Fixing Electric Cars: Will the Bill Be Big?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 15, 2011

Like Tom Magliozzi of Car Talk, I have great fondness for the 1963 Dodge Dart convertible. Unlike Tom, I still have mine and try to drive it regularly. I took it out recently, stopped at a yard sale, and as I was getting out saw a mouse running along the top of the driver's door. There's something surreal about that kind of experience. But it didn't surprise me, because scattered seeds and other debris have long suggested to me that mice love my Dart almost as much as I do.

I haven't seen any damage, but the folks aren't so lucky. A mouse, or maybe a rat, "made a meal" of the wiring harness in the company's Chevy Volt, which set them back a whopping $750. There's a lot of wiring in a plug-in hybrid, of course. The rodent they dubbed "Chilly" had evidently sought refuge in the engine compartment on a frigid night--because a plugged-in Volt warms up its battery when it's cold. They don't get heated accommodations in my Dart!

Ray Magliozzi, who didn't own a '63 Dart but certainly has vast experience with them, pointed out that, "If the mouse had eaten your wiring it wouldn't have cost any $750 to fix! That harness is pretty rudimentary." That, of course, is a benefit of owning an old Dart. I could probably rewire the thing myself with $5 worth of wire and some electrical tape.

Ouch. The Volt, post accident. The bill was $14,187. ( photo)
Ouch. The Volt, post accident. The bill was $14,187. ( photo)

Soon after the mouse incident, the repaired Volt was in a front-end collision that messed it up pretty good: The hood, grille and one headlight were dinged in, and both airbags deployed. But it doesn't look that bad. The bottom line, though, was way over the $10,500 estimate--$14,187. In addition to all the usual body work, repair man Ryan Tamblyn pointed out that the Volt has no less than five heat exchanger/radiators that had to be replaced, and an engine control module that needed to be re-programmed. The whole thing was complicated by some ordering snafus, which caused delays and added costs.

"In the end, the repairs were only about $2,181 more than if the car had been a Malibu," said senior editor Joe Wiesenfelder. "The numbers sound high, but for us it was a $1,000 insurance deductible. If the car had been a Malibu, it probably would have been totaled, but the Volt is a $41,000 car."

Might the repair folks have been over-zealous? Says Ray, who hasn't fixed any Volts yet, "If I were fixing one I might err on the side of caution, go overboard, and fix anything that even looked like it might be damaged. As we gain familiarity with these cars, though, the cost of repairs will come down. It will be a long time before they're as well understood as gasoline cars."

All three airbags deployed when the Volt crashed. ( photo)
All three airbags deployed when the Volt crashed. ( photo)

Here's another good point he brings up--electric cars are high-voltage machines, and in a bad accident some rescuers might get nervous about getting zapped. But companies like GM have thought of that kind of thing. The Volt was worse than it otherwise would have been because it's battery pack automatically disconnected in the crash when the airbags deployed, and a police cruiser ended up pushing it out of the way--scratching up the rear bumper. Now there's an unforeseen hazard! According to Wiesenfelder, GM also conducted special events for first responders on how to deal with--and cut into--a disabled Volt.

Evidence of what happens to EVs in crashes is rather thin on the ground, though this crash test of an Indian-made Reva G-Wiz makes it kind of clear you need to be really careful driving them. There are many of these cars on the road in England, where their EV status allows them to evade London's daily congestion charges. But Top Gear ran one into a table and the table won. (To be fair, some say the Top Gear table test was staged.) But here's the crash test:

Both the Volt and the Leaf got top, front, side, rear and rollover ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in independent crash tests. Take a look at the NBC video posted here and you can see the actual tests. One reason they did well, experts say, is that they weigh more than other small cars--and the extra mass is an advantage in accidents.

At the Detroit Auto Show early this year, I saw a crashed Volvo C30 electric that had survived a 30-mph frontal barrier collision. According to Volvo CEO Stefan Jacoby, "It's vital to separate the batteries from the EV's crumple zones to make it as safe as a conventional car. We are the first carmaker to show the world what a truly safe electric car looks like after a collision with high-speed impact." Here's what the electric Volvo looked like after a 30-mph head-on crash--pretty good survivability for those dummies:

I agree with Jacoby: isolating the battery pack is critical. And Ray pointed out that the best approach to accidents is to avoid them. That's more likely, he said, if EVs fight driver distraction with sophisticated adaptive cruise control aids like blind-spot monitoring and proximity detection. They push that tech on the radio show, and it's a really important addition to auto safety.

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