Are 50-Mile Electric Cars The Most Suitable For Cities?

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2013 Scion iQ EV hits the U.S.

2013 Scion iQ EV hits the U.S.

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The words 'range anxiety' probably send a shudder down the spine of most electric car owners, even if they don't suffer from the condition themselves.

Describing the sense of dread associated with running low on charge, it's often brought up without considering just how many EVs are currently used.

Those in cities, for instance. With limited mileage in city driving, just how much range does an electric car really need?

Is 50 miles actually enough?

Existing 50-mile cars

Some carmakers seem to think so. Toyota, for example. The Scion iQ EV has a small, 12.5 kWh battery with a quoted range of only 50 miles.

The Mitsubishi i is said to do a similar distance in real-world driving, and in Europe the Renault Twizy is quoted as having a 50-mile range--and the Twizy is very much a city-only car.

Other carmakers are hinting at cars with similarly limited ranges. The Volkswagen Nils and Audi Urban Concepts previewed last year were both short-range electric vehicles designed exclusively for city use. The former is said to do 40 miles on a charge, the latter only 37.

Pike Research reports that in urban settings, research suggests that drivers can get away with surprisingly low range vehicles.

The University of Colorado at Boulder revealed results of a study showing that drivers of the prototype Prius Plug-In averaged only 22 miles between charging events. In the Prius that's enough for the engine to kick in, but in a short-range electric car, it wouldn't be enough for the dreaded range anxiety.

And Chevrolet's research into typical daily range was why the Volt's electric range ended up being a usable 40-50 miles--many drivers don't regularly go over that.

Some suitability

The benefits of small batteries in electric cars are clear. There's greater efficiency through less weight, costs are lower, and it's easier to package a smaller battery, particularly if the vehicle itself is small.

There are negatives, too. A 50-mile range may be suitable for the 'average' journey, but if that figure is composed half and half from 25 mile and 75 mile journeys, it won't be suitable for half of the trips made.

Some city-specific EVs aren't really designed for longer distances in the first place--few could accuse the Renault Twizy of having a range unsuitable for its intended environment--and as some cities develop a greater charging network, more frequent trips will become increasingly viable.

Price versus range

Cost once again comes into the equation. People are almost certain to accept a lower-range electric car as prices come down enough to make such a thing attractive.

Priced low enough--even below that of an internal combustion vehicle, and short-range electric cars may sell as second or third vehicles, and cover the majority of a family's short trips.

They're unlikely to break out of niche territory in the U.S.--unless some cities follow Europe in implementing increasing restrictions on emissions--but at the right price point, that niche could expand quickly.

Would you buy a short range electric car if you only did city trips? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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Comments (14)
  1. A 12.5KWh battery is typically good for about 45 miles with full charges (@ 3.6mile/KWh). To conserve the battery for long term by charge up to 80% of it. Then it becomes a 36 miles range EV... It is enough for many city daily drivers. But it has real limitation and they would have to "rent" another car for long trip (such as Zipcars) or have another car to back up (which is difficult to park in a crowded city).

    The only reason it would work if it is extremely cheap to own, insure and operate. With a smaller battery and purposely designed city car, the cost should be low (or at least the leasing rate is low). Insurance and operating cost should be low since its mileage is low.

    But many crowded cities have limited charging spots...

  2. It depends completely on the prospective driver and their circumstances. Do they commute to work? Do they own multiple cars? Do they live in the suburbs?

    I like Tesla's strategy of offering three battery options and letting the owner decide.

  3. Yes, Tesla is the only amnufacture of Ev's that doesn't subscribe to the seemly agreed upon 75 mile range club. Or say its range is just good enough for the majority of American commuting needs. Tesla actually makes Ev's that are not just as good but better than gasoline cars. I my self am looking forward to the Blue star mid $30,000 Tesla sedan that is to be released about 2015. I would love a Tesla Model S but I am not in the market for at $77,000 dollar car. I will definitly like to see a mid $30,000 Ev with decent range of 150+ miles.

  4. Nissan already figured its Leaf had ample range because 85% trips are less than 40 miles anyway. That statistic isn't very helpful though if 99% of people expect their car to be able to cover 100% of their trips.

    Price is the great equalizer though. Bargain basement Twizzy is the hottest selling EV in Europe: no range to speak of, but dirt cheap and apparently capable of filling a niche in the market I still don't quite understand.

    Another downside of small batteries: capacity may fade quickly (depending on chemistry) since they get cycled often and probably relatively deep to get a somewhat decent range, and because all the power needed has to be coughed up by a relatively small pack.

  5. Most of the time, an electric car such as iQ EV can exceed a real-world range of *30 miles with full climate control & reserves to tackle the unexpected. An 80% charge is good reference, as it better reflects expectations of a full charge after 5 years of use.

    50 miles in flat city on a nice day may sound like a lot, but most cities have more challenging geography, weather, & traffic. How many real world miles on 80% does this equate driving roads on:
    1) hills of San Francisco, or Seattle
    2) winter in New York, or Minneapolis
    3) summer in Atlanta, or Houston
    4) freeways of Los Angles

    Does iQ EV meet your needs?

    *Battery sizes, prices & vehicle efficiency varies between manufactures. There are many EVs with a 70-100 mi stated range.

  6. Sloppily written - one could conclude that the i-MiEV has no more EV range than a Volt, but that's not true. By whatever criteria a Volt might claim 40-50 mi range, an i-MiEV would be more like 75.

    I've been driving my i-MiEV for a couple months, and if you're not running the heater or pushing air at freeway speeds it's good for 70 miles with this brand new battery; that likely translates to 50-60 miles after five years, depending on driving/charging habits. I rarely drive 40 miles in a day, usually more like 10, so it's easy for me to avoid overcharging and/or deep discharging. The i works great for me, and likely would for a lot of drivers who are similarly situated.

  7. Small batteries and tiny cars just make more sense given current EV tech. Quick-charging 100kWh battery packs are impractical for most of us - even if battery prices came down and chemistries could be developed capable of being really slam-charged, delivering 50kW is a big deal, and even that would take a couple of hours to get the job done. In such a scenario, BetterPlace's idea of paying your energy provider by the mile and swapping battery packs at will, allowing battery packs to be charged at a pace more conducive to their longevity and freeing EV owners from investing in obsolete battery tech, starts to make a lot more sense. Until we have that, a small EV as a handy member of the family fleet is the natural niche for now.

  8. Hey, I have an idea! Why not make electrics with variable capacity batteries. You specify what size battery you want as an option when purchasing the car. The longer your anticipated drive pattern, the larger the battery you order. Bet this is standard in about five years....

  9. @JohnP: Mitsubishi has been offering this in Japan for some time; Tesla is doing it here.

    @Ule: At least Nissan, Tesla Motors and Mitsubishi would disagree with your understanding of "current EV tech". Together they put about 40'000 fast-charge-capable EVs on the road already. None are what I'd call tiny. Batteries handle 50kW fine (just like regen); dozens of companies offer chargers delivering this much; ~2000 are in operation worldwide.

    No manufacturer I know of offers a 100 kW*h pack, nor would call a several-hours charge "fast".

    Battery swapping surely offers great benefits, but it requires a dramatically larger infrastructure, which I'm afraid will take forever to build up.
    Pricing, subscriptions terms might be another hurdle.

  10. With respect to people who are suffering "range anxety"...
    Living in cities, well, metropolises such as Los Angeles and Chicago as well as smaller entities, the range aspect comes into question of you get stuck in traffic or stop lights At this juncture again the question does arise...:"What if I am stuck on a street, in traffice, on a cold/hot day with the air-conditoner/heater turned on how much is my range diminished and at what point and to what degree do I give creedence to the range numbers provided by the manufacturer?

  11. It looks that this "range anxiety" mythical thing affects people talking about EVs tremendously more than those actually driving one. :)

    Speed impacts energy usage much more than climate control, so being slowed down due to traffic would typically result in more range, not less.
    Now if you plan on remaining stuck for hours in cold weather, yes it may be wise to remember that resistive heaters can suck up to several kW, equivalent of 3 to 10 miles of range per hour. If it's a concern, set it lower (or off). The estimated remaining range displayed on the dash updates accordingly.

    Range numbers from the manufacturers? I'd suggest the EPA ones instead. And batteries degrade with age (Nissan claims 70% remaining at year 10), YMMV etc etc

  12. Being a two car household we have two commutes. one is 64 miles RT, the other varies from 10 to 100 miles so 50 would not work. The EV must be able to make the 64 mile RT, BUT...The MiEV would work because there is quick charge a few miles from the commute destination. The Leaf has made the trip without issue but we are starting our 3rd Winter and have not had the cold weather yet to test the range degradation an additional year of driving has brought us so it remains to be seen. we have taken steps to help the LEAF cope with the cold

    part 3 to follow

  13. I have a 94 Hyundai Excel(3,500 miles/year) that gets 45MPG hwy when I use it. I also have an electric recumbent bike that gets >6,000 miles a year. The e-bike weighs a lot less than an electric car. My 1KWH lithium ion batt gives me 20 > 40 miles on a charge (no pedaling) and costs 12 cents to charge. For me, this is the most efficient setup. I have the car for l-o-n-g trips and bad weather when I NEED IT!!

  14. unfortunatly I would be stranded in 50 mile range vehicle for the driving I do in Dallas.

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