Surveys show that many potential electric-vehicle customers are held back by "range anxiety," the concern that an EV won’t go far enough, that it will run out of juice just when they need it.
Range anxiety already makes little objective sense. Research shows that even the modest 2013 Nissan Leaf, with its range of 80 miles, can cover 87 percent of the daily trips ordinary Americans make. That’s more than enough for a second car, or a first car for someone who mostly relies on walking and transit.
Now, however, new vehicles are coming along that, by any sane accounting, ought to put the range-anxiety issue to bed entirely.
They won’t, of course, because range anxiety is mostly psychological, not rooted in the reality of technology and daily needs. We’ll get to that in a minute. But first, let’s look at two quick examples that illustrate what EV tech has achieved.
A(nother) EV that goes over 200 miles on a charge
First, the all-electric Chevy Bolt, which is set to reach dealerships before the end of this year, just passed its EPA mileage testing. The result? It has a range of 238 miles, beating out even the standard Tesla Model 3. (By way of comparison, the Model 3 is expected to get about 215 miles, while the average gas car gets around 400, though that varies widely.)
Quick: Think of the last time you got in a car and drove more than 238 miles in a single trip, or even a single day, with no time to stop for the hour or so it would take to recharge an EV. That kind of driving is an extreme, extreme outlier. The Bolt’s 238 miles will cover 99.9 percent of the daily trips ordinary people make.
Even better, the Bolt is not some fancy super-car like the Tesla. It will have a base price of around $37,500, which will come to under $30,000 after the federal EV tax credit. That’s well within the normal price range for a car this size. (Interior space exceeds that of a similarly sized gas car, because the floor can be low and flat; batteries don’t take up as much room at internal-combustion engines and their accoutrements.)
Also unlike the Tesla, the Bolt is designed to be aggressively normal. It looks and drives like an ordinary car. The only real adjustment required by consumers is to plug the thing in rather than stopping at a gas station twice a week.
A bus that gets 350, yes, 350 miles on a charge
Second, consider the new Proterra bus. Proterra has been working for years on all-electric buses, hoping to replace the thousands of diesel buses polluting city air across the country. Its previous model achieved a 140-ish mile range, which is okay, but not really enough to replace a diesel bus that can operate for up to 18 hours without refueling.
The company’s new Catalyst 2, unveiled Monday, boasts a whopping 350-mile range, thanks to a super-light carbon-composite body and improved batteries. With that range, the 77-passenger Proterra bus can effectively replace any diesel bus — or, more to the point, every diesel bus.
Proterra will deliver the first of these buses (it has presold 300) in early 2017. City planners worried about whether electric buses can effectively replace their dirty diesel buses can stop worrying.
Range anxiety is mostly psychosomatic
These vehicles and others like them (many more will arrive soon) ought to end range anxiety, but they won’t, not on their own, because range anxiety is not rooted in technology. It’s rooted in fear and uncertainty.
Research conducted in 2013 in Germany produced a couple of findings that are important to understanding range anxiety.
First, consumers’ "range preferences" — how much range they want out of a car — wildly exceed their actual, practical range needs.
A recent online survey found that about a third of American consumers want a car with 400 mile range; another third would settle for 300. That is crazypants. American auto use averages out to about 40 miles a day.
Personally, I don’t think those stated preferences mean much. It’s just a way of saying, "I want it to go far enough. I don’t want to trade down to a worse/limited car."
Which brings us to the second finding: People’s range preferences rapidly decline the longer they drive an EV. Range anxiety more or less eases after three months. Regular EV drivers are much more likely to scale their range preferences to their actual range needs, which are generally satisfied by EVs with around 100 miles range.
The technology is in place. Advances like new battery chemistries and the spread of fast-charging infrastructure and wireless charging, not to mention falling costs, will only make EVs better and easier.
At this point, range anxiety is just about loss aversion and status-quo bias — people’s instinctive nervousness toward the new, their unwillingness to let go of what they have.
The only way to overcome that is education and familiarity. As Brad Plumer recently described, EVs (like rooftop solar panels) are contagious. People who see them in use are more likely to buy their own.
GM seems to get this. From a Wired story:
That’s why GM [is] using the car to stock the fleets of Maven, its car sharing service. It sent about a dozen pre-production vehicles to Cruise, the autonomous driving outfit it acquired earlier this year. And Lyft drivers gets dibs in ordering (GM invested $500 million in Uber rival in January). All are uses chosen to get the Bolt, and the great things it says about GM, in front of more people, especially young people.
That seems like a smart enough strategy, but only the beginning. Automakers, advocates, and others eager to accelerate EV uptake should focus on making them familiar. Get them on TV shows. Give them away to professional athletes and YouTube stars. Seed them on college campuses and in corporate startup fleets. Try to persuade Beyoncé to drive one to the Oscars.
At this point, EVs are ready. People just need to see it with their own eyes.