Buzzword: Range anxiety

Consumer Reports News: August 12, 2010 09:16 AM

Range anxiety is a term you’re likely to be hearing a lot more as electric vehicles (EVs) make their debut on America’s roadways.

Limited range is inherent with any EV and has been the electric car’s main sticking point. Some drivers who have tried electric cars have reported their anxiety about exceeding the car’s range and getting stranded away from a charger. Long charge times are also a concern.

It turns out there's a learning curve to driving EVs. Our own Senior Editor for Electronics, Paul Eng who leased a Mini-E for the past year has some insights. When he first got the car, he experienced such range anxiety that he only drove it every other day. But that was because he was using a slow 110-volt charger that took more than a day to charge the car. Once a faster 220-volt charger was installed at his home, he drove the car every day. “At first, being limited to 100-miles a day took some getting used to, but after a while, when I really understood the distances to my common destinations--work, the supermarket, and so on--I became more comfortable with how far I could drive between charges. I also delighted in never having to stop at a gas station or worry about oil changes. Plugging the car in overnight is much more convenient,” Eng says.

He’s not the only one. Sherry Boschert, the author of “Plug-In Hybrids” relates in the book how she and many of her EV-owning friends sold their gasoline cars about a year after buying an EV, finding they no longer felt the need for them.

In 2007, Tokyo Electric Power Company was running a fleet of electric service vehicles in about a 70 square-mile area. The cars were all using a single fast charger at their home base. The company found that most of the vehicles' drivers weren't venturing beyond about a quarter of the service area without returning to recharge. And when they did, the batteries were usually still half full. So in 2008, the company installed a second charging location at about the furthest distance most of the vehicles actually traveled, to give the drivers an opportunity to charge if they needed. The company found the drivers were then covering the complete service area and returning with the vehicles’ batteries almost empty. The kicker? The drivers almost never used the additional charging station. Just knowing it was there made all the difference. The vehicles’ range had been adequate from the beginning.

Several electric cars are set to debut starting at the end of this year, including the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf. The main benefit of electricity as an alternative fuel for cars, as opposed to fuel cell, is that it doesn’t require a whole new infrastructure. Nevertheless, cities, utilities, and automakers are scrambling to install public infrastructure ahead of these cars’ debut. The claim that these upcoming cars with just 100 miles of range will meet the daily needs of the vast majority of American drivers keeps being repeated in marketing and PR campaigns.

The words and actions may not be as contradictory as they seem. It’s understandable that drivers’ anxiety is there since it is bred from gasoline cars. The added infrastructure is likely to address that for those who haven't yet switched their mindset.

For more on electric cars and future technologies, see our guide to alternative fuels.

Eric Evarts

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