Why carmakers don't offer electric-car battery updates: costs don't pencil out

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2013 Tesla Model S and 2014 BMW i3, Hudson Valley, NY, Nov 2014

2013 Tesla Model S and 2014 BMW i3, Hudson Valley, NY, Nov 2014

It's a litany you hear often from the most ardent electric-car owners and advocates.

"Old car companies don't get it; they won't offer electric-car battery upgrades with higher capacity, so I'll never buy from them."

The response is simple: today, those upgrades would cost so much that almost no buyers would pay for them.

DON'T MISS: Tesla Roadster 3.0 340-mile battery upgrade now shipping (Jul 2016)

Today, you can count the number of car companies that offer higher-capacity battery upgrades on two fingers.

Those would be Tesla Motors, which is now shipping a new and larger battery pack to owners of its 2,500 Roadster two-seat models willing to pay the $29,000 cost.

That upgrade boosts range from an EPA-rated 245 miles for the original 53-kwh pack to roughly 340 miles for the new 70-kwh pack.

2011 Tesla Roadster Sport. Photo by Joe Nuxoll.

2011 Tesla Roadster Sport. Photo by Joe Nuxoll.

When the 2017 BMW i3 launched earlier this year, with new higher-capacity cells boosting its battery range from 81 to 114 miles, BMW noted in its release:

With the introduction of the new 94Ah battery, BMW gives BMW i customers the opportunity of retrofitting their purely electric BMW i3 (60 Ah) with the new 33 kWh battery as part of the a high-voltage retrofit program. This program is available in select markets.

BMW later specified that the U.S. would not be one of those markets—though in the same release it committed to using the traded-in packs for stationary storage in those markets where it did offer upgrades.

ALSO SEE: Nissan Leaf New Battery: $5,500 For Pack With Heat-Resistant Chemistry (Jun 2014)

The Nissan Leaf, which has sold more units to date than any other plug-in car in history, does not offer a higher-capacity pack upgrade.

The company's U.S. arm did offer to replace older 24-kwh packs in its earlier models with packs of a similar capacity using a new and more heat-resistant cell, but only for those customers whose packs had degraded significantly over a short period of time.

While it appears that the new 30-kwh pack fitted to some models of the 2016 Nissan Leaf occupies the same form factor as the older 24-kwh battery, Nissan has declined to respond to questions about whether it is physically possible to swap the new pack for an old one.

2016 Nissan Leaf

2016 Nissan Leaf

None of the other makers now offering plug-in cars of various types—including Audi, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Fiat, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Toyota, or Volkswagen, among others—has any battery upgrade program of any sort.

Carmakers are somewhere between baffled by and resistant to the idea of upgrades, noting that cars are not consumer electronic devices that get swapped out every 18 months.

Asked about the possibility of upgrading 2012-16 Ford vehicles from their disliked MyFordTouch infotainment system to the new Sync 3.0 interface, for instance, one Ford executive put the industry's view on post-sale upgrades best.

CHECK OUT: Electric-Car Buyers Expect Battery Upgrades To Be Available

"The upgrade path," he said firmly, "is a new vehicle."

Denise Gray, CEO of LG Chem Power, the U.S. battery group of the Korean conglomerate LG Chem, suggested in a January interview that this attitude may not last forever.

But it would require a radical rethink of a car's lifespan—and the automaker's business model, which is based simply on making and selling new vehicles at a profit.

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