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If you’re among the millions of Canadians considering ditching your gas guzzler for an electric vehicle, a recent survey by Consumer Reports that prompted headlines like this one – “Electric vehicles less reliable on average than conventional cars and trucks”– may have you reconsidering that switch.

But it would be a mistake, I think, to read that headline and dismiss battery-powered cars as unreliable or somehow flawed. That’s simply not the case. There’s a lot more to the findings than the headlines would suggest, and they’re worth digging into, if only to understand why the reliability issue isn’t black and white.

“It is disingenuous to say that electric vehicles are less reliable, inherently, than combustion engine vehicles,” Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “It’s [also] disingenuous to look at the market and say that EVs – right now – are just as reliable as internal combustion engines because they’re not, but the reasons are nuanced and complicated,” he added.

Consumer Reports, a U.S.-based non-profit, compiles its annual reliability rankings from owner surveys, safety data and in-house testing. This year’s survey includes data on more than 330,000 vehicles. It’s a great resources for car shoppers, but only if they understand the results.

This year’s report prompted a predictable barrage of similar headlines that don’t look good for EVs. In addition to the one above, others included: “Electric vehicles have almost 80% more problems than gas-powered ones,” from CBS; “Electric Cars Are Far Less Reliable,” from Road & Track magazine; and “EVs struggle with reliability due to charging, battery issues,” from Reuters.

The negative headlines couldn’t come along at a worse time for EVs. High interest rates and the fact gas prices have come down from 2022′s scary $2-a-litre highs mean battery-powered cars don’t make as much financial sense as they did 12 months ago.

But as Fisher has explained in interviews with multiple news outlets, the reliability gap between EVs and gas-powered cars is fundamentally a teething problem. In other words, it’s a byproduct of the fact the EVs are still an emerging technology.

Of course, as a consumer, if you’d rather not endure the inconvenience with those teething issues – even if they’re covered under warranty – that’s perfectly reasonable. Just wait a few years to buy an EV until carmakers have worked out the bugs.

Based on the trends he’s seeing in Consumer Reports’ data, Fisher expects EVs will probably close the reliability gap and become even more reliable than gas-powered vehicles, “in the next several years.”

“That [reliability] gap is closing, and will continue to close as the automakers have either more experience making EVs, or some of the newer automakers just have more experience making vehicles in general,” Fisher said. “I would even go as far to say that, in the future, I would actually expect to see a reversal” with EVs becoming the more reliable cars.

The reliability problems stem from newness, more than anything. Upstart brands such as Rivian and Lucid are new at making cars. “They’re having issues that have, quite frankly, been resolved years ago by traditional automakers; just making sure the door handles work and the doors close properly,” Fisher said.

The survey found the reverse is true for long-running automakers like Ford and General Motors, which are very good at making functioning door handles but aren’t as experienced at making battery controllers, software or other EV-specific parts. “[Older automakers] are really just right now getting into mass-producing the batteries and the other electronics that are required,” he said.

None of those issues, he said, stem from any inherent weakness in electric powertrains.

In fact, batteries have so far proven to be very reliable. A large-scale study published earlier this year by Seattle-based battery analysis company Recurrent Motors Inc., looked at 15,000 EVs on the road in the United States and found that lithium-ion batteries are holding up extremely well. Only 1.5 per cent of the vehicles studied had to have their batteries replaced outside of a recall, and most of those replacements were covered under warranties. Among EVs that had been driven more than 160,000 kilometres, the study found the majority still had at least 90 per cent of their original range left.

The other big issue hurting EVs in Consumer Reports’ reliability rankings this year is the fact that so many EVs on the road today are high-end luxury vehicles. That means they’re the first vehicles to be equipped with cutting-edge gadgets, touchscreens or software features, and that means, as Fisher said, they’re going to have more reliability problems. Again, the real issue at play here is one of newness, something that will be solved over time (assuming, that is, more technology trickles down from the luxury market and becomes mainstream).

In other words, this year’s Consumer Reports results could also have run under the headlines “Expensive Luxury Cars Less Reliable Than Mainstream Models” or “New Vehicles Less Reliable than Older Models.”

“If we went out with the title, ‘Mainstream Vehicles are More Reliable,’ I don’t think you’d be talking to me. To be honest, I think that’s a title that we ran about 23 years ago,” Fisher said.

Despite their teething issues, EVs still cost less to maintain. In 2020, Consumer Reports found that “EVs cut repair and maintenance costs by 50 per cent over similar gas cars.”

The results of that study still hold true, Fisher said. If you buy an EV today, you may have to take it in for repairs a little more than you’d like, but it’ll still be cheaper to maintain, and fuel, than a gas burner.

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