By Eric Jaffe, September 30, 2013
One of the biggest barriers to the spread of electric vehicles is the fear of having the battery run out on the road. The result of this "range anxiety," as it's often known, is that people want EVs capable of lasting much longer than necessary. In the United States, for instance, people drive about 40 miles a day on average but prefer EVs with a range closer to 300 miles.
That's a little like wanting a gas tank that never gets halfway to Empty.
Recently the German psychologist Thomas Franke arranged a trial to see what, if anything, might ameliorate these concerns in potential EV buyers. What he found wouldn't surprise clinical therapists but does present a bit of a paradox for the electric industry: the best treatment for range anxiety is to confront it behind the wheel. Franke and Josef Krems write in an upcoming issue of Transport Policy:
Thus, only customers with EV experience seem to rely on accurate estimates of their range needs when constructing their range preferences.Franke and Krems drew their conclusion after holding an EV trial in and around metropolitan Berlin. They recruited 79 people to drive a MINI Cooper with a battery range of roughly 100 miles for a few months. The researchers collected information on driving habits during the trial — focusing on the average battery needs of participants, and asking them at various times what type of battery they prefer.
As expected, people in the study preferred a battery substantially more powerful than what they needed for their everyday commute. Test drivers gave a minimum acceptable battery range of 84 miles despite only driving 36 miles a day on average. Most people preferred a battery range that went far beyond their typical daily drives, and many preferred one that outlasted even their maximum daily drive:
But this range disparity did improve over the course of the trial. Before the test period, the minimum acceptable battery range was about 90 miles; after the trial, it was closer to 77 miles. Both of these preferences are greater than the average daily need, but the latter is more in line with reality.
In other words, as drivers got more comfortable with the EV battery, they adjusted their range preference down toward their actual range need.
The obvious lesson is that EV experience informs EV expectations. That's a tricky truth from a sales perspective, because it represents a bit of a Catch-22: people who are uncomfortable with the idea of driving EVs won't buy one, but people won't get comfortable with the idea of driving EVs until they buy one. Perhaps it's time to expand the traditional 15-minute "test drive" into something more like a 3-month "test ownership."
There's another point here that's just as critical. The study data suggest that range anxiety might not reflect fears of making it through an average day — instead it might reflect fears of making it through the longest day. If that's the case, then charging infrastructure (especially in metro areas) will also play a key role in reducing EV concerns. The reason conventional car buyers don't get "gas-tank anxiety" is not just driving experience but also knowing there's always a gas station nearby.