Is there a looming trash crisis?
Will our sudden appetite for electric-powered everything cause a trash crisis?
I have designed many innovative and successful products over my long engineering career, so when I started my own manufacturing company 25 years ago, it was with the premise that all products carry a lifetime warranty, no questions asked. This forced me to think about longevity in design. It forced me to think about new upgraded components and products compatible with older products so I didn’t have to stockpile obsolete parts. This philosophy has served me very well, and my company has been very successful. I’m not the only one, however, as there are many products that have been designed around that philosophy and have done very well in the market. Not surprisingly, it’s the products that aren’t designed with longevity in mind that eventually disappear from the market.
I also started and owned a bicycle retail store specializing in distance and competitive cycling. Mechanical bikes could last for decades, and as drivetrains and parts become obsolete, the bicycle could easily be upgraded with new components.
No more. Electric-assist bicycles (e-bikes) have almost taken over the industry. There has been no attempt at industry standardization so each e-bike has its own customized and integrated battery, computer, motor, and wiring harnesses. All from China.
The bike shop I started 15 years ago is just now starting to feel the effects. When an e-bike that is only a few years old fails, it is incredibly difficult (often impossible) to find parts. You can no longer pick a standard replacement shifter, chain ring, or derailleur off the shelf and send the customer happily on his way in a day or two, but instead we are at the mercy of the manufacturer’s unique design incompatible with anything else. When the bike can’t be fixed, it’s useless to anyone. E-bikes, therefore, will only have a useful life no longer than the availability of all the parts to fix it, which is only 7-10 years at best.
Now let’s apply this observation to electric vehicles. The price tag to replace batteries on most real-world experience is five digits. This is typically far more than the value of the vehicle at 100,000 miles, so it is usually no longer economically feasible to replace. This site works hard to claim it’s no big deal, that batteries will cost less in future years, and that aftermarket competition will drive price down, but it also admits they’re only good for eight years or 100,000 miles.
Carfax as well as other sites claim the average vehicle depreciation rate is about 20% in the first year, and 15% per year after that, so let’s do the math; A Chevy Bolt costs that costs around $28,000 new will be worth about $7,200 in 8 years, $5,200 in 10 years. The cost to replace the battery? $16,000. People should be lining up for that deal, right? Therefore, the useful life of an EV? Pushing it… maybe 10 years. Then it's scrap.
I’m old enough to remember when the odometer on vehicles only had five places because exceeding 100,000 miles was a rare occurrence indeed. That changed a few decades ago, and now most vehicles (with proper care) will see 200,000 miles or more. My own Toyota Tacoma is nearly 20 years old, and has 250,000 miles on it. It will last me another 10 years at least, even in this corrosive northern climate. It still runs great and I have spent only a fraction of its resale value on repairs over time. No EV could come close to that kind of longevity or cost-effectiveness. We may as well go back to five-place odometers.
Bottom line; with engineers and designers no longer prioritizing longevity and with consumers not thinking (and buying) based on life-cycle cost it is inevitable that we are facing a looming trash crisis of not only rechargeable batteries but all of the wheeled carriers of those batteries. Are we ready to handle that?
Pete Colan is a successful inventor and entrepreneur residing in northern Indiana with eight patents in the aerospace and bicycle industries.