In the coldest part of last winter, I spent a week each behind the wheel of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf—and found the experiences vastly different. Why might that be, since both cars are state-of-the-art green vehicles, hugely fun to drive and bristling with tech innovations? It comes down to this: The Volt is a plug-in hybrid with 300 or more miles of range when its 25 to 50 miles of all-electric travel is history. The Leaf, well, it relies on that 24-kilowatt-hour battery pack for range that is, at best, 100 miles. And that's what "range anxiety" is all about.
The cold was relevant because it meant I ran the heater, and that cuts heavily into EV range. I got about 65 miles out of the Leaf, and maybe 30 from the Volt. As it turned out, I was fine with the Volt but experienced range anxiety driving the Leaf, which would have been dead in the water if I let it run out of charge. I didn’t want to end up on the wrong end of a tow rope.
A 2010 survey from the Consumer Electronics Association found concern about running out of charge among 71 percent of those responding—and it was one of the biggest disadvantages of owning an electric car in the study. A new survey by Mintel International also found a considerable amount of battery anxiety, though this time it was the commonly expressed (and related) worry about how long the battery pack will last. Some 2,000 Internet users over 18 were asked if they agreed with the statement, “I would worry about the longevity of the battery if I was buying an electric or hybrid vehicle.”
Fifty percent overall said yes, though somewhat ominously the percentage goes up among the higher-income people most likely to buy a $38,000 2012 Nissan Leaf. Fifty-eight percent of those with household incomes of $100,000 to $150,000 said battery longevity was an issue. Only 40 percent of people with incomes below $25,000 seem concerned, but how many could afford a Leaf?
We don't actually know how long EV battery packs will last, but the results with the Toyota Prius are very promising--as Consumer Reports noted, many cars with over 200,000 miles on them are still going strong on their original packs. Many companies, including Toyota have environmentally friendly battery pack recycling programs, so that takes care of another concern.
The other results were more heartening for EVs. No income-related trajectory was visible when people were asked to agree with, “I don’t want a car that can’t be filled up with gasoline when necessary (such as for vacation trips).” And only 33 percent of respondents said they wouldn’t buy what was presumably interpreted as an electric car (though natural gas and hydrogen also power automobiles). And only a quarter said they’d rather buy gas than “have to plug in a car to charge the engine” (sic, since electric cars have motors, not engines).
I take these results in stride, since they reflect the views of people with very little knowledge of or experience with plug-in cars. Most people, asked how much they drive in a day, would quote a figure that was wildly over the actual number. I would have probably said 30 miles, until I spent some time with a Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid and discovered that I rarely exceeded its 13-mile electric range limit. An EV trial among employees of Tokyo Electric Power found that driver confidence grew dramatically as they spent time behind the wheel. And most stopped worrying about the location of charge stations, since they found they could easily get back to company headquarters without plugging in.
So here’s a reason I think that electric cars will take a while to catch on. If half of Americans are bothered by range anxiety, it will probably require slow-moving word-of-mouth from friends or neighbors to convince them that life with an EV is possible, even fun. After all, plugging in (especially in the comfort of your own garage) is inherently easier than pumping gas in some windblown concrete plaza.
So enough on what I think. I randomly asked a few friends for their opinions. Alice, a single mother and corporate analyst who’s also firmly green, told me in an email, “Yes, I’d definitely buy a car that went only 100 miles, since I rarely drive more than 20 miles at a time.”
Becky, a Tulane University professor of English (and my cousin) said, “I live near home and don’t go very far, so an electric car would not give me range anxiety. Now give me a car that has a 100-mile range and fits two large golden retrievers and I will be happy.” I think the Nissan Leaf would actually work, but she might find the price of entry too steep.
Dan, an artist who makes large moving assemblages inspired by comic books, had blackouts on the mind, since he’d just been through Tropical Storm Irene and was without electricity. “Wouldn’t your EV be useless in a situation like we’re in right now?” he asked. “You couldn’t charge it.” Good point, although you wouldn’t be deterred if you had solar panels on the roof—something Dan is investigating. Nonetheless, he said he’d definitely buy an EV because “I don’t drive more than 60 miles a day.” I seem to have friends who don’t drive much.
I also wanted to talk to television critic Ed, since he’s not exactly Mr. Greenjeans. He said, “Not a chance. I have enough stress in my life without worrying that my car will power down in 100 miles and I won’t be in a place where I can recharge it. Screw that. I top off my gas tank when it’s half full, so I’d only buy one of these if there were charging stations everywhere.”
So based on that decidedly informal survey, maybe range anxiety isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be (although there are a lot of Eds out there). But I have to say I experienced it myself, and there’s a sinking feeling that goes along with seeing a flashing “low battery” indicator. If I owned the car, range anxiety probably wouldn’t have bothered me, because I’d know exactly how many miles it had to empty. So let’s check in on this question again after a few more electric cars are on the road.