Gregory Milligan

The number one objection raised by potential customers of electric cars is that of range. In one study over 70% of respondents said they were nervous about driving an EV because they might run out of power.

What is the reality?

Are you really likely to run out of power?

What are the consequences if you do?

How can you prevent this “calamity”?

First of all, let’s examine whether or not an EV will give you the range you need.

The average car in Australia does around 14,000 kilometres a year. This equates to around 38 kilometres per day, with an average commute of 19 kilometres each way.

The average Melbourne commute by car is 12 kilometres each way.

The average Sydney commute is 19 kilometres each way.

Almost all commutes in the Melbourne region, including those from the outermost suburbs, are less than 80 kilometres and those in the upper levels are rare. A group of Melbourne region university campuses were surveyed in 2014 and of 1,268 staff across these campuses 81% had a commute of less than 50 kilometres and the average across all staff was just under 32 kilometres.

Clearly, the vast majority of us don’t need a lot of range for our daily business.

“But”, I hear you say, “what about all the weekend trips, and what if I want to drive across the country?”

Really, how often do you do weekend trips that are more than 100 kilometres? How often would you go away for the weekend where there isn’t a chance to recharge? If you are regularly going on long overland offroading trips, or fishing weekends towing a boat, then you aren’t in the market for an EV in the first place….and the rest of us simply don’t do long trips very often.

“But what if I WANT to do a long trip, drive across the country?”

Well…here’s a scenario for you. Assume you drive a car that gets 7 litres per 100 km, a fairly average car, and you do the average 14,000 kilometres per year, and petrol costs $1.40 per litre. Over a year you will pay $1,372 for petrol.

If you drive an electric car which uses 160 Wh/km, about the same as a Nissan Leaf, and your electricity costs 30c per kWh, you will spend $672 on electricity, saving $700 which will hire a car for a week.

The reality is that very few people will need more range than an EV offers for seven days in a year, and most households who will need that have more than one car, one of which can be an EV without precluding using the other for long trips occasionally. Also most of us have family, friends, neighbours etc who would gladly swap cars with you for a day if you need to make a long trip.

My wife and I did over 50,000 kilometres on electric power in a little over two years, and in that time we had five days when our trips were beyond what the EV could handle. We saved around $10,000 from using the EV instead of our petrol car, and apart from those five days the only time we used the petrol car was when we needed to tow a trailer or carry a load (our petrol car is our farm ute, a Toyota Hilux) which is the sole reason that we actually kept a petrol car at all! That $10,000 would have paid for a hire car for those 5 days with a lot of change left over…..

Long trips are possible with electric, it just needs a little planning. Shortly after buying her EV, my wife used it to visit her sister who lived 120 kilometres away over winding, hilly Tasmanian roads. Her car (a Mitsubishi i MiEV) would not make the trip. She planned ahead, and rang a pub along the way which caters for campervans, asking if they had a powerpoint she could plug into. They said they did, so she planned the trip to stop there for lunch while the car topped up on its charge before continuing to her destination, which she reached with power to spare. The same was done on the way home after the weekend and she arrived home safely.

As charging points are rolled out this will become less and less of an issue…

Some car companies have adopted an alternative approach to range anxiety…in the USA if you buy a BMW i3 or Fiat 500e or if you buy a Nissan Leaf in the UK, you get a certain number of days per year where you can stop at the dealer’s and borrow a petrol car for your long trip.

Others have tried the idea of swapping battery packs, but the costs involved in establishing the stations wasn’t covered by the small number of initial users and Better Place which had this scheme operating in Denmark and Israel went bust. Tesla are experimenting with this concept in California, but with the long range that Teslas already have and the rollout of Supercharger fast charging stations, it is unlikely that this will spread…

Many people think that their new EV will lose battery capacity quickly and they won’t have full range any more. While it is true that EV batteries lose capacity over time, most companies are building in a buffer of capacity, so that the battery is not truly flat when the gauge says empty.

Lithium batteries do NOT like being run flat often! Many people will have a story of a laptop battery or phone battery that got weaker and weaker as time went on…this is usually from running it flat or nearly flat often. By limiting how low the battery will go, its lifespan is dramatically increased, and by not topping it up to full you can increase this still further (again, most car makers leave some reserve here too, so the car stops charging before the battery is truly completely full) and the Nissan Leaf offers a mode where the charger will switch off at 80% to maximise battery life.

Many people have done more than 50,000 kilometres on EVs with no more than 5-10% loss in battery capacity. People who have an average commute will be shallow cycling their batteries and being very kind to them, so their batteries will have a long life, and if you have a short commute you can lose a LOT of battery capacity before you will even notice it! Basically, for the average urban driver the batteries will last the life of the car. Only those who are pushing the envelope will notice the slow loss of capacity over time and even then it’s not the boogie man it’s made out to be.

So…..what happens if you do run out of range?

Well…down here in Tasmania, the RACT has a trailer with a battery pack which can be used for charging an EV on the road side to get it to the next charging spot. If that fails, a tow truck can take you to a charge point.

I have only ever run out once…when I had not had the car long I began (in the name of scientific research!) to push the boundaries further and further, seeing just how far I could take the car before turning for home. I got more and more cheeky, and, inevitably, I eventually pushed a bit too far and ran out 500 metres from my home. A quick call to home and a tow rope dragged me the last few metres…..lesson learned!

The reality is that with a bit of practice, certainly by the time you have had the car for a few months, you get a feel for how far you can go and range anxiety simply melts away to be replaced by a warm glow and the “EV grin”!!!

If you are running a bit low and want somewhere to top up, there is a website (with iOS and Android apps) called Plugshare, where you can find the nearest charging point. People can even put their home on it if they are willing to allow other fellow EV converts to charge in times of need…

You will also soon develop a network of friends who think your EV is seriously cool and offer a powerpoint to plug into  if you ever need it.