Tech Insights

Is Planned Obsolescence a Concern for Electric Vehicles?

November 27, 2023 by Claire Turvill

Traditional gas-powered cars have been an example of planned obsolescence for nearly a century. As electric vehicle technology continues to emerge, will the EV industry follow the same trend?

The electric vehicle (EV) market is continually evolving as each year, several new models are released with increasingly impressive ranges. Currently, the longest mileage on a single charge among commercially available EVs is just over 500 miles, as advertised by the 2023 Lucid Air.


The 2023 Lucid Air EV advertises a 400+ mile range.

The 2023 Lucid Air EV advertises a 400+ mile range. Image used courtesy of Lucid Motors


Given the rapid advancements and competitive market of EVs and historical examples of planned obsolescence in the car industry, some are concerned about whether this might give rise to another form of planned obsolescence.


Planned Obsolescence in the Auto Industry

Planned obsolescence has been utilized for many years across various consumer goods. Automobiles historically serve as a clear example, with instances dating back to 1924.

Car manufacturers have used two forms of built-in obsolescence: continuous redesign and limiting spare parts availability. Initially, customers would be enticed by the latest model’s attractive and enhanced features, but within months the same car model would be released with more style, additional features, upgraded interiors, and improved engine performance. 

This strategy subtly convinces consumers that their recently purchased vehicle is outdated, out-of-fashion, and less fuel-efficient. Consequently, they trade it in for a newer car with the latest features. In this manner, consumers become ensnared in the manufacturers' web of built-in obsolescence.


Telsa Sued for Software Degradation

Tesla users are expressing concerns regarding a software update that has led to a decline in their vehicle's performance.

In a recent lawsuit, Tesla owners in the U.S. allege that a software update significantly reduced the effective range of their EV by over 20 percent. To fix the issue, they had to spend up to $15,000 to upgrade to new batteries.

The owners contend that these software updates were implemented without prior notice, specifically in Model S and Model X Teslas. Additionally, a few owners paid $500-750 to reduce the problematic update. 

This is not the first time Tesla owners have cited software update issues in their vehicles. Another case from 2019 alleged that a software restriction on the available kilowatt hours limited the capacity to charge the battery cells to their standard levels. 


Anticipating Planned Obsolescence in Electric Vehicles

This leads to speculation of what other issues may arise from planned obsolescence in EVs. 

Many technological advancements are happening in EVs, most notably in the full-charge range. The median range of EVs has grown 3.5 times since 2011. In 2011, the median range was 73 miles in the Nissan Leaf; in 2022, the Chevrolet Bolt was the mid-range vehicle with 247 miles on a full charge.


Average range of electric vehicles over time by powertrain, in kilometers. BEV - Battery Electric Vehicle; PHEV - Plug-in Electric Vehicle.

Average range of electric vehicles over time by powertrain, in kilometers. BEV - Battery Electric Vehicle; PHEV - Plug-in Electric Vehicle. Image used courtesy of International Energy Agency


EV Batteries and Range

The extended range of an EV is an exceptionally appealing aspect of any model. A greater range provides enhanced freedom and accessibility, particularly for individuals traveling longer distances.

Much of the available range depends on the battery technology. As battery technology advances, manufacturers can release higher-capacity, longer-lasting, and more energy-efficient batteries, thereby increasing the full charge range of their vehicles. 

Improvements in energy density, charging speeds, and thermal management systems are critical in expanding the capabilities of EVs and making them more competitive than traditional gas-powered cars.

In general, batteries are an instance of planned obsolescence. Laptops, mobile phones, and electric toothbrushes have lithium-ion batteries that typically last for only two to three years. Unfortunately, these batteries cannot be easily replaced, leaving no alternative but to purchase a replacement.

Similarly, along the lines of the Tesla software updates, EV manufacturers may design EV batteries with limited lifespan or capacity, leading to diminished performance and range over time. This encourages consumers to replace the entire battery or vehicle when the battery degrades significantly.


Residential Charging Stations

When homeowners choose a residential charger, they consider the system's speed and design.

The available speeds for home stations have significantly increased from slow chargers (3-6 kW per hour) to ultra-rapid chargers (50-350 kW per hour), putting early adopters in want of upgrades.

Currently, there isn't a one-size-fits-all charger for all EVs. The choice depends on location and region. Some new stations include the most common charger type, along with a Combined Charging System (CCS) charger, known for high-speed, ultra-rapid, AC, DC, and three-phase charging.


Most common charger plug types.

Most common charger plug types. Image used courtesy of Longevity Power


Chargers may not be an instance of planned obsolescence, but owners could be enticed to purchase new systems as technologies and models change. The costliest part of setting up an EV charging station is typically the groundwork for cable installation. It's also the most challenging to modify for future equipment changes.


Aesthetic Upgrades

Frequent changes in the exterior design or interior features can make older EVs appear less fashionable, prompting consumers to opt for the latest models.

As it exists in the regular car market, there is a risk of planned obsolescence in the style of each EV model released.

Additionally, as technologies continue to improve, manufacturers may introduce new EV models at an accelerated pace, making previous models seem outdated and less appealing to consumers.


Is Planned Obsolescence a Concern for EVs?

This article has outlined some ways planned obsolescence could become an issue within the EV market. However, aside from the Tesla lawsuit, there is little concrete data on whether or not it is a current manufacturing practice.

The most common concerns of EV owners are the lifespan of EV batteries, the effects on mileage range, and worries that batteries will not outlast the vehicles.

Ultimately, the technology for EVs is still growing and emerging. As it continues to do so, it is important for manufacturers to ensure their designs are easily reused or recycled. EVs are a significant advancement in reducing transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, but the environmental benefits can be undermined if the vehicle batteries are disposed of in landfills at the end of their life.