range anxiety

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Curbing Range Anxiety

David Ferry is a freelance writer and former Climate Watch intern, based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A Saba Roadster on display at a forum on the future of electric vehicles at St. Mary's College in Moraga, CA. (Photo: David Ferry)

A Saba Roadster on display at St. Mary's College in Moraga, CA. Photo: David Ferry

By David Ferry

Electric vehicles can reduce emissions, save money on fuel, and, according to their enthusiastic proponents, are even fun to drive. But are “normal” people ever going to buy one?

Despite the perceived benefits of going electric–and the all-out push from auto companies to roll out EVs as soon as possible–experts predict that American consumers will purchase about a million electric cars in the next five years (by automotive standards, that’s a small number). There are, of course, a number of reasons why the average driver would be hesitant to drop $30,000 on a strange new car, but the one that automakers (and the press) love to fret over is called “range anxiety”.

Range anxiety is the fear that your electric car will run out of juice miles from the nearest charging station. Most electric cars have significantly shorter ranges than their gas-powered cousins, and batteries take hours to recharge. As a result, studies have shown that an EV’s “electric leash” makes drivers nervous and may ultimately keep consumers from switching from unleaded to AC.

This apparent fear of being tethered raises two questions for academics and execs: How can automakers and municipalities reduce range anxiety? And does the condition even  exist?

A hundred years ago, before our vast network of public fueling stations was developed, early automotive adopters installed gas stations in their own homes and carried cans of petrol with them. Nowadays, an EV owner can convert the plugs in their garage but, as one panelist pointed out at a forum on electric cars last week, when your electric car’s meter hits zero, the only way home  is a flatbed truck.

So, how do you ease that anxiety? Nissan and the political leaders of nine Bay Area counties think that installing a public system of quick-charging stations will help. Nissan, which is releasing the electric LEAF this December, is working with the local officials to bulk up the region’s free vehicle-charging infrastructure. The hope is that easily accessible recharging stations will accelerate sales and bring some peace of mind to jittery EV buyers.

“It’s a psychological thing,” says Ron Freund, a board member of Plug In America, who also sat on the panel at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, last week. Freund says that while public charging stations often go unused, EV owners drive farther and worry less in cities with easily accessible charging stations.

(For a take on the strain all these electric cars may place on the grid, see Alison Hawkes’ post and companion radio story: “Invasion of the Electrics.”)

Alas, the meager number of public charging stations already installed won’t rid electric car owners of their fear of hitting “E”, says Andy Frank, a professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at UC Davis.

“With EVs, there will always be range anxiety,” he says. Even though most people drive their cars fewer than 35 miles a day and single trips are generally under 11 miles (well within the range of electrics like the Nissan LEAF) recharging takes hours longer than gassing-up does, and consumers are hesitant to be without a car for 5-8 hours.

Which brings us to the contrary view: maybe range anxiety isn’t all that big of a deal. Tom Turrentine, director of the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center at UC Davis, says it’s all hogwash.

“It is not as if potential EV drivers will buy a vehicle and head out to go to Lake Tahoe or grandma’s house suddenly to find themselves short on charge. Most of the drivers we have interviewed over the years never encounter such situations,” Turrentine wrote in an email. “They buy the vehicle and use it in a space that is comfortable for the range of the vehicle, seldom running it down below 50%, especially when they first own the vehicle. We all know our laptops are good for about 2-3 hours and don’t take them backpacking for that reason. If they go to Tahoe, they’ll take the hybrid or gas vehicle.”

Turrentine notes that most people in the market for an EV come from multiple-car households. Frank and Turrentine agree that an EV may make a very handy second car, but it’s a pain if it’s your only one.

So, who’s going to buy an electric car? People like Ron Freund, the board member from Plug-in America:

“I think it’s kind of an adventure,” he said, when asked about range anxiety. “I make it a game: I like to see how little energy I can use to go a mile.”

The electric engine of a "Plug-In Prius" (Photo: David Ferry)

The electric power plant of a "Plug-In Prius" Photo: David Ferry