Range Anxiety: Fact or Fiction?

Critics say that fear of being stranded with a dead battery, or "range anxiety," will discourage people from adopting electric cars. Others say the issue is overblown.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

One spring day in 2009, software engineer Bill Arnett slid behind the wheel of his new electric Tesla Roadster and set off toward Yosemite National Park, a journey of about 200 miles from his home in Redwood City, California.

Far from urban centers and up through the Sierra Nevada foothills, this is the sort of road trip that's supposed to strike fear in the heart of an electric car driver. "Range anxiety" is the name for angst over being stranded with a dead battery, miles from a plug.

Yet Arnett made the Yosemite trip without fear. He was driving his "Signature One Hundred" series Roadster —a high-end sports car said to travel up to 244 miles on a full charge. A year later, he did it again in a convoy with four other Tesla owners, stopping to top off at an RV resort about 35 miles outside of Yosemite. "Range anxiety," Arnett said in an email, "doesn't exist for me."

But range anxiety does exist, at some level, among the general public. A survey conducted last year by the Consumer Electronics Association found 71 percent of respondents feared running out of charge on the road—placing range anxiety among the most common perceived disadvantages of electric vehicles, according to the study.

A number of strategies for putting range anxiety to rest have emerged in recent years, and the pace is poised to pick up as more electric cars roll out. Governments from the United States to China to Ireland are investing millions of dollars to install charging infrastructure so drivers needn't stray too far from a plug. Software developers are building applications for smartphones and in-car telematics systems that make it easy to find charge points on a map.

The startup Better Place, based in Palo Alto, California, aims to set up large networks of charge points and stations where batteries can be swapped out in five minutes or less—theoretically affording the convenience and ubiquity of gas stations. The company has just opened its first European location where consumers can sign up for Better Place service plans and order a Renault Fluence Z.E. vehicle, designed to be compatible with Better Place's automated battery-swap system. General Motors, meanwhile, has opted to equip its plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt with a small gas engine to power the car for about 250 miles beyond the battery pack's estimated 25-50-mile range.

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"It's a logical notion that a car with less range creates anxiety," said Marc Geller, a longtime electric vehicle advocate and co-founder of Plug In America. "Automakers and critics have long suggested that it was a critical flaw," he said. As a hurdle for electric vehicle adoption, however, Geller believes the issue has been overblown. Whether you are driving a Hummer or a Prius or a Leaf, he reasoned, "When you're nearing empty, there's anxiety." So the important question, he said, is not whether this anxiety exists, but whether it increases or decreases when people drive an electric vehicle.

The Realities for Electric Vehicle Owners

People who are new to electric cars generally come to the experience with some level of apprehension about range, said Geller, "If only because they've been told to." But for most people, it drops off over time. "The number of people who actually run out of juice," he said, "is very small."

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"On a normal day," said Geller, who owns a RAV4 EV and a Nissan Leaf, "there's absolutely no concern about range." On a day when he expects to drive about 100 miles (the distance Nissan says some drivers can drive on a full charge, although the EPA pegs the Leaf's range at 70 miles), nipping range anxiety in the bud requires a simple strategy: "I plan." That can mean building in time for charging along the way or at his destination, he said. If he's going to travel from San Francisco to Sacramento, for example, Geller looks up charge points the day before, checking locations and ascertaining whether any stations are broken or unavailable.

Infrastructure for higher voltage "fast charging" will be a "welcome addition to the toolset," especially for intercity travel, said Geller. These "level 3" charging stations can deliver an 80 percent charge in about 30 minutes at 440V, compared to several hours for a full charge with a standard 240V ("level 2") charger. "If someone has to go 60 miles, and there's a fast charger on that corridor," they would be more likely to leave a gas car at home, he said.

For Arnett, the software engineer who has put his Roadster to the test with road trips to Yosemite, it's rare for the charge level to drop below even 50 percent. But he has experienced the EV equivalent of running on fumes, reaching home with only a few miles of range left. "That was because I made too many wrong turns coming home from a trip to Napa," he explained. Plus, he had been in a hurry to get home so he didn't wait for a 100 percent charge before leaving Napa. "I charged just enough to get home with a little extra margin," he said. "I used all the margin."

Other factors outside of a driver's control can accelerate depletion of the battery charge and potentially set the stage for range anxiety. In winter conditions, the Chevy Volt (which runs its heater on electricity) delivered only 23 to 28 miles of range on electric power in initial assessments published by Consumer Reports last week. The Nissan Leaf has averaged about 65 miles of range in the magazine's preliminary tests, and its mileage gauge has proven unreliable. In at least one instance with the heater on, the gauge dropped unexpectedly to 19 miles from 36 miles, according to Consumer Reports. For someone 25 miles from an outlet, anxiety would be a reasonable response.

Hans Tobeason, a TV writer and producer living in Los Angeles who drove an EV1 during the 1990s and now owns a Nissan Leaf, has also peered into the abyss of a dwindling battery charge. With the EV1, Tobeason said, he ran out of juice about once a year. Upon realizing that he "wasn't going to make it," he would pull up to a friend's house nearby and plug in for a couple hours using an emergency charger.

With the Leaf, said Tobeason, "I wouldn't be surprised if I goof up once a year," and need to make an unplanned stop for charging. As more charging stations are installed and opened to the public, however, it may not be necessary to prevail upon friends for an outlet.

Making It Easier to Find a Charge

Instead, if infrastructure programs go according to plan, drivers will be able to top off at shopping centers, parking garages and other locations throughout cities and along major highways. In the United States, the stimulus-backed EV Project is slated to deploy 6,350 240V (Level 2) chargers in commercial and public locations by 2012, plus 8,300 residential chargers and 310 fast chargers along interstate highways and major roads. Market research firm Pike Research anticipates as many as 4.7 million charge point installations worldwide between 2010 and 2015, with China accounting for more than a third of the market by the end of that period.

(Related Story: "On China's Roads (and Rails), a Move Toward Greener Transit")

Charging stations can help ease worries about EV range, however, only if drivers know where to find them. A new, free iPhone app released on Monday by Palo Alto startup Xatori, called PlugShare, promises to keep an up-to-date list of public charge points and to connect electric vehicle drivers with individuals willing to share an electrical outlet. It's an idea that excites Geller. "Electricity is everywhere," he said. "All you need to do is make it available."

The fact that this new generation of electric vehicles is coming out in an era of smartphones and mobile access to the web makes range anxiety easier to assuage. A decade ago, in the days of the EV1, Geller said, he carried long lists of charge point locations. Today smartphones allow him to look up stations on the go; both Tobeason and Arnett said they rely on three iPhone apps for charge point information.

In theory these stations can also be found using in-car navigation systems. Nissan displays a map of charging stations in the vehicle using data provided by Navteq, but it is updated only quarterly. According to Nissan spokeswoman Katherine Zachary, the system will be updated by the end of March. In the meantime, Tobeason said, the Nissan system shows zero stations in his area.

Electric cars still have their skeptics, of course. John B. Hess, chairman and chief executive of Hess Corporation, speaking Tuesday at IHS Ceraweek, a huge annual energy conference in Houston, Texas, predicted "Electric-only battery cars will serve urban, short-distance driving, but will not play a major role over the next 20 years." Battery packs today are too big and heavy, they take too long to charge, and range is too limited, he said.

In fact, the range of today's plug-in vehicles "is greatly in excess of what most people drive most days," Geller noted. According to a Pike Research study, 73 percent of people driving gas cars use their vehicles for 30 miles or less each day—well within the range of most upcoming electric models.

It's true that electric cars deliver less range per fill-up, said Geller. That might "seem like a step down, not progress," when compared to gas cars that eke out 300 to 400 miles on a full tank. "But it does seem like progress when you fill up in your garage. You wake up with a fill-up every day."

For Tobeason and his wife, Marie, the Leaf meets about 90 percent of their driving needs. They use a Ford Ranger pickup for the rest. But based on his own experience and his friends' transportation needs, Tobeason believes an EV will prove inadequate for any household of two or more drivers that cannot afford at least two cars, including one longer-range option.

Geller expects electric vehicles to become the "first car" for many families. "It's the right tool for the daily task," he said, while gas or diesel cars are better suited to "the exceptional task." After all, he noted, the times when we really need to drive hundreds of miles at the drop of a hat ("It's 3 a.m. and I've got to go to Las Vegas right now!"), are quite rare. Even in the event that you need to take an unplanned trip to the hospital in the middle of the night, Geller said, "How far is the hospital going to be?" Having made the leap to go electric, range anxiety simply does not dominate or define his experience. As Tobeason put it, "Anxiety is too severe for me. I'm range aware."

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