The shift to EVs will affect our choice of vehicles and the way people drive. But in the long term, the way owners get them serviced and repaired will be similar to the way things currently are for gas-engine cars. And despite promises made by many EV automakers and salespeople, EVs will need repairs. So far, most new models aren’t very reliable.

EVs won’t put independent shops out of business.

Most EVs on the road today were made within the last few years and therefore still covered by manufacturers’ warranties. This means that most repairs are being done for free by automakers’ affiliated dealerships or shops. But what happens after warranties expire?

Because repairs account for a large portion of automakers’ and their dealerships’ revenue, manufacturers push customers to use them even for out-of-warranty services. Companies like Tesla, which don’t have dealerships, urge their customers to get repairs from its mobile mechanics (who mostly deal with small problems) or at company-owned facilities.

But compared to dealerships, our surveys of consumers and price checks find that independent shops have lower prices and tend to do better work. When paying out of pocket, many car owners would rather rely on independents. The good news is that many independents will soon repair EVs, or already do so.

Although EVs contain some different technology than gas-engine models, overall there’s nothing that would prevent independent shops from repairing them. Our researchers asked hundreds of local shops which makes of cars they work on. When we asked about EVs, some said they would repair brake or suspension systems, but few would tackle electrical repairs or deal with faulty batteries. This isn’t surprising: Again, most EVs are still under warranty for those types of issues, and independent shops aren’t getting many (or any) customers asking them to address these types of problems. Because demand isn’t yet high enough for them to tool up to handle many types of problems unique to EVs, they’re sticking with jobs that they already know how to tackle.

But many shop owners told us that as time passes they expect to take on all types of EV repairs. Some noted that they began working on hybrid vehicles a few years after those models were introduced, and expect a similar transition once EV warranties expire.

Although all automakers seek to maximize revenue from repair work, EV manufacturers won’t put independent shops out of business. There are too many repairs for automakers or their dealers to handle on their own. Tesla already has (somewhat quietly) enlisted General Motors dealerships to do some of its in-warranty repairs. It also sells replacement parts, provides any shop or car owner a free scan tool, and shares technical info via a $3,000 annual subscription.

Still, EV repairs can be costly. Hertz recently cited high repair costs as one reason it was selling off much of its EV fleet. EV batteries are especially expensive to repair or replace, although they’ve so far proven reliable and long-lasting, and automakers provide 10-year warranties for them and some other charging components. And the cost of all EV repairs should decrease as third-party companies begin building aftermarket replacement parts and more independent shops get involved. As with any business, costs get scaled with larger demand.

EVs eventually will need less maintenance and fewer repairs, but not until manufacturers learn how to build more reliable rides.

EVs have no oil or sparkplugs to change, no fluids to flush, and fewer moving parts (starters, belts, pumps, or transmissions) to wear out. Because there’s no combustion, there are no catalytic converters or mufflers. Although EVs should need less maintenance and fewer repairs than cars with internal combustion engines, so far many available EV models aren’t very reliable.

Consumer Reports tests hundreds of new models and regularly surveys its members about repairs and overall satisfaction. At the time of this writing, CR reported its “predicted reliability” score for 33 EV models (not including hybrids or plug-in hybrids): Only four received “very good” or better marks, and 15 received grades of “fair.” None received CR’s highest rating for reliability; two received its lowest rating.

Dismal reliability records have been an ongoing problem for all EV manufacturers. CR noted that, “on average, EVs from the past three model years had 79 percent more problems than conventional cars.”

Steven Elek, CR’s senior automotive data analyst, told Checkbook that most EV manufacturers are plagued by usual “growing pains” associated with working with new technology.

So far, “it’s a tale of two cities when it comes to EV reliability problems,” said Elek. Startups like Tesla and Rivian are doing better jobs than legacy automakers (Ford, GM, VW, BMW, etc.) of building batteries and writing software unique to EVs, but they haven’t yet figured out how to build reliable rides. “A lot of Tesla’s problems have to do with things like excessive noise and leaks. You see similar problems with Rivian and other startups. The build quality isn’t there yet,” said Elek. On the other hand, “Legacy automakers have different problems. They haven’t figured out powertrain and charging issues.”

Elek thinks the larger issue is one of resource allocation. Legacy automakers still employ thousands of engineers with decades of experience designing and building new cars but don’t have as many software and electrical engineers. That means that these manufacturers are playing catchup on learning how to build better batteries and more reliable electrical motors, and solving charging issues. Elek also noted that legacy automakers are having big problems designing new climate-control systems, which in EVs work completely differently than in internal-combustion vehicles.

On the other hand, companies like Tesla, Rivian, and Polestar, which build only EVs, were organized more as tech startups; while they have recruited talented programmers, they don’t yet have tried-and-true blueprints for building sturdy cars. So while they’re doing better jobs of dealing with software, electrical, and charging issues, they’re still struggling with build-quality problems.

“Each model has a story of its own,” said Elek. For example, “Hyundai seemed to be on a good trend. But we’re now seeing onboard chargers aren’t working.”

As all automakers continue to address problems and improve their designs, repair rates should improve. Tesla, for example, has been building EVs for more than 10 years. Among all automakers, Tesla still falls in the middle of the pack in CR’s ratings. Elek noted that although Tesla has the most experience designing and building EVs, it continues to work through problems related to build-quality issues, such as latches and paint. But last year CR for the first time recommended its Model Y, which it has been selling since 2020, and CR has for years recommended the Tesla Model 3. CR’s most recent report on EVs noted that “Tesla’s Model 3 and Model Y are now the sweet spot in the automotive industry when it comes to building electric cars.”

Elek predicts that automakers struggling with reliability issues will improve soon. “We usually see this. They eventually figure it out.”

Elek also thinks that legacy automakers likely will solve their problems faster than the startups. Ford, GM, BMW, etc., have been building cars for 100 years and have tremendous engineering resources to throw at their problems. Plus, overall they have fewer technology problems to conquer, which should allow them to learn and adapt faster than companies starting from scratch.