May 23 2022

EVs and Range Anxiety

Demand for electric vehicles (EVs) is increasing, but still there is lingering hesitancy to make the switch to EVs. Sales of EVs have been increasing geometrically over the last decade, with global sales reaching 6.6 million in 2021, compared to 66.7 million total vehicles sold. While this trend is encouraging, there is still a long way to go and the global warming clock is ticking. So what barriers remain to more complete adoption of EVs?

Up front cost is still an issue, but this has been largely mitigated by the availability of more EV options that are in the range of comparable internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Also the total cost of owning an EV is cheaper. According to a 2020 analysis:

For all EVs analyzed, the lifetime ownership costs were many thousands of dollars lower than all comparable ICE vehicles’ costs, with most EVs offering savings of between $6,000 and $10,000. While new EVs were found to offer significant cost savings over comparable ICE vehicles, the cost savings of 5- to 7-year-old used EVs was found to be two or three times larger on a percentage savings basis.

That was also before the recent spike in gasoline prices, and such spikes are not rare and likely to happen during the course of owning an EV. I wrote recently about the local health benefits of reducing pollution. I own an EV and I can also attest to other practical benefits. The driving performance is excellent, better than any ICE car I have driven. I can “fill up” at home and never have to take the car to a gas station. There is also limited routine maintenance – no oil changes or all the other things that go with an ICE. Because of regenerative braking the brake pads also last much longer. The tires are really the only thing that require attention. It is simply a superior car-owning and driving experience, and the money saving is nice.

The EV industry is facing some challenges in terms of supply line issues (especially computer chips) and will likely run into serious issues with the supply of raw materials like lithium and cobalt this decade. But these issues are not fatal. There is the potential to develop new raw material sources, and research is focused on developing batteries made from alternative “Earth-abundant” materials. While this is a challenge, I think it’s likely the industry will solve these issues in order to meet growing demand.

Perhaps, therefore, the remaining hurdle to widespread adoption of EVs is psychological, specifically regarding range anxiety. A recent study in Nature Energy looks at this issue and finds that the main source of range anxiety is a potentially fixable cognitive bias. In their study the authors found that most of the people they interviewed overestimated the number of miles they drive and the disconnect between the range of an EV and their need for range. They underestimated the ability of an EV with a certain range to meet their driving needs by about 30%, and this more than anything resulted in resistance to buying an EV.

More than 90% of trips in a car are less than 200 km, or 125 miles. Although some sources I find put the figure for around 50 miles at 90%, 80-90 miles covering 99% of all trips. A vehicle with a range of 250 miles would cover >99% of all trips. Probably not by coincidence, the median range of EVs on the market today is 234 miles (even taking the most conservative estimates, this would cover >99% of all trips). If we assume one car trip per day, this could still mean for some people of trip of >250 miles a few times a year (this matches my driving pattern). This raises the question of what is the ideal range for an EV? There is seriously diminishing returns to going beyond 250 miles, with significant increases in range necessary to pick up very few additional trips. Increased battery size to accommodate these rare trips costs more money, adds more weight to the car (reducing efficiency), and uses up the limited battery resources.

At first it may seem that increased range is the answer to range anxiety, but it isn’t. We are already pretty much at the sweet spot for EV range (or arguably beyond it), with many EV options with additional range for people who need it.  What about recharging stations? This is a potential answer, because you can fast charge on the highway for those rare trips that exceed the range of your vehicle. Problem solved. We just need enough charging stations to accommodate everyone. We are not there yet, but I will say I have never been unable to find an available charging station close by or on the path of a trip. Still, with increasing EVs on the road we will also need an increased infrastructure of charging stations.

Also, charging an EV is easy if you own your own home (or more to the point, your own parking space) and can charge there. For those who do not own a parking space but have a car, they need public charging stations. Most of this can likely be handled by adding charging stations to parking garages. This is a solvable infrastructure issue, and so far we seem to be on track.

If cost, range, and charging stations are not significant barriers to adopting EVs, what’s left? The authors found it was simply the disconnect between what some drivers thought they needed (in terms of range) and what they actually needed. Further, this disconnect turned out to be a knowledge deficit issue, which was solvable by giving them factual information about driving and range. Once they realized that their range requirements were far less than they thought, their hesitancy to EVs decreased.

At this point I do not see any rational reason not to prefer an EV to an ICE vehicle (for residential driving needs, especially if you own your own parking space). They are cheaper overall, more convenient, a better driving experience, and are better for your health. Current EVs have plenty of range, and as long as we keep up with the demand for charging stations, keeping your car charged is actually easier than keeping your tank filled with gas. Plus, when gas prices spike you get to drive by the gas stations with signs for $4.50 per gallon and be grateful. Don’t let unjustified range anxiety get in the way.

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