Insurers are demanding perfectly good EVs be scrapped, or hiking repair bills from $1,000 to $15,000 for seemingly no good reason. There’s a solution, and it’s in the hands of car companies.

In June this year, a Hyundai Kona rolled into a repair shop in Cheltenham, England. Humming gently, as electric vehicles do, it seemed to be running just fine. But the insurance company wasn’t ready to sign it off. The car had been in a minor collision, which had caused damage to its battery casing. Another repair shop, about an hour’s drive away, had been asked to replace the casing, but they didn’t know how.

And so, the car ended up here in Cheltenham, in front of Matt Cleevely, owner of Cleevely Motors. When he and his colleagues opened up the vehicle, they were stunned. Sure, the metal casing had a few light scratches—minor marks made by one of the car’s rear suspension arms, which had got jolted during the incident—but nothing more.

“They’d suffered very minor physical damage that neither compromised the integrity of the battery casing, nor was dangerous in any way,” says Cleevely. “I just found it massively over the top.”

He shrugged his shoulders and swapped out the casing anyway—just like the insurance company wanted. It cost £600 ($745), plus tax.

In the past three years, the number of electric cars on the road in the UK has more than doubled, to around 850,000, according to estimates from the RAC, a breakdown recovery and insurance firm. In the US this year, more than 1 million EVs will probably be sold—a potential record.

Right to Repair

A higher number of EVs on the roads inevitably means more of them becoming involved in accidents. And yet there is relatively widespread anxiety over dinged-up batteries since they could in theory compromise the safety of the vehicle, causing electric shocks, fires, and even explosions. Fires remain extremely rare, though, and are less common on average than in internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.

Insurers are even, in some cases, writing off entire cars just because of minor physical damage to battery casings. Sources who spoke to WIRED suggest there is a dearth of auto repair shops that know how to properly assess batteries, let alone repair them. “There’s far too much scaremongering across our industry about EVs,” says Cleevely. “The problem is the lack of understanding.”

And some manufacturers are making things extra difficult for mechanics. Parts can be tricky to get hold of, and there’s often little or no official information explaining how to repair certain EV battery units. That means such units might just get replaced at an eye-watering cost. Easily north of £10,000 ($12,430) for some models.

“If you’re replacing a damaged battery with a new one, suddenly, once you’ve added in the other costs in terms of labor and hire cars,” says Mark Fry, an engineering manager at Thatcham Research, “it’s just not always economical to repair the car.”

A spokesman for the Association for British Insurers adds that there are issues around the availability of repairers in the UK. The EV insurance market is, arguably, a little wobbly at present. In September, major British retailer John Lewis was forced to stop insuring EVs altogether after its underwriter, Covéa, withdrew cover for these vehicles. A spokeswoman for Covéa declined to clarify why the firm changed tack.

Some US-based insurance firms also exclude EVs, says Tim Zawacki, an analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence. He says the industry is dependent on real-world experience, and at this point, that’s still lacking.

Small Numbers, Big Cost

Separately, a spokeswoman for Admiral, a major insurer in the UK, says battery-related problems can lead to write-offs. “In the absence of an ability to repair, recycle, or repurpose a battery, it’s likely to result in it being a total loss due to its high value,” she says, while declining to confirm whether EVs were being written off more frequently than ICE vehicles.

Christoph Lauterwasser at the Allianz Center for Technology, a German research institute owned by insurance giant Allianz, says damage to the underside of an EV can be more likely to result in a battery casing getting scratched. “The problem is, in some cases, that leads to a total replacement of the battery, which is quite expensive,” he says.

According to Allianz, EV claims currently make up just 2 percent of the total volume of automobile-related claims that the firm handles. However, they account for about 10 percent of the company’s costs.

In Western markets, at least, EVs tend to have a higher percentage, on average, of materials that are difficult to repair, such as aluminum or composites. If such components get damaged in a collision, they are likely to require replacement, says Ryan Mandell, director of claims performance for Mitchell, a collision repair specialist in the US. This, and the lack of established repair procedures generally, is swelling the overall insurance costs associated with EVs versus ICE vehicles. However, Mandell adds that the frequency of EV total write-offs is not, at the moment, exceeding those for comparable high-end ICE vehicles.

“We need clear instructions from the vehicle manufacturers in their repair manuals to say what kind of damage is permissible,” says Lauterwasser.

Simple Design Fixes

There is, perhaps, an abundance of caution at present. When a modern EV detects a collision, it can trigger the activation of a component called the pyro fuse, which severs the connection to the battery. If the collision is severe enough, air bags might deploy, too. Should that happen, says Lauterwasser, some manufacturers demand that the battery be replaced no matter its actual condition. He points out that the car could in theory run again simply by replacing the pyro fuse and any other damaged parts, rather than the entire (unscathed and very expensive) battery.

With some simple changes to vehicle design, such as additional protective shielding below batteries—or allowances for minor scratches so long as the battery can be shown to function safely and well—a great deal of the costs associated with EV repair could be eliminated, suggests Lauterwasser.

Some EVs have quirks that not all engineers know about, adds Eliot Smith, founder of Pro-Moto Europe, a business that trains mechanics in vehicle repair. He describes one older model of EV that, after some years, typically stopped drawing power from its battery.

“A little tiny component would fail and the battery wouldn’t switch on,” he says. But he and colleagues realized it was possible to replace this component and get the car running again. “It’s a 45p or £1.25 [$1.55] component.” At the time, though, it wasn’t one supplied by the manufacturer—the mechanics had to source it elsewhere.

Part Problems

Smith argues that manufacturers are currently being somewhat cagey about releasing part numbers or offering replacement parts for battery systems. This is to be expected while they grow their market share, he argues. (Smith used to work for a major carmaker himself.) Mechanics need access to these parts in order to build up the know-how required to fix up EVs when they get involved in accidents.

“We give them the skills. They just need the components,” says Smith. He gives a different example. With some EVs, you can’t just swap out individual damaged modules from within a battery. Some cars need to be reprogrammed to accept the new module because they won’t recognize it otherwise—a bit like giving immune-suppressing drugs to an organ transplant patient.

Even in cases where batteries have become waterlogged, it should be possible to dry them out, test them, and get them back on the road, says Smith. Recently, he helped a repairer to do this. The labor cost came to about £1,000 ($1,243)—but that was far less than the £12,000 (near $15,000) the carmaker had demanded for a brand-new battery.

WIRED approached multiple car manufacturers for comment for this story—many did not send a response. Cleevely noted the high cost of replacement parts for Tesla vehicles versus other brands. Tesla did not respond to our request for comment.

But some manufacturers were praised by Cleevely and others for their relative openness. A spokesman for BMW says, “We can confirm that BMW high-voltage batteries come with advanced diagnostic capabilities. Also, given their modular layout, they can be repaired, limiting work to just the affected part.”

Second Life for Batteries

Where have all the good batteries gone? Just because an insurer or car manufacturer won’t allow them to continue their life on the road doesn’t mean they go to waste. In Dorset, England, a business called Second Life EV Batteries is gathering up unwanted battery packs and selling them on to hobbyists and makers who use them for solar panel electricity storage systems, for instance.

There are even more exciting uses, too, says Paul Chaundy, founder and director: “Someone in France put them into a light aircraft.” The willingness to rip perfectly good batteries out of premium road vehicles is wrong-headed, he suggests, adding that he has a battery coming on the day we speak that has clocked only 2,000 miles.

Still, it’s a boon for his business. In the next couple of years, he’s hoping to launch a consumer-friendly energy storage device made with second-hand EV batteries. The increasing surplus of former EV batteries piling up around the country means that he can take his pick: “We’re finding, basically, they’re all in really good condition.”

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