Range anxiety – will an electric car go the distance for me?

Dr Euan McTurk, Plug Life Consulting Ltd

When looking into buying or leasing an electric car, one of the biggest concerns that people often have is range.  Many people like the idea of an electric car, but it needs to be suitable for their trips.  Will the car manage your commute no problem?  What about longer trips to go on holiday and visit faraway family and friends?  Also, do they actually achieve their advertised range?  Quite literally, will an electric car go the distance for you?  These are entirely understandable concerns, but once you delve into electric vehicles, you’ll be surprised by just how capable they are.

What’s the range of an electric vehicle?

When the first modern electric cars were launched in 2010, the likes of the Nissan LEAF, Renault Zoe and BMW i3 had a real-world range of 60-80 miles per charge.  That may not seem like a lot, but the average UK round-trip commute is around 23 miles, so these older EVs could easily serve as a commuter car for most people.  My own 24 kWh “short range” Nissan LEAF was driven 50 miles per day, mostly on hilly motorways, and typically arrived home with 30-40% charge left in the battery; it was then charged overnight, ready to go again in the morning.

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It didn’t take long for electric vehicle ranges to improve.  By 2019, the new BMW i3’s range per charge had doubled vs the original, and the Nissan LEAF’s range had trebled.  New, more energy-dense battery chemistries and designs have since become commonplace in EVs.  According to ev-database.uk, out of the 192 different makes and models of electric car that you can buy new today, 157 of them have a real-world range of over 200 miles per charge – that’s over 80% of EVs available to buy today.  53% of new EV makes and models have a real-world range of over 250 miles per charge, and there are currently 39 EVs available to buy or lease that have a real-world range in excess of 300 miles per charge.

To put that into perspective, 200 miles per charge is over a week and a half’s worth of the average commute, and comfortably over three hours of solid motorway driving.  From experience of my own 2015 Tesla Model S – which still has a range of over 200 miles per charge after nine years and 130,000 miles of motoring – I need to stop before the car does, otherwise my bladder will explode.  Many new electric vehicles can rapid charge within the average dwell time at a UK motorway service station. 

So, when on very long journeys, you pull off the motorway, plug into a rapid charger, go into the service station, and the car is likely to be ready to go when you are – without you then having to go and join the queue for the petrol station afterwards.  Many UK EV drivers even take their EVs on road trips across Europe with ease, stopping and charging when they need to, rather than being dictated by the car’s battery.  We’ll cover EV charging in more detail in a later article.

You mentioned “real-world” range?

Yes, I did.  I’m glad you noticed.  That’s because the “WLTP” (Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure) range quoted for most EVs is overly optimistic, just like the notoriously optimistic WLTP fuel economy quoted for petrol and diesel cars.  While WLTP is more realistic than the NEDC (New European Driving Cycle) EV range and petrol/diesel economy tests that it replaced – sometimes jokingly referred to as “Not Even Demonstrably Close” – the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a range test that is far more accurate, but that isn’t advertised on cars in the UK or Europe. 

However, to give it another well-earned shout-out, ev-database.uk lists the “real range estimation” range of EVs, and it tends to be far more accurate than WLTP – in fact, it’s a bit pessimistic if anything.  This means that the minority of EVs that are poorer-designed – and that claim to have longer ranges, but often don’t in reality – are weeded out.  So, when I say that over 80% of EVs that you can buy or lease new today have a range of over 200 miles per charge, I mean it. 

You’d have to be chewing up some serious motorway mileage with a fully laden car, a lead foot and sub-zero temperatures to get most of them to drop their range considerably; even then, ev-database.uk helpfully provides range estimates for different road speeds and ambient temperatures.  Besides, if EVs didn’t work in the above conditions, then there’s no way that the notoriously chilly Norway would be seeing EVs comprising over 80% of its new car sales, no matter what government incentives are thrown at them.

What if I can’t afford a long-range EV?

Whether you’re limited by budget, or cautiously looking to dip your toes into the water regarding electric vehicles, you’ll likely be surprised at the versatility of an old, cheap, short-range EV on the used car market.  Before I bought my high-mileage Tesla, I had my 24 kWh “short-range” Nissan LEAF and a petrol hybrid car.  I planned to use the LEAF on my commute and other journeys that were less than 50 miles, and the petrol hybrid for longer trips throughout the Central Belt of Scotland and down to England.  However, the LEAF proved itself to be very enjoyable to drive, and easy to top up on longer trip using rapid chargers. 

This resulted in the LEAF being driven from Edinburgh to as far south as Leeds and as far north as the Isle of Skye, both comfortably beyond the range of its battery, but easily doable with short rapid charging stops; on the Skye trip, the LEAF was ready to go before we were on all but one occasion.  Those journeys pale into comparison to people who’ve taken similarly old, short-range EVs from the UK to the centre of Europe and back.  If my plucky old LEAF could do that, so could any new EV today – and most examples on the used EV market.  As for the petrol hybrid car, it was used so little that it ended up seizing up on the driveway!

What’s your range?

Some people may think “I’ll get an EV when they can do 400/500/600 miles per charge.”  However, how far can you drive without stopping?  As mentioned previously, in the UK, 200 miles is well over three hours of motorway driving.  You’ll eventually hit traffic and have to slow down: that’s why the 320-mile distance from Coventry to Edinburgh is a solid six hours of driving. 

It would be unhealthy and unsafe to attempt to drive that distance in one go – that’s why Rule 91 of the Highway Code recommends a minimum break of at least 15 minutes every two hours.  While my current EV happily does 200 miles without stopping, my passengers and I remarked how refreshed we felt when we drove my old “short range” Nissan LEAF 250 miles from Edinburgh to Skye, having taken a handful of short charging/tourist stops along the way.

The rapid growth of the public charging network, combined with the prevalence of 200+ mile EVs, has made long journeys hassle-free.  We’re now in an era when many EVs can keep going longer than the driver and passengers can, and can rapid charge while they are grabbing a bite to eat, ready for the next leg of the journey. 

This means that EV range isn’t a compromise, especially if you can easily charge at home, at work or your other regular destinations.  If you were to hold out for 400, 500 or 600 miles of range, when today’s EVs that can do 200-300 miles per charge (or less if you want an older and/or cheaper EV) suit your needs perfectly, you’d be adding unnecessary expense to your choice of car, and spending more money on fuel and maintenance of an existing petrol or diesel car in the meantime vs switching to electric and enjoying savings sooner.

If you need any more convincing that an EV will go the distance for you, why not try one?  As well as extended test drives offered by some dealers and manufacturers, Arnold Clark has Innovation Centres in Glasgow and Stafford, which feature a plethora of different makes and models of EVs that you can test drive with no pressure to buy.  With 95% of UK drivers who’ve tried EVs saying that they had a positive experience, and three quarters saying that they’re actively considering an EV, chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised by just how far they can go!

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