In the US, the saying “Bigger is Better” captures the national psyche. From a 2200 sq. ft. home, to 16 connected devices per family, to a $47,000 new vehicle cost, the averages tell it all: Bigness is pervasive in the US as nowhere else in the world. Now that electric vehicles (EVs) are coming into the mainstream, Bigger is Better is an extended EV theme, too — the best EVs have bigger size for roominess and bigger batteries for longer range. In fact, a 300 mile range is considered a Must.
After all, longer range is elegant. It is a Zen-like premium for those who can afford it. It offers security and comfort.
But is a 300-mile range really necessary?
The Inflation Reduction Act offers extensive tax credits to buy both new and used EVs. California just announced that it intends to ban the sale of internal combustion engine (ICE)-powered vehicles starting in 2035. EVs are the talk of the town.
So, too, is matching an EV to an individual’s lifestyle. An oft-cited fact from the US Department of Transportation is that the average person in the US drives 1,200 miles per month, or about 39 miles per day roundtrip. 95% of our car trips are 30 miles or shorter. That driving distance reality, however, doesn’t seem to sink in to most US drivers.
The memory of the first generation Nissan Leaf’s perfectly acceptable 24 kWh for a range of 84 miles still makes people shudder. Proving that EVs can power a typical trip is an important psychological hurdle to overcome for range anxiety — that drivers’ fear of being stranded with an out-of-charge vehicle before reaching their destinations or the closest available charging station.
A combination of geography, history, and ICE road trip hyperbole has become a baseline comparison for EV absolutely necessary range. But they’re not the same — no longer is the gas station on the corner the only method of fueling. Electrification replaces the ICE combined reality and mythology of distance with options.
Then again, having options is confusing and time-consuming.
Choosing an option that’s closest to familiar ICE practices seems the easiest way to make sense of EVs. That means a premium EV with a big battery and access to a fast-charging network like Tesla infuses consistent driver confidence.
But is this veneer of big and fast necessary for an average day in the life of a US driver?
The Continual Process of Reducing Range Anxiety
Efficient planning of EV charging infrastructure is a starting point to reconcile range anxiety. By improving home charging for urban apartment dwellers and prioritizing EVs with smaller batteries, we can maximize the miles we as a society can affordably electrify. In that way, road trips and big batteries become less the topic of conversation than does EV zero emissions, luxury, low maintenance cost, and reliability.
Information and communication technologies (ICT) can help to reduce drivers’ level of range anxiety, according to a 2021 study in the Annals of GIS. That’s because range anxiety is affected by a subjective estimation of useable range. Stress buffering can go a long way to soothe range anxiety through ICT infrastructure, such as smartphone applications, providing drivers with objective range estimations.
A recent New York Times article describes the bigger-is-better battery dilemma as the current solution to consumer range anxiety. Big batteries are providing the power and range that make EVs appealing to US buyers. Such “massive batteries” make EVs on average “around 30% more expensive than gas-powered cars. That problem will likely get worse,” they continue, “as battery supply chain constraints make batteries more expensive, bucking past trends that have made them cheaper.” Battery innovations, while important for the forward momentum of the EV industry, are not the only thing to take into account when discussing EV viability, due to supply chain and other considerations.
The future may require a combination of zero emission transportation options for us all. That could start with an all-electric vehicle, and the model chosen could have multiple uses — commuting, hauling, transporting the team. But transportation should also include an e-bike, electric public transit, and an occasional rental car to meet the requirements of our vital and exciting lives.
The Façade of Big in EVs
It is true that long range EVs give apartment-dwellers or those in multi-family buildings the option of charging once every week or two from a public charger. On the other hand, vehicles with big batteries also take a long time to charge, Green Car Reports reminds us, which puts a heavier load not just on efforts to have people charge at off-peak times but also on public charging infrastructure.
Greater energy density allows smaller, lighter, less resource-intensive battery packs and more appeal across demographics. Indeed, big batteries might actually inhibit more people from buying an EV, thus stalling the important transition to all-electric transportation. Battery cells cost about $128/kWh to start. A larger weight vehicle requires more batteries, so the vehicle cost rises commensurate with battery price.
Big batteries aren’t the greenest way to go electric. Sure, the GMC-Hummer EV and Tesla Cybertruck’s full-size dimensions means huge battery packs. But, as the International Energy Agency has pointed out, battery cells will continue to make rapid progress in energy density — those kilowatt-hours per weight of your choice. Increased battery energy density will help reduce battery manufacturing emissions and the life-cycle carbon impact of the cells.
Final Thoughts about a 300-Mile Range
The dilemma about 300-mile range being a deal breaker is mythologized and can be easily refuted. As example, according to the JD Power 2022 US Electric Vehicle Experience (EVX) Ownership Study, satisfaction among first time EV buyers is almost as high as it is for EV veterans. Battery range is only one element of the whole picture of EV gratification. Here are 10 factors of satisfaction, listed in alphabetical order:
- Accuracy of stated battery range
- Availability of public charging stations
- Battery range
- Cost of ownership
- Driving enjoyment
- Ease of charging at home
- Interior and exterior styling
- Safety and technology features
- Service experience
- Vehicle quality and reliability
These responses from new EV drivers should be resonating with the transportation community at large. The climate crisis requires us to eliminate transportation’s 29% of all US greenhouse gas emissions, so electrification is essential. Yes, it’s difficult to break free from a comfortable car culture and its associated habits, but high tech, clean energy mobility is ready for us now — and is very appealing to the new audience of EV drivers.
To meet the all transportation needs, we must continually reflect on others’ perceptions so we can learn how to best meet needs rather than discounting past experiences. Then again, driving an EV is not driving an ICE-powered vehicle, so molding the image of past car ownership into today’s EV driving experience won’t always work.
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