04.09.2013 - by Chad Schwitters
Addressing Factors that Cause Range Anxiety

My wife and I are extremely happy owners of 100% battery-electric vehicles. We regularly take road trips in our BEVs, and we don’t have range anxiety. We did when we first got a BEV several years ago, but it didn’t take long for us to get over it. We are confident that new owners will be fine with practice, but we are afraid that many potential owners are missing out on all of the advantages of driving electric because of this fear. Fortunately, there are many ways to address it.

What is range anxiety?

Range anxiety is the fear of not having enough fuel to make your next fueling stop. It can happen in any car; I have come close to running out of gas a few times, and even ran out once. Regardless of fuel type, this is only an issue on trips where the next fuel stop isn t until somewhere near the range of the car. The simple and obvious solution is: always refuel any vehicle well before it runs out of fuel. All you need to know is when the vehicle will run out of fuel, and where to refuel it. The bad news is that most gas drivers don’t know the true range of an electric car OR where charging stations are. The good news is that both of these issues can be easily addressed with information or completely avoided with a plug-in hybrid.

Related issue: charging time

Charging time is a separate issue, but it nevertheless impacts how gas drivers view range anxiety.

Charging an EV takes longer than filling a car with gas. Unlike range anxiety, this can’t be addressed with education – driving on a long trip really takes longer because charging is slower. Of the many oft-repeated “downsides” to EVs (they are slow, ugly, pollute just as much as gas cars, cost more to own, etc), this is the only one that is real. Even then, it is only real for BEVs PHEVs don’t have it!

Fortunately, no downside matters unless you experience it. For day-to-day driving you charge at night; and if time matters on a long trip, you can fly or take another car. If you don’t have another car, you can buy a PHEV instead of a BEV. It’s that simple – anybody can electrify most of their driving without EVER having to wait for a charge.

Factors that contribute to electric-specific range anxiety

Aside from the issue of charging time, there are many interdependent psychological factors that make gas drivers, justified or not, more fearful of running out of fuel in electric cars than they are in gas cars. All of them contribute in some way to uncertainty in the two things they need to know, but don’t – how far the car can go, and where to charge.

It’s a novel technology, so that causes more worry. Plugging in at home nightly is a novel usage pattern compared to filling up with gas weekly. Some other battery-powered devices don’t have power gauges and just suddenly shut off. Automakers tout unrealistically high range estimates. Range meters are often optimistic. While electricity is widespread, EVSEs are not yet so. DC charging stations aren’t standardized. Almost every media story about plug-ins includes a blurb about “range anxiety”; some of them even seem to be deliberately overstating the case.

We need to overcome these factors by making it easy for them to know how far a BEV will go, and where they can charge up. Or by pointing out that PHEV buyers don’t have to learn either one.

Experience solves the problem but comes too late

With experience one becomes very familiar with the car’s capabilities and learns how to find charging stations. I am never afraid of making my destination, and I never have to slow down or turn off the heat. That’s great for those of us that have owned an EV for a long time, but how do we make new owners comfortable? Even more important, how can we make potential buyers comfortable enough that they are willing to become new owners?

There is no silver bullet that will take care of every situation. But there are several simple suggestions that can help a great deal in some cases. Different things work best depending on the situation, so I have created a flowchart to help us to decide how best to help. After the chart, I’ll talk about the different points in it.

Range Anxiety flow chart
Expanding on points in the chart

We want to avoid people falling all the way through the chart, and ending up in a BEV with an optimistic range meter on a long trip and no knowledge or experience. We want to try to catch them at one of the earlier phases where range anxiety is less of a problem.

1. Consider a PHEV
For people just starting to consider how to fit a plug-in in to their life, start with the simplest answer. A PHEV will automatically electrify most of their driving, but they don’t have to do ANY thinking, because it is still a gas car. They can go anywhere at any time, and don’t have to ever charge it anywhere other than in their own garage. This instantly takes care of range anxiety AND charging time. Nobody should fear a PHEV!

This may seem an obvious point, but it is very often overlooked by gas drivers that are eager to find a reason to dismiss electricity as a fuel. Note that many people don’t understand that a PHEV has a gas engine and operates exactly like a gas car on long trips; you may have to spell this out.

Once they understand this point (make sure they have absorbed it! It can take a while), if they are a multi-vehicle family, you might want to see if they d consider a BEV. BEVs have more electric range and less maintenance, but they still allow you to take gas trips too – you just have to swap vehicles. That’s the “hybrid garage” approach.

2. For long trips, can you fly/train/bus/rent/swap?

For the last seven years, I have driven small two-passenger cars. Not once has somebody asked me, “What if you suddenly need to take 3 people somewhere” or “How do you make Costco trips?” There is no such thing as cargo anxiety, because everybody understands that you can use another vehicle on the rare occasion that the need arises.

Yet when it comes to long trips, it seems difficult to understand that you don’t have to take a BEV if it’s not the best-suited car for the trip. You have to spell this point out; often more than once. If they can take another vehicle on a trip, then they never have to figure out their exact range, or look for charging stations, or wait for a charge. They can just drive their wonderful electric car around town, charge at home in the garage and take a gas car on long trips. This is very nearly the same as the “PHEV” answer, just using a hybrid garage rather than a hybrid car.

My wife drove a short-range BEV for years and never once looked for a charging station or waited for a charge she only charged it in our garage at night, and on the few days she needed to go farther, she took my car. She would laugh when people asked her about the “inconvenience” of electric cars, because it was the most convenient car she had ever driven.

3. Are you willing to learn range factors and calculate your own range?

If you are at this point with a person that is not yet an owner, you should make clear that this is optional. If they find this too confusing, they can always refer to the two points above, or skip to the next one.

A fair number of new owners though far from all of them – are excited about their car and willing to learn how it operates. The more they know, the more use they can get out of their car and the less likely they are to get in trouble.

They will need to learn about the effects to speed, acceleration, elevation, wind, water and debris on the road, and temperature. While it is Tesla-specific, there are many details in this post: Putting some numbers on the factors that affect range. Other cars have owner forums that have similar tips. Most (not all) of this is very similar to effects on mpg in gas cars; but most gas drivers don’t bother to learn it.

4. Can you follow tips on BEV road trips?

Some owners really don’t want to learn anything new when they buy a car. They just want to get in and drive. They don’t want to do any math; they just want to know how far the car will go. This also applies to most potential customers that haven’t purchased a car yet; they are less eager to spend a lot of time on this. They would rather just know some simple limits.

A simple (which means not always best or correct but, it’s simple!) answer is: you can “count” on a BEV to go 2/3 of the EPA range. On a good day, when driven right, they can exceed the EPA range; but that’s a trick to save until after they have experience. For now, only take the BEV on trips shorter than 2/3 of the EPA range. Take another car for longer trips, or buy a PHEV if you only have one car. If 2/3 of EPA range is not enough for common trips, this BEV is not for you (just like a Miata is not the right choice if you have to drive the kids’ carpool 3 days each week). Try another BEV or a PHEV.

If you ever do take a BEV on a road trip and stop to charge, keep charging until the car’s EPA range indicator says that you have at least 150% of the miles necessary to make it to the next stop.

5. Does your car have an always spot-on (or slightly pessimistic) range meter?

Some people really don’t want to learn anything new not even quick tips. They just want to get in and drive. They want the car to tell them how far it will go (in fact, some journalists seem to be testing the range meter more than the car). Fortunately for them, most EVs have a range meter designed to tell them exactly that.

Unfortunately for them, most of those range meters are deliberately optimistic. It’s easy to understand how this can happen; marketing departments that are used to selling well-understood near-commodity gas-powered products want to tout the best possible numbers to ensure their product gets purchased instead of the competition s nearly identical vehicle; gas buyers don’t really expect the numbers and are understanding when they are not met. But this is exactly the wrong thing to do in an emerging, poorly-understood, highly differentiated market. It is less important to win a buyer from the competition than it is to gain a buyer (in the early days, even of the competition s products!) that is happy after the purchase and influences other buyers. Running out of electricity because you didn’t achieve the range estimate is worse than having to spend more on gas because you didn’t achieve an mpg estimate. BEV manufacturers are really messing up here.

Many vehicles have a “projected” option that helps at least, when conditions are constant. If you are driving across Kansas, this is an extremely useful too. If you are driving across Washington over a couple of mountain ranges, it can make things even worse as the estimates fluctuate wildly up and down.

Some automakers already offer more than one range estimation mode. I wish they would add a “conservative” option based on 2/3 of the EPA range. Or better yet, a number settable by the driver. Best of all, they could integrate range estimation in to the navigation system, and have it take in to account elevation, traffic and weather conditions and tell the user how much range will be left if they travel at various speeds.

6. Does your car display kWh or SOC instead of miles of range

Until the auto manufacturers have either truly accurate or at least consistently pessimistic range meters, I honestly think the best thing is to not display range at all display a measure of remaining battery capacity instead. Sure, that will scare somebody getting in to the car for the first time. But given an unrealistic range estimate, that is a good thing – they will definitely be cautious until they learn how it works! No more running out on your first road trip because the car told you it would make it. No more journalists with tow trucks blaming the car rather than themselves. And it’s certainly something drivers can easily learn; it’s exactly how most gas cars have worked for decades.

Summing up
There are many ways to resolve range anxiety. But the simplest ones to get new people interested in the market are to consider a plug-in hybrid car, or a plug-in hybrid garage (owning a BEV and a gas car).

It helps to keep in mind that some gas drivers that obsess about range anxiety do so because they understand the social benefits of plug-in cars and feel they should get one, but they don’t want to get one because they don’t realize that there are personal benefits too they assume that driving electric is an inferior experience. They are looking for an excuse to avoid a car that they think they don’t want. Take them for a ride first; the conversation is much easier once they are trying to figure out how to make it work, rather than arguing about why it can’t work.

Action items
What can we owners do to help potential buyers get past range anxiety and buy a plug-in vehicle?

  • Take them for a ride. It is easier to convince them when they want one
  • Point out that anybody can electrify most of their driving, but still use gas for long trips by buying a PHEV or having a hybrid garage. They never have to look for a charging station or wait for a charge

What can BEV owners do to avoid range anxiety and communicate confidence to others?

  • Always have a charging point planned within 2/3 of EPA range
  • Always charge to 150% of your next destination
  • Learn factors that affect range

What can automakers do to reduce range anxiety in their BEV customers?

  • Offer a range gauge that takes external factors in to account and gives real range
  • Failing that, don’t display range! Sure newbies will be scared but they will be cautious
  • If you insist on displaying a non-predictive range offer a “safe range” mode

What can the press do?

  • Don’t focus on BEV road trips, which are the least-likely way for the car to be used. Focus on how fun, convenient and inexpensive they are for the majority of driving; and how it is not necessary to make every future trip on electricity if you buy one
  • Stop mentioning range anxiety in every article about plug-ins. It is not news; nor is it an immutable property of the vehicles especially not the PHEVs!

Truck Photo courtesy AAA

2 comments on “Addressing Factors that Cause Range Anxiety”
  1. Eileen says:

    I suggest you mention some of the factors which affect range. Would not have to be detailed, but some basics.

  2. Paul Scott says:

    Chad, good work on this comprehensive article on range anxiety. I’m sure it will help those who are contemplating a BEV purchase understand the realities of this (mostly) non-existent malady.

    Your two last points about the press taking this to heart are the most important. They are the ones telling everyone that “you have range anxiety!”, and scaring would be customers away from this wonderful technology.

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