Among the reasons that EVangelists tell us we should drive battery-electric vehicles is that they should be more reliable than traditional vehicles. Well, it turns out that they are actually less reliable than hybrids and gas-powered vehicles. Consumer Reports has just completed a study that sheds light on the difference between what EVangelists tell us should be true and what is actually true.
Potential Powertrain Trouble Areas
One way that Consumer Reports, along with many EVangelists, arrived at the prediction that battery-electrics should be more reliable is that they have fewer potential trouble areas. To many, the logic is as follows: Gas-powered cars have their trouble areas, and adding in a hybrid-electric system adds to the potential trouble areas.
With all due respect to Jake Fisher and the other qualified people at Consumer Reports, this is an incorrect assumption. The assumption fails due to its incorrect foundation that hybrid-electric vehicles simply add more things to go wrong. In fact, Toyota, the leader in hybrid-electric vehicles by a country mile, did not simply add more things when it designed its hybrids. Rather, Toyota changed the way gas engines were designed, built, and operated. In multiple cases, historically troublesome components in gas-only powertrains were designed out and replaced with more reliable, or “solid-state” type of more modern systems.
Here are specific examples. Take the timing belt. This is a moving part that is prone not only to potential wear and tear but also to possible defects. Toyota’s hybrids don't use timing belts, but rather, more reliable methods of timing the maintenance-free valves that have proven flawlessly reliable. Another example is the transmission and electric motors. Toyota didn’t simply “add electric motors” to its vehicles. Rather, the electric motors took the place of historically troublesome transmission components. Unlike most of its competitors, Toyota doesn’t use belted CVTs but rather a geared eCVT incorporating the hybrid's motors. This design has proven to be flawlessly reliable. Toyota's electric motor all-wheel-drive systems didn't add rear motors, but rather, the motors replaced the traditional differential and driveshaft. Accessory belts driving things like water pumps and AC compressors do not exist in Toyota’s hybrid-electric models. They were designed out and replaced with more reliable electric systems that have again proven reliable. There is no starter motor in a Toyota hybrid. That part is nonexistent in the brand's hybrid-electric vehicles because it is unnecessary, having been replaced by the hybrid system's motor-generators. Gone also is the alternator, designed out by Toyota and replaced by the hybrid charging system. In numerous cases, the hybrid-electric powertrain replaces troublesome components in the powertrain; it does not add to the list of things that can go wrong.
With a nod to the unusually qualified staff at Consumer Reports, many of whom hold the rare engineering degree in this business, they are wrong to simplify this issue by saying that hybrid-electric vehicles are just gas-powered cars with more potential trouble spots added on top. The truth is Toyota removed or replaced many of the gas-engine-related trouble spots, and that is why the company's products have proven to be the most reliable method of powertrain production.
The “EVs Are New” Excuse Perpetuated By Consumer Reports
One way that the Consumer Reports team tries to explain away the mistaken premise that “EVs have fewer trouble spots and should therefore be more reliable” is by saying that EVs are new. While this is certainly based on what Consumer Reports believes, it is not true. The first modern battery-electric vehicle crossovers were delivered to consumers 26 years ago when the first generation RAV4 EV debuted. Tesla is in its 21st year and its first EV was sold in 2008. GM’s Volt EREV and Nissan’s Leaf BEV arrived in 2010, and both companies are now on their third-generation EVs. The real reason that EVs are less reliable than gas-powered and hybrid-electric vehicles in the Consumer Reports study is that the companies who produce BEVs have rushed their products to market rather than design, test, redesign, repeat endlessly to get the vehicles right.
Why PHEVs Are Last But Also First In Reliability
Consumer Reports’ survey respondents place plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles last on the powertrain list with regard to reliability. However, Consumer Reports has a bit of a problem here. Watch the dialogue in the video between the three Consumer Reports experts as they discuss plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles. They repeatedly point out that the Toyota RAV4 Prime and Toyota Prius Prime are among the most reliable vehicles produced in the world today and in human history. So where is the disconnect between the fact Toyota’s PHEVs (called Primes by Toyota) are the most reliable according to these experts and the survey data that point to PHEVs as least? It is because there are some very unreliable PHEVs being sold. Jeep and Chrysler PHEVs both appear on Consumer Reports’ list of the least reliable vehicles. With full respect to Jeep and Chrysler, could the brand be the problem here and not the underlying type of technology? Their gas-powered models are also ranked lowest in reliability.
What Consumer Reports Survey Data Actually Proves vs. What Some Wish It Would Prove
The data point to the brand being much more important than the underlying technology. Take electric vehicles. If we use the Rivan R1T, which is named one of the ten least reliable vehicles by Consumer Reports, EVs seem badly flawed. After all, Rivian only produces BEVs. Should a bad design be our assumption for the brand's quality failures? No. There are also hybrids, PHEVs, and gas cars on the list of least reliable vehicles.
The brand matters most, and that is proven by Consumer Reports’ listing of the most reliable brands. Toyota, the only brand delivering BEVs, PHEVs, Hybrids, gas-only, and fuel cell-powered vehicles, is second to its Lexus brand overall in reliability at the very top. Tesla is ranked with the mediocre brands in 14th, and Rivan is ranked 28th - almost last. The charts show that a brand’s attention to quality, durability, and reliability that matters most, not the powertrain technology type.
Our Take - Consumer Reports Missed a Golden Opportunity To Bust a Myth
This study is just one more data point among many proving factually that electric vehicles are not everything their advocates wish they were. Prior studies by Consumer Reports and AAA disproved the Battery-electric vehicle maintenance cost advantage myth, and anyone who lives near Metro Boston knows that hybrids can cost less to power than battery-electric vehicles.
Consumer Reports had the opportunity here to dive deeply into why Toyota’s hybrid-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles are so reliable, but did not. That’s a shame. As any good engineer knows, the true reason why Toyota’s hybrid-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are the most reliable types of vehicles is that they do not actually have “more potential trouble spots,” because the trouble spots were intentionally designed away. In addition, Toyota takes more time to work the bugs out of its vehicles before releasing them for sale than do other brands. Finally, Toyota’s manufacturing quality has been at the forefront of the industry for most of a century. Toyota's long standing philosophy of putting quality durability and reliability first as the foundation of its business yields reliable vehicles - whatever the powertrain. Other brands have chosen other focus areas such as style, performance, virtue signaling, and a dogmatic approach to one type of powertrain.
EVs may someday prove to be the most reliable type of vehicle, but as of now, more than 26 years into the modern age of BEVs, companies that make only BEVs rank mid-pack or bottom of the barrel when it comes to what many consumers think of first when they shop - reliability.
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John Goreham is an experienced New England Motor Press Association member and expert vehicle tester. John completed an engineering program with a focus on electric vehicles, followed by two decades of work in high-tech, biopharma, and the automotive supply chain before becoming a news contributor. In addition to his eleven years of work at Torque News, John has published thousands of articles and reviews at American news outlets. He is known for offering unfiltered opinions on vehicle topics. You can follow John on Twitter, and connect with him at Linkedin.
Top of page image showing RAV4 Hybrid next to RAV4 Prime courtesy of Kate Silbaugh.