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Monday, July 3, 2017

EV Range: How Much Is Enough?


With the Chevy Bolt EV hitting the sales floor, the affordable 200+ mile EV has arrived. The Tesla Model 3 will be arriving soon with two battery options that are greater than 200 miles. Nissan, BMW, and others are, at least for now, are sticking to EVs in the sub-200 miles of range category. Who is right? Which will customers choose?

How much range is enough?

I've owned three EVs with vastly different ranges. In an attempt to answer the 'how much range is enough' question, I'll compare my experience with these EVs. My first EV had 40 miles range and I drove it for 4 years. My second had 73 miles of range and it was my primary vehicle for 5 years. And my current EV has 257 miles of range. Each vehicle had cases where it worked well and cases where it didn't work well.

Before we get into this too far, I'd like to clarify that there is no "one right answer" for range. Everyone has different needs, so the trick is to understand your own needs. Try resetting your trip meter, then each morning noting how many miles you have from the day before, then zeroing it again for the days driving. This will give you a good idea of your needs for a typical day. You might find that you don't drive as much as you think.

A note about what's right for you. When I was first shopping for an EV in 2007, I found a little 3-wheeled Chinese import EV. I went for a test drive. I was not impressed. It was slow, it had a short range. I complained about the slow speed and low range on a local EV mailing list. I was gently informed that I should end all of my complaints with "for my needs." As in "It is too slow for my needs." The gentle soul responding to me went on to say that she had one of these EVs and it worked great for her needs. She lived in a gated retirement community and it had more than enough range to get her to the clubhouse, her friends, the corner store, and more. She ended it with "Mankind got around for many years on one-horse-power. It had four legs and was called a horse."

So with that in mind, I'll tell you about my experience with each of my various EVs I've owned and how the range impacted my ability to use (or not use) them. Your mileage may vary. The best EV for you is one that meets your personal needs, so spend some time understanding them, open a map app and chart out the places you drive regularly.

Infographic from Plugless shows how far you could drive in various EVs on the market today

Let's look at each of the ranges and the driving experience with them. 

40 Miles Range

My first EV was a Chevy S10 Electric truck. This was not a conversion. It's the little-known cousin of the GM EV1. General Motor had leased most of these truck, just as they had the EV1, but these trucks were intended as fleet vehicles. Some fleet managers refused to lease. They wanted to buy the trucks. GM reluctantly sold them. The Air Force bought some, a Georgia utility bought some, and mine came to me after it retired from service at Disneyland.

I drove this truck from 2007 until 2011. The S10e was only built in 1997 and 1998. There was a lead acid battery pack option with 16.2 kilowatt-hours of capacity or a nickel–metal hydride pack with 29 kilowatt-hours. By the time I owned the truck, the 19-year old nickel–metal batteries had severely degraded. The 40 miles of range they had remaining allowed me to drive to work and back (20 miles round trip) and run errands, but little else. Although similar batteries were being used in many hybrid cars, the restrictions put in place by the patent holder (Chevron) did not allow anyone to sell me batteries for a BEV, or so I was told repeatedly as I called dealerships and attempted to order batteries.

Given the 40 miles of range, the truck was relegated to my commuter vehicle. This was a fixed, well-known route. It worked well for the 20-mile round trip with a little extra to spare for errands on the way home. The truck bed was nice for jaunts to Home Depot (15-mile round trip). This was not a vehicle that I could drive someplace on the spur of the moment. I had to know where I was going and make sure that I could make it back.

40 Miles Is Good For: short commutes, errands, well-defined short trips.

73 Miles Range

In 2011, I sold the electric truck and bought a Nissan Leaf. Our Leaf had an EPA-rated range of 73 miles. This was nearly double the range of the truck. And the Leaf had a DC fast charge port. This opened up many more destinations for electric driving. With the charging spots of the West Coast Electric Highway, this was range was enough for trips within ~120-mile radius.

You might wonder if the car can fast charge, why I would limit it a fixed radius. At freeway speeds, the range is reduced, so you have to charge every 40 or 50 miles and too many back-to-back fast charges heats up the batteries and slows down the charging rate. Longer trips certainly are possible and have been done, but I would call a ~120 miles the practical limit.

There are those that would argue the above paragraph. But for me, it's what I've found to be true. Here is a story of one of our ~100-mile trips. We drove our Leaf 110 miles to Great Wolf Lodge. The EPA rated range does not hold true at freeway speeds. This meant that we had to stop three times to drive our "73-mile" vehicle just 110 miles. We might have been able to skip one of the chargers, but we didn't know if each station would be online or available. So until the final leg, we didn't let the charge get too low so we could keep going if one of the stations was down or blocked. This added about an hour to our otherwise 2-hour drive. Adding 30% time to the trip is not how I would want to take to take a 500 mile+ trek.

There should be a metric for charging overhead. E.g. for every 10 hours of 65MPH driving you need X hours of charging (at the vehicle's fastest rate).

73 Miles Is Good For: longer commutes (60 miles round trip or less), urban driving, short treks (120-mile or less) if you have DC fast charging available.

257 Miles Range

Six months ago, I began driving my third and longest range EV, a Tesla Model X. Ours is a 90D and it has an EPA rated range of 257 miles. This is by far the best (and most expensive) vehicle that I've ever owned. Rather than becoming distracted by some of the many great features, I'll stick to the range topic.

This is the vehicle that I drive to and from work. It can handle with no trouble and if I forget to plug in, even for several days, it is still ready to go and I don't have to worry about running out of charge.

We have made three treks in this vehicle. Two of them were from Portland, OR to Grants Pass and back. This is ~250 miles one-way, a four-hour drive. Again, with freeway speeds and the Cascade mountains, the EPA range does not hold true. This is solved by using the Tesla Supercharger network. We made one stop in Springfield for 25 minutes. This charging stop only added 10% to drive time. This is much better than the 30% addition to our trip time with the Leaf.

Our third trek was to the Oregon coast. This was a two-hour, 80-mile drive. We left the house with a full charge and arrived with more than a 40% charge. There was no need to stop and charge during the drive. This was nice. Again high speeds and mountain climbing (this time the coast range) meant that we did not meet the EPA rated distance. There are Tesla Superchargers on the Oregon coast, so one of the mornings that we drove into town for breakfast, we stopped at one of the Superchargers for 15 minutes to grab a few watt-hours.

This summer, when we are pulling our trailer, I might be hoping for another 20 or 30 kWh. But that is a story for another day.

Wrap Up 

More range makes everything easier. You don't have to budget the kWhs as carefully. Using 5 kWh for heat or AC is not a big deal from a 90 kWh pack like it is from a 24 kWh pack. If a charging station is down or blocked, you can likely continue down the road and charge at the next opportunity.

Of course, the drawback is the price. There is a big price difference between 30, 50, or 70+ kWh vehicles. Given this, it is important that you know what range you really need and how much you are willing to pay for the convenience and utility of more batteries.