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Nov 4, 2014

Enough with the Range Anxiety Already

 

I have to admit a growing frustration: I’m tired of hearing about range anxiety with electric vehicles (EVs). I’m increasingly convinced that we’re verging on an unhealthy fixation. Read too much about it and soon you’ll start to think it’s the latest national epidemic (maybe the APA will even add it to the DSM VI). Article after article covers the issue. Many, including this blog, offer tips for overcoming it. Consumer surveys, such as an oft-cited one from the Consumer Electronics Association, note its importance as a factor in EV buying decisions.

I’m here to say, “Enough is enough.” Ever since I became a very happy Nissan LEAF driver earlier this year, I’ve become acutely aware of this: all this talk about range anxiety being a big issue seems to come largely from and/or survey those who don’t actually drive an EV. This is an important nuance.

Surveys of EV drivers, on the other hand, show impressively high degrees of satisfaction. For example, a May 2013 survey of battery electric vehicle drivers found overall satisfaction rates of 92 percent. The story is much the same with customer satisfaction surveys at Consumer Reports and by the automakers themselves, who are reporting record levels of customer satisfaction among EV drivers.

I have a simple but I think logical theory for why there exists this yawning gap between the incredibly high satisfaction of EV drivers and the range anxiety that supposedly plagues the EV market: like any consumer making a major purchasing decision, EV drivers do their research and thus know if an EV—and its range—is a good fit for them. You don’t see a construction foreman with a need for a work truck buy a two-door Honda Fit and then complain about its extremely limited payload capacity. You get the vehicle that matches your needs and wants, whatever the overriding criteria of importance are—cool factor, upfront cost, safety, clearance and 4WD, fuel economy, etc.

And as it turns out, a battery electric vehicle can meet the needs of plenty of potential drivers. I’m not saying every American should put their gasoline-powered car up on blocks and run to the nearest EV dealer. And I’m not saying customers on the margins of the EV sweet spot don’t have to overcome some legitimate concerns about range anxiety. But I am saying we should stop making range anxiety an issue for the millions—yes, millions—of Americans for whom an EV would be a great choice.

Consider some basic criteria: The average American drives less than 40 miles per day, less than half the range of EVs like the LEAF. Meanwhile, a majority of U.S. households have two or more vehicles, so having an EV would still leave a gas-powered alternative for longer-range needs. That overlapping sweet spot—modest daily miles plus a second, gas-powered car—represents a robust customer segment for whom range anxiety shouldn’t be an issue in the first place, rather than something which must be overcome.

I’m a textbook case in point. Up until the fall of 2010, my wife and I had two vehicles: a Jeep Cherokee Sport for weekends in the mountains and a Honda Accord sedan for urban driving. We sold the Jeep and went down to one car when I took a job that allowed me to walk to work. Two years later, when I joined RMI in the fall of 2012, we kept to one car and I rode the bus. After 3.5 years as a one-car family, though, we finally decided it was time to bump back up to two vehicles. With two of our three kids now in elementary school, two cars made juggling our increasingly complex family logistics and schedules infinitely easier.

Making that second car an EV was a relatively easy choice for us, especially knowing that we sit in the overlapping sweet spot. We have a gas-powered vehicle that we use for long-distance trips. My day-to-day driving, meanwhile, doesn’t come close to flirting with our LEAF’s range. Our home, RMI’s Boulder office, our kids’ elementary school, the trailheads where we hike, our grocery store, bank, and favorite sushi restaurant are all within a 15-mile corridor.

The only times I’ve experienced range anxiety directly are the few times I’ve deliberately inflicted it upon myself, such as when I’ve played range games, like seeing how low I’m personally willing to let the battery go or driving extra conservatively to see if I can squeak in an extra round trip between charges. In practice, though, I’ve settled into a very comfortable routine where range anxiety is never on the table. I top off my battery at RMI’s on-site charger, typically recharge two days later when I’ve depleted my battery to about 30 percent, then repeat.

And so I haven’t so much overcome my range anxiety that it rather wasn’t an issue in the first place. Range anxiety is a subjective thing; it’s an emotional, often irrational response to a fear that may or may not be founded. Like many other fears in our daily lives, we’re afraid of one thing that actually proves a far smaller risk than we think it is, while we ignore a bigger risk we should be worrying about.

We need to stop talking about helping consumers overcome range anxiety, and starting talking about—and to—the millions of consumers in the EV sweet spot for whom range anxiety should be a non-issue. I’m one of them. Are you?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

Showing 1-10 of 16 comments

November 5, 2014

Hi Peter,
Great article and well said on the EV range anxiety fears. Out of interest, have you had a winter with your EV yet? I'm considering the jump myself and wonder if there's any data (even anecdotal) on how much battery life may suffer on colder days.
Thanks,
David


November 5, 2014

David,

I've driven the LEAF in fairly cold temps (high 20s to low 40s F) with minor range loss but not nearly what I expected. (Using the heated seats and steering wheel preserves range well, while running the hot air depletes it far more rapidly.)

For avg and best curves for range across temperatures, check out these graphs:

http://www.greencarreports.com/news/1089160_nissan-leaf-chevy-volt-range-loss-in-winter-new-data-from-canada

Cheers,
Pete


November 6, 2014

Peter,

I was very enthusiastic in my first year, and into the second with my 2012 Leaf. But now in its third year, with my range having dropped into the mid-fifties, and Nissan unwilling to do anything about it because I haven't lost 4 bars on the battery capacity gauge, I've got range anxiety so bad I might go back to fossil fuel. I hope you have better luck.

Phil


November 6, 2014

The "range anxiety" culprits are well known, and for the most part, they are trying to make amends, save for Toyota who still insists EVs have no range. I always make two simple points:

80% of our daily commute in the US is 40 miles or less, something ANY and EVERY EV on the market today can offer.

Second, this is how I get through to gasoline engine lovers. I simply ask them what is the biggest challenge for the internal combustion engine, ICE? You need to boost power through turbos, direct injection systems and high-compression pistons.

Now what is the biggest challenge for the electric motor? You have to tame that torque, or else it will shred you tires apart. Now isn't that a great challenge to have, instead of fighting an inherently inefficient opposing piston system?

If they still don't get it, ask a Porsche or Ferrari owner how much range does their car have. Point moot, by any stretch of the imagination.


November 6, 2014

I love my Leaf. I have had it three years. I agree that it is right for a lot of people. But, due to the battery charge/discharge range (80%/20%), the actual range is only 60% of the maximum range. I figure that I can drive my car about 40 miles between charges (50 if I want to go below the recommended recharge range). While many people drive less than 40 miles roundtrip, that is the maximum range if you adhere to the charge/discharge recommendations and it DOES cause range anxiety. Should I charge to 100% if I have a 40 mile roundtrip drive ahead??? Range anxiety is real. When Nissan increases the range significantly, I can see this car becoming much more popular.


November 6, 2014

Great article. I couldn't agree more with the range anxiety issue as being overstated. My wife and I just returned from an 8,009 mile cross country trip in our Tesla Model-S EV, and after 2 years of EV ownership I now have NO concerns about range anxiety and EV's being a suitable replacement for ICE vehicles. I also charge our EV off our solar PV system on our roof.

David


November 6, 2014

Phil,

Sorry to hear about your 2012 LEAF's battery capacity loss. As I'm sure you know, a number of factors influence that ... number of charging cycles, average depth of charge, operating temps, etc. Nissan improved its battery chemistry compared to early year LEAFs like yours to add a bit of range and improve battery operation across a wider range of more extreme temperatures. Their current battery warranty protects against capacity loss beyond 9 of 12 bars within the first 60 months or 60k miles. With the type of capacity loss it sounds like you've experienced, and being only in year three of ownership, it sounds like you're on track to call in that warranty, even if they haven't said yes yet.

Nicolas,

Great points. Even a comparatively tame LEAF is surprisingly fun to drive with the electric motor's torque.

Bill,

I agree that a pinch of extra range (~100+ miles) on a 2nd generation LEAF would be nice. But I don't agree that cycling your charging only within the optimal 20/80% split introduces range anxiety. On my 85-mile EPA-rated LEAF, using only 60% of charge gives me about 50 miles. That's still a 10-mile buffer above the 40-mile-per-day stat, PLUS another 20% of battery charge remaining even after that for a safety buffer. Under those conditions, for me range anxiety = no.

David,

Thanks for your comment. Glad to hear you've had such a positive experience. Though with the range of your Tesla Model S, I'd argue you're "cheating" in range conversations, compared to the more modest range for LEAF drivers like me. =)

Cheers,
Pete


November 6, 2014

Great article, especially when paired with the 2/20/2013 RMI Outlet article "Going the Distance: Range Anxiety Overlooks EVs’ Sweet Spot." In 1992 and again in 1996-97 i got to experience range anxiety along with the pleasures of driving an EV. In 1992 the Sacramento Municipal Utility District's EV fleet (20+ EVs) was one of my responsibilities. The vehicles were pretty good, but poorly maintained, so reliability and range were both problems. Plus, we were tasked with an active effort to promote EV use and knowledge among our customers, so we encouraged them to drive "loaner" EVs from our fleet. Given the range and maintenance problems, we were discouraging more drivers than we were winning over. Those issues were resolved using a method taught to me by an old platoon sergeant of mine: we made the people running the EV program suffer as their customers did. It wasn't as harsh as it sounds. First, we set up a preventive maintenance routine for all EVs. Then, we required the people in the EV unit to be available on a rotating, on-call basis 24/7/365 and we put a cell phone/charger in each vehicle. Thus, any driver (employee or customer) could get help quickly. if they had an EV issue. Within two weeks we stopped having EV problems/stranded EV drivers. In 1996-97, I was part of a CARB unit tasked with developing Calif's EV infrastructure for the EV mandate that never happened. We procured EVs from all the major manufacturers for use in the State's vehicle fleet, so I was able to try them all. The improvements in capability and quality in just a few years were impressive, despite the fact that carmakers were barely trying! EVs have so many inherent advantages over IC engine vehicles that I quickly became a devoted fan. As I became comfortable with the specific vehicles I was driving and developed a commuting/charging routine, range stopped being a concern. I still don't own one, but that's because I refuse to spend much $ on ANY car that I own, based on the fact that investing in a car is a losing proposition. But, if in my lifetime EVs become as inexpensive to own/operate as a used IC engine car, I'll be one of the first in line.


November 6, 2014

Spot on, and the #1 point I try to make to people who ask about my EV.

Somehow the groupthink in the press has fixated on the range issue, ignoring the blaringly obvious fact that even this-generation EV performance is a *great* fit for tens of millions of households. Evidently "the glass is half full" sells more clicks than the converse.

Adventurous early-adopter EVers who can't help pushing the range envelope a bit -- and then blogging about it when they turtle two miles from home -- are a minor part of the problem. After a year of EV driving, I don't think I've ever been under 10%, maybe even 15%, of battery charge, just driving it around on the routes I planned to when I bought it. But that's not really the stuff of gripping blog posts...


November 6, 2014

I have a motorcycle with a range of less than 250km (150Miles) - average for a bike. I fill the tank about once a week. I have never heard bike riders even mention range as an issue.

Or another comparison is mobile phones. 10 years ago the batteries used to last a week, now you are lucky if they get through the day. The old phones were big, bulky and with limited functionality - It seems we are happy to sacrifice battery life for a better phone experience. We don't seem to have an issue plugging in the phone overnight so i cant understand the problem with doing the same for a car.....

Personally i think the issue is simply a fear of the unknown...

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