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Feb 20, 2013

Going the Distance: Range Anxiety Overlooks EVs’ Sweet Spot


Picture of an EVThere’s a famous clip from the sitcom Seinfeld, where Kramer takes a car out for a test drive and—with a nervous but eventually supportive salesman in the passenger seat—sees just how far he can drive with the needle dipping well below “E” on the fuel gauge. Together they stared the gas tank’s range (and the potential of the engine stalling on the highway) squarely in the face, braving the prospect of getting stranded by the roadside.

In the past two weeks, a related but very different saga has played out in the world of electric vehicles. On February 8, the New York Times published the article “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway.” Automotive writer John Broder set out in a Tesla Model S—with an EPA-rated range of 265 miles and an unofficial range of 300 miles or more—with the intention of driving from Washington, D.C. to Boston, using Tesla’s network of East Coast Superchargers along the way.

Broder’s trip was plagued by ever-present range anxiety, a constant worry that he’d run out of charge. As it turned out, the trip ended on a dramatic note—with Broder’s Tesla allegedly dying and getting taken on the back of a flatbed tow truck to the Milford, CT Supercharger station. That proved to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk almost immediately took to social media to cry foul. On February 12, Broder published a defense of his initial article on the Times’ automotive blog. One day later, Musk published his own rebuttal on the Tesla blog, with a scathing and seemingly damning refutation of Broder’s claims, based on what Musk claimed were data logs from the Model S Broder drove. Yet another day later, Broder responded to those criticisms. Finally, two days ago, the Times’ public editor—following a detailed investigation in light of the firestorm that blew up surrounding the review—noted “problems with precision and judgment” in Broder’s Model S and Supercharger network review. Consider it a partial vindication for Tesla.

Meanwhile, other media outlets—including CNN—have successfully completed the D.C.-to-Boston drive in a Model S with barely a fraction of the issues Broder encountered.

Regardless, the Tesla-NYT kerfuffle has put one issue front and center in the minds of the general public, and especially would-be EV owners: range anxiety.

The fact that this issue is even coming up at all is in some respects a credit to Tesla. Compared to the Chevy Volt, with an EPA-estimated electric-only range of 38 miles, and the Nissan LEAF, with an EPA-rated range of 73 miles, the Tesla Model S’s 265-mile range blows the others out of the water. Its exceptional range offers the promise of convenience EV driving, the ability to take long trips on a whim, just as you might with a gas-powered car. With an expanding network of Superchargers, that future looks even more promising.

But this much ado about range anxiety is a distraction from the real sweet spot and potential of EVs today. U.S. drivers average 13,476 miles per year; that’s 37 miles per day, according to the Office of Highway Policy Information. The most recent National Household Travel Survey by DOT’s Federal Highway Administration puts that number even lower—a scant 29 vehicle miles per day, with an average trip length less than 10 miles.

Either way, these numbers are well within the range of most EVs, especially when you take into account the ability to charge at the office during the work day, or at retail centers while running errands, shopping, and grabbing lunch. As such, today’s EVs are particularly well suited to the kind of driving you and I are likely to undertake in our day-to-day lives. That is their promise, and on that promise, they deliver.

Americans are enamored of our autos and our highways. Perhaps it is some form of an inherited, automotive incarnation of Manifest Destiny; the idea that—with enough time and enough range, whether gasoline-powered or measured in kWh of battery charge—the open road is ours to drive toward distant parts unknown. Tesla’s Model S opens the door to that possibility, but in the meantime, let’s not forget the way most of us actually drive, and how today’s EVs are incredibly compatible with those habits. It’s in their sweet spot. 

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Image courtesy Tesla Motors.


Showing 1-10 of 24 comments

February 21, 2013

I am a proud and happy Volt owner and we do use a full charge most days - but not much more than that. In the brutal Maine winters we average 25 mile EV range, but in summer that goes up to around 47 miles. So the Volt is used almost exclusively for local driving, and we have an Escape Hybrid as a second vehicle that we use very rarely now because we love driving the Volt so much. It is very convenient that we can continue on a longer trip in 40MPG "range extender" mode without a thought. However I suspect that many households will be like ours with one EV and one high mileage secondary vehicle.

February 21, 2013

[Another comment: "Tesla is a great company, but I wish they built an EREV".]

I AGREE! Broder’s NYT article, however misleading, is a principle reason I’ve devoted so much time and interest to GM’s inspired development of their NO-anxiety, range-extended, strand-proof Chevy Volt and Caddy ELR EVs over the past 5 years!

February 21, 2013

On behalf of the Chevy Volt, I would like to say one thing: OUCH! Here you are opening eyes to the good sides of electric vehicles, when you come VERY close to trashing the Volt by saying it has "...an EPA-estimated range of 38 miles,". Would you PLEASE change that to add "electric only"? There are just too many folks out there who do not yet understand the whole truth about the Volt (that you can get in it and literally drive it coast to coast, but you'll need to stop and get some gas once in a while) for such statements about it to be made. Just a little too misleading there...

February 21, 2013

In mentioning the Chevy Volt in this article it should be noted that it is a plug-in hybrid, meaning that its range extends well beyond the nominal 38 miles once the gasolene-powered charger kicks in.

Also, to really meet climate, energy-security, and pollution goals, we need to just drive less by relying on transit, bicycles, and our feet.

February 21, 2013

Having driven my Leaf for 3-months now, I can say that I have only had "Range Anxiety" twice during those 2,200 miles. And it was when I had unplanned trips in a day during cold weather. During those two episodes, I think that the non-availability of a charging station was part of it, but the fear of the unknown about what I would do if I didn't make it was strong as well. In an internal combustion engine, we learn when we first drive that if you run out of gas that you walk to the nearest gas station, buy a gas can, and walk back with a gallon so that you can drive to the station and fill-up. That is not an option with the EV, but perhaps it needs to be. For example, upgrading my AAA coverage to include up to 100 miles of towing to home might make sense, because then they would bring me home and I could charge back up there. By the way, I did make it home both times, once because the Leaf has Turtle mode so with under 10 miles to go it shuts everything except the drive train down and you limp home, which was only 2 more miles; the other time I just drove using my head instead of my heart and made it with 12 miles to spare. Planning ahead is probably the most important thing about overcoming Range Anxiety. With internal combustion engines, we learned what the plan was from a young age. We just need to learn this new method, it doesn't seem that hard.

February 21, 2013


My name is Jeannie McKinney and I'm the Communications Coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE). This is an excellent piece, and I just wanted to let you know that we've cross-posted it onto our own blog (giving you credit and linking back to this original post, of course). You can see it here: http://blog.cleanenergy.org/?p=32262.

Thanks for your excellent work!

February 21, 2013

My hats of to Tesla, it should be wonderful for the few remaining people in the country that can afford a car like that.

There are far better solutions if you generally only need 29 miles per day of vehicle transport. A bicycle, a electric assist bicycle, a 100% electric bicycle or a enclosed electric assist transportation device like the Organic Transit ELF will get you there for more reasonable price.

Personally I don't know many people who want to take on another 30-40k in debt as their earning and purchasing power are in decline. So while Tesla's achievements are amazing, I think these things are merely toys for the wealthy. I'm happy they are having fun. It's a wonderful thing for them.

We need simple, fixable and smaller vehicles that don't require taking on debt or additional shifts at Walmart to own.

February 21, 2013

I recently came across a blog that summed it all up for me, it posited the following question;

Imagine the following scenario; As if by magic, every morning, every fossil fueled vehicle in the US, has enough free fuel in their tanks to drive 300 miles, how much fuel would the oil companies be able to sell?

Now add to this calculation, the 2002 DOT study revealing, that 80% of US drivers commute less than 40 miles per day and furthermore 57% less than 25 miles per day, combine this with the fact that solar power for homes have in a few decades dropped from twenty, to less than one dollar per watt.

I believe that fuel sales would decline by 90% or more, bad for the fossil fuel business, great for millions of people and the economy.

I suspect that with the introduction of the Tesla Model S, that fossil fuel providers started to realize, that between increasing battery capacity and cars that can rival the comfort and driving experience of even high end vehicles, combined with the ever decreasing cost of renewables, to the extent that right now in Australia solar is cheaper than coal and these trends will keep evolving.

For the oil business, that light at the end of the tunnel is the headlight of an on-coming solar powered E-train:-(

The fossil fuel industry has spent decades spreading dis-information regarding renewables, their comeuppance will come and it will come right soon too, if you are in fossil fuels, be afraid, be very afraid:-0


February 21, 2013

Toys for the wealthy, Mr. Murray, conceded. I live in the Bay Area and thought that was certainly true of the Roadster, maybe not so much the Model S. But remember the way the early-adopter dynamic works. The point of a Tesla is not primarily that so many per se will be sold; it's that development of more affordable vehicles will be accelerated. Thirty years ago next month, I paid $5,000 for my first microcomputer. Two weeks ago I paid $700 for my newest one.

February 21, 2013

I want a car that allows maximum independence. An EV would do that if I could charge it using PV. I am willing to pay more upfront and drive for 5 -8 years to get payback. But the wait (risk) must be worth the benefit. If I can't drive more than 150 miles from home and therefore need a second car, or if the cost of the EV makes it uneconomic, I won't buy it.

The wait for an economic EV or FC points out a major problem with our economic system. It cannot deliver the goods. Just as the USSR's system could not deliver because of government. For example, Henry Ford could not succeed today. And we would all be poorer because of government intervention (regulation). Of course, we would not know what we missed because we cannot see the progress stopped, i.e., the innovation prevented. In less free economic systems they can see the loss. They need only look across the border. Mexicans look across and come running. They want what we have. But do they stop to ask themselves why they don't have it at home? NO! If they did they would not try to create the same system here. And Americans, indoctrinated in gov't schools to trust every aspect of their life to gov't control, do the same. The result is a slowly changing economic system that is less free every year, and a public that is less independent and more controlled.

RMI laid out a blueprint for an more efficient car (hypercar) about 20 years ago. Where is it? The demand is great. The profit potential is great, here and worldwide. What is stopping the production? The answer is simple and obvious to the freethinker. The free market is nonexistent. It died a slow death starting with universal public education. The cost of a "free" education was freedom.

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