Enough with the EV range anxiety, please

All this talk about range anxiety being a big issue seems to come largely from those who don’t actually drive an electric car.

Rocky Mountain Institute

I have to admit a growing frustration: I’m tired of hearing about range anxiety with electric vehicles. 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 in the US (maybe the American Psychological Association 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 per cent. 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 (64km) per day, less than half the range of EVs like the LEAF. Meanwhile, a majority of US 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 (24km) 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 per cent, 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?

Originally published by the Rocky Mountain Institute. Reproduced with permission.