The (Wonderful) Downside of Electric Cars

It's a lovely problem to have.

Side view of a blue Nissan Leaf

Sami Grover

I’ve written regularly and enthusiastically about my 7+ years with a used Nissan Leaf. And for good reason. I firmly believe that purchasing this car is one of the single best things I have done for both my family finances and my own personal carbon footprint, in many years. (Yes, it’s used. Yes, I drive it as little as possible. And yes, I do own a bicycle.)

However, as my 2013 model starts to inch toward its 10-year mark, I am beginning to reflect more regularly on the one significant downside of electric vehicle ownership: And that’s the fact that I never have to take it to the shop. 

No oil changes. No transmission fluid to worry about. And none of the mechanical failures I have previously had to contend with in similarly-aged ICE vehicles. I mean, sure, once a year I do have to get it inspected. But other than that, the maintenance I have had to do on my weird-looking blue steed is little more than occasionally changing a tire, and once having to switch out the 12v battery that runs the accessories. Leaving aside the money I save on gas, I am pretty sure I have saved thousands over the years in maintenance costs alone. So what’s the problem? 

The issue is simply that I’m not one of those people who is organized enough to keep an eye on the recommended maintenance schedule. And that means nobody other than me is ever casting an eye on it to make sure it’s running as it should. Whereas my previous ICE cars would at least get a little mechanic love—and the potential to catch problems early—every time I took them in for an oil change, my low-maintenance Leaf can easily lull me into a false sense of security. (Remember, I’m the same dude that doesn’t know how to fix a flat on his bike.)

So that’s why I reached out to my mechanic brother-in-law to get his take on what a used electric car driver should keep an eye on, especially if they are rarely stopping by a mechanics shop. Here are the priorities he gave me, off the top of his head: 

  1. Have the alignment checked once a year
  2. Rotate tires every 6,000 miles
  3. Switch out the cabin air filter every 15,000 miles
  4. Other higher mileage items he recommends keeping an eye on are flushing antifreeze and brake fluids

Beyond that, there really is very little maintenance to be done, especially on an older EV like my dinky Nissan Leaf. My assumption is that some of the newer EVs require more regular software updates and other forms of care. Even brakes, which in theory would wear out just like on an ICE car, actually last much longer—because EV drivers tend to use regenerative braking (via the electric motor) to slow themselves down and capture as much energy as possible. 

That said, I did throw this question out to other electric car drivers who are still braving Twitter, and while all reported very low maintenance costs—some did flag up a few other issues they have had. One user, for example, reported that the original tires on the Leaf were terrible and they replaced several in the first years they had them. Another said that the aforementioned regenerative braking has turned out to be somewhat of a mixed blessing, as they developed some corrosion issues from so rarely having to use the actual brakes. And finally, more than one user said—quite kindly and subtly—that I should probably just get with the program and follow a regular maintenance schedule, just as you would with any other car. 

Given the fact that my 2013 Leaf is approaching its 10-year mark and shows few signs of slowing down yet, it appears to have survived my neglect and misuse fairly well so far. But because I would like to spread the embodied energy/emissions as thinly as I possibly can, I am hoping to keep driving it well past its predicted battery life of 100,000 miles and/or 10 years.

So I am adding this to my long list of New Year’s resolutions: I will finally act like a grown-up and give my trusty old car the maintenance and attention it deserves.