'Range Anxiety' Versus Reality - Why EVs Haven't Won Our Hearts and Minds

Major Nelson/CC BY 2.0

Census data tends to render up some interesting facts about American life. Recently researchers Garrett Fitzgerald and Rob van Haaren, doctoral candidates at Columbia University, looked at the National Household Travel Survey of 2009 (and other) data to help discover why electric vehicles aren't flying off the showroom floor...yet why they should be.

Under the assumption that range anxiety is one of the main barriers to the electrification of the U.S. car fleet, Fitzgerald and van Haaren set out to show what types of trips American drivers are actually taking, and from there determine whether a fully charged electric vehicle can meet those needs.

From a 2011 Accenture survey on drivers attitudes towards EVs, the researchers gleaned that on average, drivers say they require a range of 272 miles in order to consider purchasing an electric car as their next vehicle!

That's in sharp contrast to our actual driving needs and habits.

From the Travel Survey data, the two researchers show that 10% of individual car trips are under a mile, 95% of trips are under 30 miles, and 99% of all trips are under 70 miles. (Urban households' trips averaged 8.5 miles, while rural households' trips averaged 12.1 miles.)

When US drivers' total trips are aggregated over an entire day, 95% of total daily journeys are below 120 miles and 99% are below 250 miles. Car commuting distances were found to average just around 12.6 miles nationally, with 95% below 40 miles and 99% shorter than 60 miles.

This means an electric vehicle currently could handle the vast majority of the individual trips Americans make with no problem, especially if a recharge was available at the other end for the small amount of journeys between 30 and 70 miles.

From the Census, Fitzgerald and van Haaren determined that in American households with cars, over 64% own more than one vehicle. This is important, the researchers believe, as it makes a majority of households fairly easily able to make up any lack of range of a new EV with their second gas vehicle.

"I think it is important to get the word out about the discrepancy between actual miles driven and consumers' perception of that and consequently the standards they demand from a car's range," said Rob van Haaren. "Assuming no quick-charge stations are built yet, I believe that picking the right car (EV or non-EV) for the length of the trip is as simple as not picking a two-seater from the garage when you're picking up three friends from the airport. In other words, given that U.S. households typically have more than two cars, 'Range Anxiety' is something that is overemphasized and it can be dealt with by simple planning."

So why do we crave so much range? Fitzgerald and van Haaren speculate that it's a 'freedom and comfort' standard that Americans are particularly imbued with. In addition, globally consumers seem to still feel unsure that they know enough about EVs to buy one.

And of course, range isn't the only issue that is making the EV dream a hard sell - some say EVs are a "solution to a problem we don't have" - and here's a rebuttal that's smart and also realistic.

To help change American's knowledge base about EVs, Fitzgerald and van Haaren are planning to go on the road in the summer of 2012 using only solar power to charge an electric vehicle as they cross the country giving lectures on EV technology. They will drag a trailer that can hold 7 kWp of flexible solar panels and batteries for extra juice.

Tags: Alternative Energy | Alternative Fuels | Electric Cars | Electric Vehicles