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Electric car batteries explained

Learn about electric car batteries: from how they work and how long they last, to EV battery range, leasing and what happens at the end of their life cycle.

Lex Kristan

Additional words by: Lex Kristan

Last updated on 20 June 2022 | 0 min read

New technology always results in new questions to be asked, and electric car batteries are no different. For example: how long will electric car batteries hold their charge for? How long will they last before they need replacing? Can they be recycled? And, how long do they take to charge these days?
Electric car technology is constantly evolving, so let’s dive in and take a fresh look at the latest tech in electric car batteries – including top maintenance techniques to prolong your battery’s lifespan and how to get the most for your money. Jump to: • How do electric car batteries work?How long do electric car batteries last?Electric car battery jargon: kWh, Ah and battery typesElectric car battery life: maintaining, replacing and warrantiesUsed electric car batteriesLeasing or buying electric car batteriesCan you recycle electric car batteries?

How do electric car batteries work?

For most of this article, we’ll be talking about battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), commonly called electric vehicles (EVs) or electric cars. We’ve compiled a list of all the EV terms you might come across to help you get your head around electric car jargon here.
Starting with the very basics: battery electric vehicles run purely off electricity, and that electricity is stored in a battery pack in the car. The electricity stored in this battery pack is used to power the electric motor, which turns the wheels when you drive. Easy.

How do electric car batteries charge?

When your electric car battery depletes, it’ll need to be recharged – normally from the grid. To access the grid power, you’ll need to use either a wall socket or a dedicated EV charging unit.
You can charge your electric vehicle at home, which is often cheaper and more convenient. Here’s how to work out how much it will cost to charge an electric car at home. If your home doesn’t support EV charging units, or you need to charge when you’re on the go, then you can use chargers made available in public or at work. You can check out Auto Trader’s electric car charging point map here. How long it takes an electric car battery to charge will depend on the size of the battery and speed of the charging point. Learn more about how to charge an electric car.
White Mercedes Benz EQC charging
Mercedes Benz EQC charging
White Porsche Taycan charging in a blue public charging spot
Porsche Taycan charging in public

How long do electric car batteries last?

The electric car battery has been designed to withstand the test of time, and whilst manufacturers typically offer warranties of around eight to 10 years and/or 100,000 miles, many EV batteries last twice as long. This is comparable with the lifespan of conventional petrol or diesel cars.
As an EV battery degrades, performance remains relatively unscathed, although the number of miles you’ll be able to travel without recharging will lessen. The distance a battery will take you between charges is generally referred to as its range. The range of an electric car varies by make and model, but you can generally expect to travel around 200 miles in a modern electric car before you need to recharge. There are some EVs that even have a 450+ mile range, such as the Mercedes EQS. Learn more about an electric car’s range. Electric cars often include energy-saving features to help prolong a battery’s charge. These can include “idling” (where the car turns off when stopped to prevent wasted energy) and “regenerative braking” (where the battery charges when you brake). Keep an eye out for those if you’re shopping for a new electric car.
Audi E-Tron parked against a dusky sunset
Audi E-Tron

The science behind electric car batteries

When you start looking at electric cars, you’ll come across some technical terms, like kilowatt-hours (kWh) and ampere hours (Ah).
These are used to explain the capacity of the batteries, which is how much power they hold (and so how much you can use before you need to recharge). If it's been a while since you took your last science exam (same here), then here's a refresh on what they all mean.

What are kilowatt hours?

So, in a real-world example, if you drive a Tesla Model S with a 75 kWh battery and a range of 230 miles, you should get around 32.6 kWh per hundred miles. Confusingly there is no standard measure for efficiency in EVs and, depending on the manufacturer, you may encounter miles/kWh or kWh/100km (or kWh/100 miles) on your trip computer. You’ll probably get used to whichever your EV uses pretty quickly, and the mental arithmetic for working out how much range you’ll get for your kWh quickly becomes second nature.

What are ampere hours?

If an electric car’s capacity isn’t specified in kWh, it’ll likely be listed in ampere hours (Ah). Ampere hours measure the charge delivered by the battery, and kilowatt-hours measure the energy delivered.
If you’re comparing models, then look at the battery’s voltage and use this calculation: current in Amps x voltage = power in Watts. (Don’t forget a kilowatt is 1,000 Watts.)
EV dashboard showing the mileage and battery capacity
EV dashboard
Silver Mercedes Benz EQC driving through a city
Mercedes Benz EQC

Types of electric car battery

There are four main kinds of batteries used in electric cars: lithium-ion, nickel-metal hydride (NiMH), lead-acid, and ultracapacitors. Lithium-ion batteries are the current standard and offer a longer range and retain energy better than their predecessors.

What are solid state batteries?

If you're swotting up on electric cars, you might hear a bit of buzz about solid state batteries. Solid state batteries are a new technology in development that has been tipped to revolutionise electric cars, in the hope of cutting the full charge time to around 10 minutes whilst doubling range in some cases.
Solid state batteries are likely to be smaller and reasonably cheaper too, meaning the EVs of the future could be more affordable. Solid state batteries could also be a game changer for more extreme climates where EV range is hindered by the extreme cold or heat. Manufacturers are keen to get behind the initiative and BMW, Toyota and Volkswagen are currently set to start mass-producing solid-state batteries by the mid-2020s, so keep an eye out for developments in this area.
Volvo XC40 Recharge in Glacier Silver
Volvo XC40
Blue Ford Mustang Mach-e
Blue Ford Mustang Mach-e

Extend your electric car’s battery life

How long your battery lasts (its lifespan) will depend on a number of factors, including how often it’s charged.
Deterioration occurs faster if you fully charge or completely deplete your EV’s battery. Why? Well, recharging the battery generates heat, and too much heat (caused by keeping your electric car fully charged) can damage the battery over time, whilst driving your EV until it’s totally out of juice puts unnecessary strain on the battery which can also cause long term damage. You can extend the lifespan of most EV batteries by keeping them charged between 50 per cent and 80 per cent as much as possible. To assist this, some electric cars stop charging altogether when they reach capacity. Others slow down their charging for the last 20 per cent, which is why public charging points often quote the time it takes to charge a car to 80 per cent. There are other ways to prolong your battery’s lifespan, including: • Keep an even temperature – extreme hot or cold can negatively affect the battery’s range and its lifespan • Don’t rely on fast chargers – they’re fine to use when needed, but a slow charge is better for your battery in the long term. • Keep an eye on your speed - aggressive acceleration also speeds up battery wear, reducing the range between charges, so it’s much better to take things easy on the road. • Avoid charging your car straight after a long drive – give the batteries chance to cool down first.
Close up of a white Nissan Leaf's badge
Nissan Leaf
Close up of a white Nissan Leaf's interior
Nissan Leaf

Electric car battery warranty

Still a bit nervous about trusting a battery to get you around? You're not the only one, which is why many manufacturers are offering electric car battery warranties for added peace of mind.
The length and details of the warranty will depend on the car manufacturer, so make sure that’s on your list of questions to ask when you’re close to buying an electric car. Most manufacturers, including Nissan and Toyota, offer an eight-year (or 100,000 miles) warranty on their electric car batteries. This normally covers the battery degrading to a certain degree, so you should be well covered.

Will I need to replace an electric car battery?

Most electric car batteries last at least 10 years - a full decade. Some last up to 20 years, so don’t worry too much about the cost of replacing the battery before you’ve even bought a new car - how many of us drive the same car for 20 years?
That said, there may be other reasons your battery needs replacing. Leaving your battery flat and your car out of use could result in the battery pack no longer accepting charge (this is called bricking), but a lot of EVs have systems that prevent the battery fully depleting. It's natural for a battery to lose its capacity over time. This is often due to extended use, and can be slowed by taking good care of the battery. In the event of a battery fault, consult your warranty first.
White Polestar 2 (2020 edition) parked against a storage unit
Polestar 2 2020

How do I know if my electric car battery needs replacing?

It’s a good idea to monitor the health of your car’s battery, as without it you won’t be getting far. There are generally tell-tale signs to let you know your battery’s life is coming to an end, so keep an eye out for these:

Dashboard warning symbol

The most obvious sign that your battery needs replacing would be an illuminated battery symbol on your dashboard, indicating a fault. This should not be overlooked, especially if it stays on whilst driving. The last thing you need is to be stranded in the middle of nowhere, so if it pops up, get it checked as soon as you can.

Electrical issues

The battery doesn’t just start up your car, it’s responsible for all your car’s electrics, from the lights to the computer system and even that handy charger port for your phone. If you start noticing issues with the electrics, for example the lights dimming or a loss of electrical power to, say, your heaters, you might want to get it checked out.
Renault Zoe
Renault Zoe
Ford Mustang Mach-E in black
Ford Mustang Mach-E in black

Used electric car batteries

If electric car batteries last between 10 and 20 years, does that mean the used electric car market is a game of roulette with battery quality?
Not really, but if you’re thinking of buying a used electric car, you should factor in the battery that comes provided. If the car is a few years old, you might (but not always) have more of an issue with how well the battery keeps it charge. Replacing the battery could cost a lot of money – at which point you have to consider the pros and cons of leasing versus buying an electric car battery (which we'll cover in a minute). Look into testing the electric car battery's health as part of the test drive, or explore your extended car warranty options cover an electric car battery.

What to look for in a used electric car battery

If the car has been driven regularly, and the battery has been correctly charged and discharged, it should be in decent condition. However, the battery may have a shorter lifespan if it’s been charged a lot using a rapid charger or frequently left to go flat.
Older electric car batteries don’t tend to hold their value as well, so although buying a used electric car might be relatively affordable – you should also factor in the cost of replacing the battery or leasing a battery on top of the price of purchasing the car, just in case it’s needed. Don’t let this deter you though. Most electric batteries come with a separate warranty, which will likely last at least five years (with most having eight years) so that should offer some peace of mind. Check with the seller about how long there is left on the warranty and try asking them about their charging history too.
Skoda Enyaq in Silver
Skoda Enyaq in Silver
Light blue electric Fiat 500
Light blue electric Fiat 500

Buying or leasing an electric car battery

Battery leasing has declined over the years as advances in new battery technology for electric cars means that few manufacturers still offer it as an option, although you may still face this decision when buying an older used EV model.
However, the global EV market is evolving; battery swapping, a revolutionary alternative to cable-based recharging, is sweeping across Asia and has even spread to Norway. The idea was once championed by EV giant Tesla and although battery swapping isn’t currently available in the UK, Chinese manufacturer Nio has developed a fast alternative to recharging EVs, meaning ownership of electric car batteries could soon be a hot topic in the UK again. Read more about battery swapping here

Should I lease an electric car battery?

One advantage of leasing is that you don’t need to worry about replacing the battery if it’s faulty or it’s at the end of its life, which could be good for much older EVs.
The downside, depending on your budgeting, is you’ll have to pay monthly. How much it costs to lease an electric car battery will depend on the length of the lease and annual mileage, but on average you’d pay between £50 and £100 per month.
Battery check during servicing
Battery check during servicing
Red Ford Mustang Mach-E
Red Ford Mustang Mach-E

Should I buy an electric car battery?

Buying an electric car battery means there’s no monthly lease fee and no mileage cap. You will, however, have to pay for a new one (and they’re not that cheap) if there’s a fault after the warranty is up.
But how much exactly is an electric car battery to buy new? In 2021 the average cost of an EV battery was around £87 per kWh, which would mean that the cost of a new Tesla Model S battery alone would be close to £8,870, and that’s not factoring in the costs to have it replaced by a professional. Luckily for you, most manufacturers provide a warranty of up to 10 years, and some have even been known to last up to 20 years, so it’s unlikely that you’ll have to fork out for a new one.

What to consider when buying or leasing electric car batteries

If you do have the choice between buying or leasing, you’ll need to look at the specific make and model and weigh up what works best for your budget and driving styles.
You should also consider the battery’s lifespan, plus any warranty or protection schemes it comes with, and the cost of replacing it should you need to.
BMW i3 interior
BMW i3 interior
Porsche Taycan interior
Porsche Taycan interior

Are electric car batteries expensive to run?

Overall, electric cars are cheaper to fuel than petrol or diesel cars. As they have fewer parts, they’re cheaper to service too.
But they can cost more to insure, and your monthly costs can go up further if you’re leasing a battery, so write everything down and work out how much the specific car you’re looking at would cost in total. Or, work out your budget first and find a car that fits. There’s a good choice available now, so you’ll likely find one you can afford. See how much it costs to charge an electric car here. For a guide to the cost of buying an electric car, take a look at Compare the Market's handy Global EV Index, which compares the price of the Nissan Leaf across the world.

Are electric car batteries bad for the environment?

Battery electric vehicles don’t produce any tailpipe emissions like carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, so they’re definitely cleaner. Of course, this doesn’t mean EVs don’t have a carbon footprint – pretty much everything does.
Generating the electricity needed to power EVs can produce pollution and may also produce greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. The amount of pollution created depends on how the electricity is made, with renewable energy sources like wind and solar power being among the cleanest. Studies have found that battery-electric cars produce the least pollution in their lifetime (from being built to being scrapped) so, while they’re not perfect, they are the eco-friendliest option – and that’s right now. The future of EV batteries looks much brighter. Related: How green are electric cars?.
Zipcharge portable electric car charger
Zipcharge portable electric car charger
Kia EV6
Kia EV6

Can you recycle electric car batteries?

The actual lifespan of an EV battery is longer than you’d think because they face quite strict criteria – such as holding at least 80 per cent of their charge over a certain period of time and discharging less than five per cent when resting. Each manufacturer has its own warranty stipulations such as within seven or eight years and a mileage limit of 100,000 miles, for example, so it’s a good idea to get familiar with the small print or you might end up having to fork out for one yourself.
Mass disposal of electric car batteries is often prevented by regulation, and rightly so. Instead, the battery can be re-used or recycled.

Re-using electric car batteries

Some batteries are already being re-used as energy storage units or back-up batteries for buildings, and there’s currently lots of research going into other ways they can be repurposed when they are no longer suitable to power your car.
Manufacturers have already started taking initiative in this area, putting plans into place to keep EV batteries fed back into the energy cycle of their own factories, creating a closed-loop system for repurposing and recycling. Factories in the future could be powered by the repurposed batteries they originally created – imagine that!

Recycling electric car batteries

When EV batteries reach the end of their functional life, they can be stripped for valuable materials including lithium salts and cobalt, meaning we don’t have to solely rely on the extraction of new raw materials out of the earth.
Tesla already recycles batteries from its vehicles, addressing the issue directly on its website, explaining that none of their lithium-ion batteries go to landfill and that 100 per cent are recycled. Volkswagen’s pilot recycling plant for used electric car batteries has also begun operations with a target of recycling over 90 per cent of its batteries in the future. In late 2021, Northvolt produced its first battery cell made “100 per cent from recycled nickel, manganese, and cobalt,” which is a huge step forward towards sustainability for the automotive industry, with the company announcing plans to recycle a whopping 125,000 tonnes of batteries each year in the future. There’s still a way to go, with only approximately half of the materials in an EV battery pack currently being recycled, but hopefully this will continue to improve over the next decade as we move into the electric era.
Charging an electric car via cable
Charging an electric car via cable
EV charging Hyper Hub opened in York
EV charging Hyper Hub opened in York

Buy your next electric car on Auto Trader

Are you on the lookout for your next electric car? Browse the UK’s largest online marketplace for EVs on Auto Trader now. With more choice available than anywhere else, you might just find the perfect EV for you.