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Sunday, November 6, 2022

We Need 300 Mile EVs!

There are some people that say long-range EVs are a waste of resources and a selfish indulgence. Are they? Do you need a 300-mile EV? This is what we'll look at today. 

Over the years, we've owned 5 EVs in our household. Three short-range and two long-range. They each filled a need, we'll discuss the pros and cons and maybe help you figure out what's right for you.

Ed Says You Don't Need 300 Miles of Range

In an opinion piece in the NY Times, Ed Niedermeyer makes the case that short-range EVs are adequate for most drives and that almost no one should buy a long-range EV. The argument goes something like this: 

The average American drives about 40 miles per day and 95% of those trips is 30 miles or less. For the rare time that you do need to take a road trip, you can rent or borrow a gas car. The article goes on to say that you can further supplement your personal transportation with public transportation, micro-mobility, biking, walking, and the like. 

Culturally and from a policy perspective, the long-range car is a sledgehammer, the article asserts. Cars have too often been the default assumption and this has choked out the alternatives. Electric vehicles are headed down the same road as their internal combustion antecedents and we can do better this time.

Electric vehicles are an important part of our transportation future. Currently, EVs are battery cell constrained. If short-range EVs are made, rather than long-range EVs, this has two benefits; one, you can make more EVs; two, the vehicles will be more affordable.

The above is a very short paraphrasing of the article. I've tried to steelman (not strawman) his arguments. If you've read the article and think I missed an important point, please let me know.

What Ed's Missing

Ed's article is factually accurate, logical, and completely wrong. Here are a few of the things Ed seems to not understand: 

1) Averages Don't Tell The Whole Story 

"The average American drives about 40 miles per day." 

Have you ever heard the phrase, "If your feet are in the oven and your head is in the freezer, then your average temperature is just right"? Looking at an average is far from seeing the complete picture that the dataset paints.

Maybe you drive the kids to school, then daycare, the gym, work, then grocery shopping and other errands, then back to school and daycare for pick-up time... each of these trips in itself is short, but let's say you don't have charging infrastructure at these interim locations. That means, from a battery/charging perspective, this is a single trip. In fact, it's worse than one long trip of equal distance; if the weather is hot or cold, you'll be cooling/heating the cabin from scratch for each trip rather than getting it to a comfortable temperature and then just maintaining it as you would on a single drive.

Another way an 'average' might hide data: Are there people that drive less than 5 miles (or even zero miles) most days? There certainly are some. How do they impact this average? For a simplified example, let's say you work from home and most weeks you only drive on Sunday when you shop for your elderly mother and take her groceries for the week. This is a 200-mile round-trip drive. Calculating an average, this could (incorrectly) be interpreted to say you drive 200 miles a week, 200 miles divided by 7 days in a week, that's less than 30 miles per day.

A trip average is not the complete picture of how someone uses personal transportation. It flattens the data and removes important nuances that really matter for practical considerations. It's far more important to look at your real-world needs, not just averages. 

2) Emergencies

The second case Ed seems to be overlooking is emergencies. If your only personal transportation is a short-range EV, this might not work well in an emergency. Let's go back to the parent running midday errands. If they only have a short-range EV and late in the afternoon most of the range has been consumed, they are about to head home and charge, then an emergency happens. Now they have to pick up a child or head to the hospital... depending on when this call arrives, they may not have the needed range.

Fast charging can fill in gaps, however, short-range EVs frequently do not support DC fast charging. This means for short-range EVs, quick charging is often not an option.

There are other emergency situations too. If you need to evacuate from an area due to an all too common natural disaster, a lack of range (and fast charging) can be a significant problem.

I'm also going to put Detours in this emergencies bucket. Occasionally, you encounter a downed tree, a crash on the highway, or something else and you have to take an unplanned detour. These can add miles to a route and can disrupt the charging plan you had at the start of a trip. Having extra range in this situation is reassuring.

3) HVAC Use and Winter Driving 

If you want to heat or cool the cabin in a car, this requires energy. In an EV, that energy comes from the battery pack; the same battery pack that's used to move the car around from point A to B.

EVs use things like heat pumps to efficiently heat or cool, but it doesn't come for free. Compared to an internal combustion engine, there's no "waste" heat that can be recovered to warm the cabin. In an EV, this heat has to be explicitly generated.

Cold temps can be a triple whammy too. When it's cold, batteries don't perform as well and your range is reduced. A study by Consumer Reports showed that EVs only have about three-fourths of their range at 16F compared to 65F.

In the winter, you may be using winter tires. These have better traction in the cold wet snowy conditions, but they increase the energy used per mile compared to the low rolling resistance tires usually equipped on EVs. 

For our third and final winner whammy we have running the heater. When you have a small battery packet, HVAC usage can quickly become a significant percentage of the energy consumed. Here's a summer example of HVAC use with our Spark EV: 

In the above drive, on a relatively mild summer day, more than a third of the energy used was for climate settings (3.6 kWh out of 10 kWh).

4) Geography

The rule of thumb is that every 1000 feet of elevation gain uses about 10 miles of range. This is more of an issue in some parts of the world than others. Driving around here, we have the Cascades and the coastal range, so elevation changes are common. To know if this will impact you, you'll need to know how hilly your area is. A drive that says it's X miles on Google maps might use more energy than you expect once elevation changes are taken into consideration.

5) Infrastructure 

EV infrastructure is not evenly distributed. If you live in southern California, you can likely find a place to plug in when necessary. That might not be as true in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. The ability to charge up mid-day, where your car is parked, makes a big difference. If you can plug in and leave every venue where your car is parked with a full battery, this makes a short-range EV much more viable.

6) Battery Degradation, Long-Range vs Short Range

Most Lithium-ion battery chemistries prefer shallow cycles; that is using less than a full charge. If you can use just the middle third of the battery (avoiding full charges and deep discharges), this will contribute to a much longer battery lifespan.

When you have a large battery, it's easy to keep the battery charge level within that middle third zone for daily driving. However, with a short-range EV, you'll likely be charging to full, daily (or nightly) and deep discharges are far more likely with a small battery pack than with a large pack. So small battery packs lead a harder life. 

As long-term readers will know, I tracked the battery degradation of our Nissan LEAF and our Tesla Model X. I (very unfairly) compared the battery degradation here. The thermal management of the LEAF was an obvious contributor to this.

For another comparison (both with liquid cooling), let's look at two cars in our driveway today, a Tesla Model X and a Chevy Spark EV. Both are model-year 2016 vehicles, so they've seen a few years and miles, so we can see how the degradation has progressed. 

When new, the Chevy Spark EV had a pack with 19 kWh of capacity. Today that car has 17.2 kWh available. That's a 9% degradation in 6 years.

The Model X on the other hand started with 85.4 kWh and today it has 77.5 kWh.  That too is 9% degradation over the same time period. The Model X has also been driven about 20 thousand more miles during this time and it has been Supercharged dozens of times, whereas our Spark EV has no DC fast charging capability.

Smaller battery packs are more often deep cycled, as a result they often degrade faster. If the Spark EV had a similar number of miles as the X, it would be further degraded.

Even in this best-case example of only 9% degradation, the impact is more significant to the shorter-range vehicle. The Spark EV started out with an 82-mile range. Losing 9% brings the range down to 74.4 miles. If your daily usage, including HVAC use and hill climbs, needed 80 miles of range, this degradation could mean the difference between a successful trip or not. Whereas, if you had a long-range EV, with more range than you typically use, you generally have range to spare. 

There's A Place For Short-Range EVs

I've painted a pretty bleak picture of short-range EVs. If you have a 10-year-old EV, with 12% degradation and you are driving it in a cold, hilly, region with little-to-no charging infrastructure, you might not have a great EV ownership experience. However, I don't want to say that short-range EVs don't have an important role to play, I just want to clarify that they are not the vehicle for all situations. If you have the right expectations for them (more on this later) they can be great.

The Case For Big Batteries

Nearly all the shortcomings of a small pack are not an issue with a large pack. Having more range than you need, means you have capacity when you need it. This extra capacity means the car is still usable in the winter when the range is reduced and the heater has to work overtime. This means you can take an unexpected detour or drive when an expected event pops up. It also means the vehicle will still have a viable range even when the pack is a dozen years old. 

If you live in an apartment building, you might not be able to plug in overnight, this could mean that you have to go to a charging station to charge up. A large battery could mean you only have to go to this charging station once a week instead of nightly. This means less congestion at the (in some regions) all too rare charging infrastructure. That big battery also means that you'll be able to charge at a higher rate (more cells allow the charging load to be more distributed).

Next on our list of big battery benefits is futureproofing. A long-range EV also gives you futureproofing. What if you get a great job offer tomorrow, it's your dream job with more pay, but the commute is 50% longer. So even if a short-range EV is a good fit today, you don't know what twists life will throw at you tomorrow. 

Big batteries are not without downsides; they cost more and they weigh more. So what's the right size pack for you? It's the one that fits your needs and expectations (I promised to get back to expectations, so let's do that now). 

The Rock Ballet

Let's say you have tickets to a rock concert. The night of the event is here, you have your black band t-shirt on and you're excited to rock out. Then you arrive at the venue; the band you are looking forward to seeing is not there. Instead of a rock concert, they put on a ballet. This would be a huge disappointment and you'd want your money back.

The same can be said in the other direction, if you paid for and expected a ballet, but they put on a rock concert, you are likely going to be disappointed. Knowing what you are buying and having it meet your expectations is as important as the event and product.

How does this lesson apply to EVs? You have to get what you're expecting, in this case, range. If you want an affordable EV that you use for commuting and errands, a short-range EV can work great. However, if you try to take this on a road trip, you might be highly disappointed. 

A short-range EV might be a great addition to your home fleet (as it is in ours), if you have long-range EVs (as we do), PHEV, or a gas car as a backup; but this only works if you have realistic expectations about its capabilities. You have to know the drives you expect it to take: are there hills, how will it handle the winters in your area, is charging available, do you have a backup plan for emergencies... 

What Does Ed Know?

One of Ed's points in his article is that EVs are not like gas cars. He's right about that, but his response to this difference is to relegate EVs to a niche market of "grocery-getters". This is not the right answer. To really understand EVs, you need to drive one and see how it fits your transportation needs, how they age, how they respond to your driving, regional weather, and more. You need to drive one day in and day out for a significant period of time. These are not the sort of lessons you can learn from a test drive. 

So since Ed is recommending that everyone drive a short-range EV as part of their transportation smorgasbord, he must drive one, right? Luckily, someone asked him:   

Twitter exchange with Ed Niedermeyer

As you can see from the Tweet reply above, Ed does not have an EV in his garage (short-range or otherwise). Despite owning a Toyota Tacoma (MPG 19 city / 24 highway) and a BMW (MGP 19 city / 26 highway), he thinks you should not buy a long-range EV. Ed is burning gas on weekends and on road trips, but if you are driving a solar-powered long-range EV, you're the problem. Yeah, right. 

Ed's Bias 

The list above of things Ed seems to be unaware of is rather long. Certainly, in his years of covering the cars beat, he's learned about the impacts of weather, age, and inclines on EV range, so why ignore them in his NY Times piece? 

Ed's the author of “Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors.” This book is critical of Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Tesla community. When Tesla's primary products are long-range EVs, I don't think it's a coincidence that Ed is writing an article that condemns long-range EVs and the people who drive them (while wrapping himself in the noble cause of reducing EV prices).

Ed's NY Times publication is among the worst type of specious anti-EV FUD. It claims to support EVs, yet what it's doing is attempting to relegate them to a niche. A niche that guarantees that gas-powered vehicles will remain as the primary choice for most personal transportation. Limiting EVs to just short-range vehicles (as Ed suggests) will make sure that EVs cannot meet a wide swath of transportation needs and it ensures that many people will not be comfortable driving them due to range anxiety.

Wrap-Up :: It's Up To You

Above, I made the case for big batteries, but I'm not saying that you should buy a long-range EV. Rather, the point is that there are use cases for which long-range EVs fit very well and others where short-range EVs fit very well. 

No one knows your transportation needs better than you do (not me, not Ed). You are the best person to decide what would work best for you. Do you live in an area where public transportation is available? Do you have a commute where an e-bike would work? Do you have easy access to a long-range car that could fill in if you need it?... All of these are big factors in making a choice that best meets your needs and no one, not an (uninformed) opinion piece in the NY Times or some blog on the internet should tell you what you should do to meet your personal transportation needs.

Disclosure: I am long Tesla

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