Going the Distance: Range Anxiety Overlooks EVs’ Sweet Spot

"PictureThere’s a famous clip from the sitcom Seinfeld, where Kramer takes a car out for a test drive and—with a nervous but eventually supportive salesman in the passenger seat—sees just how far he can drive with the needle dipping well below “E” on the fuel gauge. Together they stared the gas tank’s range (and the potential of the engine stalling on the highway) squarely in the face, braving the prospect of getting stranded by the roadside.

In the past two weeks, a related but very different saga has played out in the world of electric vehicles. On February 8, the New York Times published the article “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway.” Automotive writer John Broder set out in a Tesla Model S—with an EPA-rated range of 265 miles and an unofficial range of 300 miles or more—with the intention of driving from Washington, D.C. to Boston, using Tesla’s network of East Coast Superchargers along the way.

Broder’s trip was plagued by ever-present range anxiety, a constant worry that he’d run out of charge. As it turned out, the trip ended on a dramatic note—with Broder’s Tesla allegedly dying and getting taken on the back of a flatbed tow truck to the Milford, CT Supercharger station. That proved to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk almost immediately took to social media to cry foul. On February 12, Broder published a defense of his initial article on the Times’ automotive blog. One day later, Musk published his own rebuttal on the Tesla blog, with a scathing and seemingly damning refutation of Broder’s claims, based on what Musk claimed were data logs from the Model S Broder drove. Yet another day later, Broder responded to those criticisms. Finally, two days ago, the Times’ public editor—following a detailed investigation in light of the firestorm that blew up surrounding the review—noted “problems with precision and judgment” in Broder’s Model S and Supercharger network review. Consider it a partial vindication for Tesla.

Meanwhile, other media outlets—including CNN—have successfully completed the D.C.-to-Boston drive in a Model S with barely a fraction of the issues Broder encountered.

Regardless, the Tesla-NYT kerfuffle has put one issue front and center in the minds of the general public, and especially would-be EV owners: range anxiety.

The fact that this issue is even coming up at all is in some respects a credit to Tesla. Compared to the Chevy Volt, with an EPA-estimated electric-only range of 38 miles, and the Nissan LEAF, with an EPA-rated range of 73 miles, the Tesla Model S’s 265-mile range blows the others out of the water. Its exceptional range offers the promise of convenience EV driving, the ability to take long trips on a whim, just as you might with a gas-powered car. With an expanding network of Superchargers, that future looks even more promising.

But this much ado about range anxiety is a distraction from the real sweet spot and potential of EVs today. U.S. drivers average 13,476 miles per year; that’s 37 miles per day, according to the Office of Highway Policy Information. The most recent National Household Travel Survey by DOT’s Federal Highway Administration puts that number even lower—a scant 29 vehicle miles per day, with an average trip length less than 10 miles.

Either way, these numbers are well within the range of most EVs, especially when you take into account the ability to charge at the office during the work day, or at retail centers while running errands, shopping, and grabbing lunch. As such, today’s EVs are particularly well suited to the kind of driving you and I are likely to undertake in our day-to-day lives. That is their promise, and on that promise, they deliver.

Americans are enamored of our autos and our highways. Perhaps it is some form of an inherited, automotive incarnation of Manifest Destiny; the idea that—with enough time and enough range, whether gasoline-powered or measured in kWh of battery charge—the open road is ours to drive toward distant parts unknown. Tesla’s Model S opens the door to that possibility, but in the meantime, let’s not forget the way most of us actually drive, and how today’s EVs are incredibly compatible with those habits. It’s in their sweet spot. 

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Image courtesy Tesla Motors.