While the world embraces plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles, South African car buyers are still opting for vehicles with internal combustion engines – is that in part because they’re perceived to be substantially cheaper? Anè Theron, motoring journalist at AutoTrader, notes this is not necessarily true.

“It’s far cheaper to maintain an electric vehicle (EV). So, while the purchase price of an EV may be higher than that of a vehicle with a combustion engine, the total cost of ownership may be quite similar,” Theron points out.

In fact, a recent study conducted at the Institute for Automotive Research (IFA) at the Nürtingen-Geislingen University in southern Germany concluded that EVs are 35% cheaper to maintain than their internal combustion-engined counterparts. According to the IFA, a typical small combustion-engined car would cost R54 046 (€3 650) to maintain over eight years (assuming the vehicle is doing about 8 000 km a year). In contrast, an EV would cost a mere R34 797 (€2 350).

Tesloop, an American company that is offering city-to-city shared-car transportation in Tesla vehicles, has reported similar findings. It recently published a case study comparing one particular Tesla Model S to a typical Mercedes-Benz S-Class. “During the first 300 000 miles, the total combined maintenance and fuel costs of the Tesla Model S were R122 430 ($10 492), with a total of 12 days in the shop. Of these costs, R80 515 ($6 900) was scheduled maintenance. The balance was attributed to headlight damage due to driving through deep water. Had this been a Mercedes S-Class, the scheduled routine maintenance and fuel would have been R1 003 529 ($86 000), with 112 days of servicing,” the company reveals.

But why is an EV so much cheaper to maintain? “An EV has an extremely simple motor, while internal combustion engines are made up of hundreds if not thousands of parts. With an EV, the only maintenance required is brakes, tyres, fluids and a battery health check,” explains Theron.

While maintenance costs are extremely low with an EV, so too are the running costs. The Nissan LEAF, for instance, requires a mere R19 of electricity to do a distance of 130 km.

So, maintenance and running costs are extremely low. But what about the costs of the battery?

Yes, batteries are currently very expensive and heavy too. But that’s about to change. According to Marco Bassi, general manager sales and marketing for Europe at Meritor, batteries are about to become lighter and cheaper. “In 2010, a 100 kWh-battery weighed about 1000 kg. Today, that same battery pack weighs about 667 kg. In 2025, that battery pack will weigh about 400 kg,” reveals Bassi. Pricing will follow the same pattern. “In 2009, a 100-kWh battery pack cost R1 400 274 ($120 000). Today, that same battery pack costs R291 723 ($25 000). In 2025, that battery pack will cost R175 034 ($15 000),” Bassi predicts.

As these changes happen, the EV will become an even more enticing prospect. Based on this, Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that 35% of global new car sales – 41 million a year – will be EVs in 2040, with one in four of all cars being an EV by then.

The message is clear: EVs are coming, as Theron concludes: “They may not be commonplace in South Africa right now, but the tide will turn – as motorists become aware of the benefits that they offer and battery prices come down. Don’t be surprised to see an EV in most parking lots within the next 10 years!”