Second Hand Electric Vehicles

Unsung Heroes of Decarbonization

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When most people think of an electric vehicle (EV), they think of a gleaming new Tesla, or maybe the just released Volkswagen ID.4. In practice, though, the vast majority of car sales are second hand: In the US, there were 17 million new car sales in 2019 but more than 40 million used car sales. Today, just a tiny portion of those secondhand sales are EVs, but they should form an important part of the path to a zero emissions future. 

To understand why, it helps to think about ‘fleet turnover’ - the process by which new cars replace old ones. One of the challenges of turning over the vehicle fleet to 100% electric is that old gasoline cars stay on the road for a long time, as I wrote about in an earlier newsletter and the New York Times explored last week. However, if each new EV can stay on the road longer than their gasoline counterparts, they can help accelerate the retirement of fossil fuel burning cars. That’s one reason to hope that EVs can have long and happy lives in the second hand vehicle market. 

Since electric vehicles emit carbon dioxide when they’re made, keeping them on the road longer also spreads those emissions out over a larger number of miles. A thriving market for older EVs could help make them a better climate fighting tool.

Second hand EVs also make electric mobility cheaper and more accessible to lower income consumers. That’s important, since a valid criticism of EVs today is that they’ve mostly ended up in affluent hands. Cheaper second hand electric vehicles could also serve growing ridehail and food service fleets like Uber and Doordash (Uber’s even said so). Those drivers are looking for cheap-to-operate vehicles, and often aren’t in a position to afford the high price tag of new EVs. One way to rapidly electrify those fleets is to funnel a growing pool of second hand EVs into their hands.

There are other reasons to be excited about second hand EVs. One of their greatest weaknesses - aging batteries - could become a strength. Batteries degrade over their life, meaning that older electric car batteries lose some of their original capacity and range. Meanwhile, battery technology is advancing rapidly.  That means that batteries in a 10 year old EV are significantly worse than those being sold today. But if every part of a car besides the old battery is in good shape, what about swapping a new battery into an old car? That’s a relatively simple operation that could save a lot of metal and electronics from the scrap heap, and keep old cars on the road a lot longer. 

A win-win, right? Except, perhaps, if you’re in the business of making new EVs. Nissan, for example, seems to make it hard to find new batteries for old cars, and they’re far from the only offender. Tesla is notorious for making it impossible to repair your own car. That makes it both painfully hard and often brutally expensive to repair your vehicle. It’s part of the reason that Norway, the world leader in EV adoption, is seeing many nearly-new EVs sent to the scrap heap

EVs aren’t alone in this. Modern consumer electronics like your iPhone are notorious for being deliberately hard to repair, creating tons of unnecessary waste. Pushback to that policy accelerated the Right to Repair movement, which has increasingly focused on electric vehicles. If we make it impossible to repair and upgrade EVs, we’re likely sending a lot of unnecessary vehicles to the scrap heap, delaying fleet turnover, raising costs, and increasing emissions. 

It’s not clear how Right to Repair battles around EVs will play out, but all of us who care about decarbonization should hope that every EV we produce can stay on the road as long as possible. To do that, we should start focusing more seriously on what happens to them once they roll off the lot. 


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