.
Sometimes those changes are small. Some are large. Some require new hardware, some require a new piece of code.
In the case Nissan’s “lizard” battery pack upgrade, Nissan engineered a special fitting kit to enable existing first-generation LEAF owners to take advantage of the improved battery pack. But it’s worth noting in this case that the battery pack upgrade wasn’t one designed to increase capacity but improve reliability. The battery pack itself stored the same physical amount of energy as its predecessor, making an upgrade easy.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the Tesla Roadster 3.0 upgrade package for the original Tesla Roadster. A package which includes a new, more energy-dense battery pack, the Roadster 3.0 upgrade pack required Tesla to devote some significant time and energy into reengineering the entire Tesla Roadster in order to develop a compatible pack. In order to even work in existing Tesla Roadster, the upgrade process includes replacing power electronics components as well as the battery pack to ensure the car continues to operate as expected.
Engineering new packs for existing models is expensive
Which brings us nicely onto the subject of cost. While it may be relatively cheap for a company to develop an improved battery chemistry for an identically-sized battery pack, developing a longer-range pack that integrates with existing hardware can be a costly process, something that’s reflected in the big sticker price attached to the Tesla Roadster 3.0 upgrade pack.
Simply put, making a new battery pack for an existing model isn’t just a matter of taking out previous-generation cells and putting a newer, more energy dense set in.
The engineering costs associated with designing a new battery pack — even for a new model year car as is the case with Nissan’s longer-range battery pack for the 2016 LEAF and longer-range battery packs in the pipeline for the Ford Focus EV, Volkswagen e-Golf and BMW i3 — would simply increase overall cost to consumers if each battery pack had to be backward-compatible with every model year of car.
Development cycles are focused on moving forward, not looking back
Which brings us to an important fact you may not know: while today’s 2016 Nissan LEAF may look identical to the 2011 Nissan LEAFs which rolled off the production line in 2010 (they share the same body panels and chassis after all) there are plenty of hidden improvements and changes that the average customer won’t even notice. Those changes however, applied incrementally throughout a vehicle’s production life cycle, make it costly to ensure retrofit upgrades work with every variation of car ever made. Replacement parts based on original specification are easier to make, since they can be produced with original tooling as replica or OEM replacements for the original item.
This isn’t a new practice. Ask an aficionado of any car produced in significant volumes over the past 60 years or so, and they’ll give you a list of generally unknown changes made over the years by an automaker to a particular model of car. Those changes might be small ones — such as swapping round lights for square ones — or they may be more noticeable ones such as a brand-new gearbox or drivetrain. But as cars have become more complex, it’s become increasingly complicated for automakers to ensure that one model year of car is compatible with another, or that a new component designed for a newer version of a car fits its predecessor.
In short, automakers focus on improving future models, not breathing life into older ones.
Constantly improving older models makes no business sense
At the end of the day, automakers follow a fairly simple business model: make cars and sell them. And as time passes, automakers strive to evolve their cars, making them better and more refined and safer than cars which went before. Doing so not only ensures that they keep up with the latest standards and trends in the automotive world, but also keep customers coming back for newer, improved models every few years.
While it might be more sustainable to extend the life of an existing model ten or more years after it first rolled off the production line, automakers know that doing so would make little financial sense. Humans are fickle, and we generally want the latest and greatest product. While some of us are happy to own older ‘classic’ vehicles — and plenty of the Transport Evolved editorial team feel that way, the relentless quest for the next best thing means that automakers know there’s little money to be made in improving old models when their customers just want a brand-new car.
After all, even electric vehicles wear out given time. If not their battery packs, their body panels, interior or drivetrains ultimately need replacement. And when the car itself isn’t worth the money you’re spending on it, most people trade in for a more capable model instead.
Offering replacement upgrades would severely limit growth
While there are only so many ways a battery pack can be placed in a car, there are also only so many ways a new battery pack can be made to fit an aging chassis. While automotive design cycles allow for car makers to build a brand-new vehicle on a new or modified platform every five to eight years, requiring an automaker to continually offer new battery pack upgrades for older models would also require them to stick with the same basic design in order to ensure that replacement parts could be manufactured at a reasonable price.
Without doing so, an automaker would have to make replacement battery packs for each vehicle ever made, even if there were changes in physical layout our fitment. And as we’ve said above, that would severely affect the cost at which battery packs could be made. In turn, the logical solution would be to stagnate battery pack design so it never changes, restricting the vehicle designs which can be built on top and stifling progress and growth.
What about conversions? Or Enthusiast upgrades?
There are exceptions. Tesla’s Roadster 3.0 upgrade is one we’ve already talked about: one which is so costly that only a small proportion of Tesla owners are expected to purchase it.
But there are those who convert their own cars to electric, or add their own after-market battery pack upgrades. While those vehicles prove that it’s technically possible to upgrade the battery packs of older vehicles, it’s all-too-easy to negate the cost (either in terms of time or money) which has gone into making such upgrades possible.
Most consumers aren’t willing to invest that much time and money in an older car. And provided they’re able to buy a replacement pack that matches the original one sold in the car when new, we suspect the majority of plug-in owners will be happy.
Just as successive generations of internal combustion engine vehicles improve their emissions or fuel economy, so too will electric vehicles improve their range and battery life.
We just need to understand that just as engine transplants are rare these days in modern cars, so too are battery swaps.
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