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How Much Does it Cost to Repair an Electric Car?

Jun 08, 2023Jun 08, 2023

It's time to debunk the widely circulated idea that Teslas are being written off en masse after relatively minor accidents; and debunk, too, the idea that EVs and their batteries are leading to runaway repair costs.

Clickbait tends to smell. And when it comes to EV scaremongering, I detected something fishy about two tales being spread like gospel by media: First, that Teslas are being routinely totaled by insurers, even after relatively minor fender benders. Secondly, that collision repair costs for Teslas or other EVs are out of control.

As it turns out, none of those things are remotely true, as proven by analysis of every smash, bash, and insurance claim in America. In fact, gasoline cars are three times as likely to be totaled after an accident than a Tesla or other EV, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI). ICE models were written off after 18.4 percent of collisions, versus 6.1 percent for EVs. Sure, a new $60,000 Tesla can sustain more dollar damage before being totaled than a $30,000 Toyota. Yet even 2019-and-newer luxury ICE cars are written off after 7.1 percent of collisions, more than all EVs regardless of age or price.

The assertion that “EVs are being totaled left and right is the horror story that keeps insurers up at night,” said Ryan Mandell, director of claims performance for Mitchell, a top provider of data and software to insurers and the collision repair industry. “Has that happened? Yes. But the incidents are few and far between.”

As for the Model S, HLDI’s granular data puts the lie to anecdotal hatchet jobs: In 2019, owners of 2012-2019 Tesla Model S' logged 9,630 collision claims and saw 906 cars written off, or 9.4 percent of crashes. Conventional large ICE luxury sedans of identical model years were totaled after 14.2 percent of collisions. So much for the idea that salvage yards are filling with junked Teslas, whose ubiquity has them responsible for 75 percent of all EV collision reports.

And while EVs do rack up bigger body repair bills than the “average” gasoline model — again, a universe that includes older econoboxes — they’re often on direct par with ICE cars of comparable class and model year.

Tellingly, in a HLDI study of 11 models that offer both gasoline and fully electric versions — including the Hyundai Kona and Volvo XC40 — EV versions now cost a negligible two percent more to repair. For every such model, the gasoline version is significantly more likely to be written off after a wreck. Plug-in versions were also involved in 19 percent fewer collision claims, even after adjusting for mileage.

Matt Moore, HLDI senior vice president, said the apples-to-apples study proves electric tech per se “is clearly not the culprit” for burdensome repair costs.

Peering under these mangled skins reveals what’s really happening: Gas or electric, the cost of making any late-model car “good as new” has soared 30 percent in three years. The average repairable collision claim is on track to top a record $5,000 by year-end, according to Mitchell.

The culprit isn’t motors and batteries, but a modern fleet transformed by ever-more complex and luxurious models, including deluxe SUVs and pickups, Mandell said. All new cars bristle with safety sensors and driver assistance systems that protect and pamper occupants, but can make seemingly “simple” repairs a nightmare. Many bumpers must be entirely replaced after low-speed dings, due to potential liability if radar or other sensors are compromised by body repairs. Systems must be inspected or recalibrated.

“The modern digital architecture is so advanced, that systems beyond point of impact are being disrupted,” Mandell said. “Getting a car back to pre-loss condition is harder than at any point in history, and will only become more challenging.”

Throw in hefty insurance payouts for totaled cars, and last year’s average collision loss jumped to $8,739 for model year 2020-2022 cars. That’s nearly double the $4,439 loss in a 2013 HLDI study. Insurance premiums are soaring to keep pace, including a 17-percent jump over 12 months through May.

To be sure, wallet-busting stories are only a click away. Chris Apfelstadt never intended to be a public face of sticker-shock EV repair bills. But that’s what happened when Apfelstadt, driving his Rivian R1T pickup with his infant son aboard, was rear-ended in Columbus, OH in February. Apfelstadt received a $1,600 check from the insurance company of the Lexus driver who dented his truck. That check turned out light: Fixing the damage at a certified Rivian shop cost $42,000, roughly half the truck’s new value.

Some Tesla owners post YouTube tales of being blindsided by lofty repair estimates or notoriously long waits for parts and service. Those backlogs surely helped spur Elon Musk to create his secret “Diversion Team” to suppress and deny owners’ range complaints, and cancel all range-related service appointments — as team members celebrated each screw-you cancellation by pinging a metal xylophone.

Musk earlier acknowledged a need to “minimize the cost of repairing a Tesla if it’s in a collision” via changes to vehicle design and software. Stating the obvious, Musk said, "It's remarkable how small changes in the design of the bumper and providing spare parts needed for collision repair have an enormous effect on the repair cost.”

Design choices do matter. Apfelstadt’s incident dented the Rivian’s “unipanel,” an enormous sheet that extends from the truck’s rear to front roof pillars. Its repair set off a cascade of pricey work, including removing the interior headliner and front windshield, all for a dented rear corner.

Legacy scale brings advantages, but that’s not cut-and-dried. Ford counts 2,800 North American dealers that can repair EVs, along with a vast network of independent collision shops and aftermarket suppliers.

“A start-up might be supplying 100 fenders, where Ford has 100,000,” Mandell said.

Rivian has certified about 200 independent North American collision shops, and just three in Ohio where Apfelstadt sought his work. That makes it harder to shop for a reasonable price. And when insurance covers the tab, many owners just want the job done right, price be damned. Apfelstadt emphasized he was very happy with the like-new restoration of his Rivian.

Noe Mejia, Rivian’s vice-president of service operations, acknowledged “it’s a challenge that we’re newer to market.”

He said Rivian is focused on reducing repair costs, and that the company’s small size helps it work one-on-one with customers to find shops and ensure repairs and paint jobs meet luxury standards.

Apfelstadt’s experience aside, Rivian’s average collision losses are only running 47 percent higher than the average ICE pickup.

“For vehicles at the Rivian’s price point, that’s not unusual,” said Matt Moore, HLDI senior vice-president, with Rivian tech and luxury more akin to a Range Rover than an old-school truck. In fact, the Rivian’s collision losses have been no higher than, say, the Audi Q7’s, and well below luxury SUVs from Range Rover, Porsche, or a Mercedes G-Class.

Legacy scale, resources, and body-shop experience may be helping Ford: Mitchell shows repairable collision claims for the electric F-150 Lightning averaging $5,435, or less than the $5,850 for all half-ton ICE pickups. Rivian R1T claims are averaging $8,894. Yet for many spanking-new EVs — such as the Cadillac Lyriq, whose initial claims are just trickling in — Moore cautions that data is too sparse for blanket judgments. The Rivian R1T has seen barely 300 collision claims in America since its launch, versus more than 40,000 for a single trim level of the gasoline Ford F-150 over the same period.

Apfelstadt’s gut-punch Rivian tab “could point to trouble down the road, or it could be a fluke,” Moore said.

Moore said no collision data can conclusively judge a model’s susceptibility to damage or repairability. There are too many dizzying variables involved, from geography to the expertise of repair techs. The human factor brings the wildest card of all. Gasoline or electric, Moore says, one truth will remain: The more expensive, rare, and higher-performing the car, the higher the crash severities and financial losses, in part due to the Type-A drivers they attract and tempt into speeding and other risks.

Whether it’s a Corvette or Porsche Taycan, such pampered, agile models actually tend to get into fewer accidents, or “relative crash frequency.” But when they do crash, “They hit fast and hit hard,” Moore said. “Every collision is a mix of man and machine.”

Unsurprisingly, the ranks of cars with the worst crash severities (which directly correlate to financial losses) is a Who’s Who of low-volume, mega-priced models. The Ferrari F8 Tributo, McLaren 720S, and Porsche 911 Turbo produce vastly fewer claims on average than typical cars of the 2020-2022 model years. But their crash severities run from 10 to 13 times the industry average, with the Lamborghini Urus not far behind. That means an average loss of about $93,000 for every Porsche 911 Turbo S crash, $101,000 for the McLaren, and $117,000 for the Ferrari.

High-zoot EVs already seem to be, um, running into the same issue. Relative crash severities for the Porsche Taycan, Audi RS e-Tron GT and Lucid Air are running about three times the industry average — meaning they rack up more than $25,000 in losses per collision. (Remember, versus Mitchell’s data on individual collision repairs, these HLDI numbers skew higher by including insurance payouts for total losses).

The 2020-2022 Tesla Model S was involved in 23 percent more collision claims than average, and its average collision losses are double the average. That’s markedly higher on both fronts than nearly every non-performance luxury sedan. A long list of solid-citizen sedans, including the Acura TLX, Cadillac CT5, Lexus ES350, and Volvo S60 show collision severities barely higher than the industry baseline.

Oddly, the Tesla’s collision losses run 50 percent higher than a Cadillac CT5-V’s, suggesting some of that man-machine mix that Moore alludes to. (Considering those Autopilot wrecks, perhaps the “machine” here is playing a greater role, but who’s to say?). Yet while the Model S racks up stiffer bills than Acuras or Lexuses, those costs are smack atop an Audi S7 or standard BMW 8-Series; we’ll speculate that both the Model S and its owners dovetail more with faster German-car types than the Lexus crowd.

And all those listed EVs, including Model S, pale before several high-performance ICE cars, such as BMW’s M3, M4, and M8, whose collision losses run as high as 4.5 times the passenger-car average. Should we blame the twin-turbo V-8 under the M8’s hood, the Taycan’s sizzling electric motors, or the drivers behind the wheel? As Moore suggests, it’s a bit of both.

With all that, and local geography and driver demographics to boot, it’s clear how critical good data becomes to set insurance premiums. EV owners do tend to pay higher premiums, that may or may not fairly reflect repair costs. Experts say insurers almost surely price EVs higher for now due to risk uncertainty: EVs make up just 0.7 percent of America’s fleet, and 1.1 percent of crash claims. Musk has complained that Tesla premiums can be unreasonably high, and Tesla now offers its own insurance in several states to pressure insurers into offering competitive rates.

At first glance, EVs cost substantially more to fix, at $6,787 per collision versus $4,420 for cars of all model years in 2022. Mitchell's analysis shows EVs require more replacement parts than internal-combustion cars, often of the pricey electronic variety. EV fixes require nearly three more labor hours on average, including extra time for body refinishing and safely managing high-voltage systems.

Yet those costs again compare mainly newer EVs — dominated by luxury Teslas — versus tens of millions of conventional cars. Compare like-to-like, and Mitchell shows costs for mainstream EVs such as Hyundais average about $5,900 for 2018-and-newer models, versus $5,100 for ICE cars of identical model years. For Tesla and other premium EV brands, repair costs have fallen to direct par, at $7,045 for EVs and $6,987 for gasoline luxury cars. The Tesla Model 3’s average 2022 collision claim of $6,465 barely tops its gasoline Mercedes C-Class or BMW 3-Series rivals, and undercuts the Audi A4 at $6,760.

In the Seventies, the government briefly mandated that bumpers survive a 5-mph crash, which left many models looking like rubber-clad bumper cars. Moore said a similar approach doesn’t seem feasible today, due to wild variation in vehicle heights.

“To the extent we even have ‘bumpers,’ they don’t line up, and that’s a contributor to repair costs,” Moore said.

Data suggests the image of EV batteries being especially vulnerable is another myth. BMW and other automakers note that, after occupants, battery packs are the most-protected part of an EV. Automakers emphasize a collision severe enough to penetrate an armored pack would wreak havoc on any ICE car as well.

One financial calculation may lead insurers to write off certain EVs more often. Most Tesla models are worth roughly twice as much as comparable ICE cars at salvage auctions. Where there’s essentially zero market demand for, say, three-year-old Honda engines – since almost none are yet failing in customer cars – there’s a huge secondary market for Tesla batteries and motors.

In 2019, bidders paid nearly $18,000 on average for a wrecked Model 3 at auction, versus $8,450 for a conventional midsize luxury sedan. A Model S’ average salvage value is $21,000, versus $12,000 for the average car.

“That really alters the total loss equation,” Moore said, akin to supersport motorcycles with huge demand for salvaged engines.

David Rymarz, vice-president of data analytics for IAA, the national salvage company, said there is no meaningful gap in estimated repair costs for EVs and ICE cars that end up totaled, at a respective $43,000 and $44,000. But damage location can play a role in what cars end up under the auction paddle. Crunching an EV undercarriage has more potential for battery harm, where major structural damage typically results in a total loss. Yet “an EV could sustain a higher-speed front impact than an ICE and remain repairable,” Rymarz said.

Sandy Munro, the EV tear-down king of Munro and Associates, said many automakers and shops don’t yet have the resources, willingness or expertise to take on battery challenges.

Automakers say they are sensitive to EV repair costs and devote serious resources toward reducing them. BMW’s EV sensors record data on crash-force direction and intensity, helping guide technicians on which battery modules need replacement. Ford is setting up dealers to replace a damaged battery tray on the Mustang Mach-E and swap components into a new tray. A new GM process should let dealers repair and replace Ultium packs, including individual battery modules.

Munro acknowledges the skyrocketing price of sheetmetal surgery. He also asks for perspective. Regardless of powertrain, modern cars can absorb horrifying crash forces and let people walk away unscathed. Or, they avoid collisions entirely, thanks to the same cameras and sensors that make for trickier fixes.

“If nobody dies but we can’t fix that bumper, I don’t care about that,” Munro said. “It’s only scrap iron. The focus is rightly on the people inside and the efficiency of the car.”

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