Range Anxiety Antidote: You Don't Drive As Far As You Think

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Scenes from dedication of electric-car charging station at Creekside Inn, Palo Alto, CA

Scenes from dedication of electric-car charging station at Creekside Inn, Palo Alto, CA

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It's been known among electric-car advocates for years that so-called "range anxiety" is somewhat overblown.

That's despite, we might add, advertisements by a large U.S. company that sells a range-extended plug-in car that highlight its ability to let you drive it across the country on the spur of the moment.

Which, quite frankly, very few of us ever do.

Education the key

But range anxiety in the market is real, despite volumes of data showing that virtually every American car covers less than the 100-mile nominal range of most modern electric cars.

2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt, with charging station visible; photo by George Parrott

2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt, with charging station visible; photo by George Parrott

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It will be largely a process of education and acclimatization, as the first battery-electric cars start to show up and their owners answer questions from curious neighbors.

Over time, those first owners will be able to reassure many that electric cars aren't as scary as some imagine.

And, to be fair, electric cars aren't for everyone. If you cover more than 100 miles a day, or suddenly need to visit places several hours away, stick with gasoline (preferably a higher-mileage hybrid or clean diesel, of course).

First Nissan Leaf data

Now Nissan has released some data from its first 1,500 Leaf electric car buyers, showing that in fact they too drove far less each day than the car's electric range.

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

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And those Leaf owners almost all used the car as their primary, sometimes only, vehicle.

The daily average mileage on those first Leafs was "well below 60," according to Brendan Jones, director of Leaf marketing and sales strategy during an interview yesterday.

And the average single drive was 7 to 12 miles, allowing at least some Leaf owners to recharge during the day if they felt so inclined.

The average daily charging time, Jones said, was between 2.5 and 3 hours a day on a 240-Volt recharging station--well below the 6 to 8 hours needed to recharge a fully depleted pack.

Less than 10 percent go 100 miles a day

And Nissan's experience is borne out by many studies using much larger pools of vehicles and drivers.

2012 Mitsubishi i

2012 Mitsubishi i

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In explaining the concept behind the 25-to-40-mile electric range of its 2011 Chevy Volt, GM cites over and over the statistic that more than 70 percent of U.S. vehicles travel less than 40 miles a day.

When you get up to 100 miles (the range of a 2011 Nissan Leaf under some circumstances), the percentage of cars that exceed that distance drops to single digits.

We're a nation with the myth of the open road embedded in our DNA. But for almost all of us, almost all the time, the open road leads to the mall, school, jobs, stop-and-go traffic, and a fairly predictable usage pattern.

A moment of clarity

2011 Chevrolet Volt on test in Little Rock, Arkansas, July 2011

2011 Chevrolet Volt on test in Little Rock, Arkansas, July 2011

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This was highlighted by Nelson Ireson, editor for performance and luxury vehicles at MotorAuthority, who recently spent a week with a 2011 Chevy Volt.

He was surprised to find a single charge of the Volt's pack lasted through three days of errands and short trips, including grocery runs, quick lunch dashes, and a trip to the movies.

In fact, he drove a total of just 21 miles over that period, despite living in what many would consider the least optimal environment for the Volt: the sprawling, sweltering suburbs of the South.

You really don't drive as much as you think you do. You just spend a whole lot of time doing it.

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