How Much Range You Really Need in an Electric Car

Stop trying to re-create your gas engine car from electricity and the answer will become clear.



If you're considering an electric vehicle, don't make the mistake of buying one with too much range. Unlike combustion engine cars with virtually unlimited range, electric cars make the most sense when they have the right amount of range, not a surfeit of it.

There are several reasons to temper your instinct to get the most range possible.

Cost

Range costs a lot of money. For example, a Nissan Leaf with 226 miles of range costs $6,600 more than the same trim level with 149 miles of range.

There is no real parallel with combustion cars as their cost of range is in the price and consumption rate of fuel, not the vehicle's MSRP. You can argue that an EV earns back its overall cost premium in per-mile energy savings, but a long-range electric car will need many more of those low-cost miles -- and probably years of covering them to do so. 

The cost of EV range can make buyers recoil from one without knowing that their perception of sufficient range, not cost, is the real problem.

Weight

Longer range versions of a given electric car have larger, heavier batteries. Unlike a tank of gas that weighs about 100 pounds and gets lighter as it's used, an EV battery can easily weigh 1,000 pounds and stays just as heavy as it is "emptied," increasingly becoming dead weight the remaining amount of charge must lug around.

The long range Tesla Model 3 (358 miles of range) weighs 172 pounds more than the RWD version's still-generous 272-mile range, a weight difference equal to the entire payload a car will most often carry: the driver. The difference is even more pronounced when comparing a long range Model 3 to a comparable conventional BMW 3 Series, which is about 475 pounds lighter. 

Beyond efficiency there's also a safety problem with excess vehicle weight. A 2014 paper by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and published in the Review of Economic Studies found that "being hit by a vehicle that is 1000 pounds heavier generates a 40-50% increase in fatality risk" and by itself generates a societal cost equivalent to a $0.97 per gallon gas tax.

Lotus Cars Founder Colin Chapman famously said "simplify then add lightness" for a car that performs better all around, a maxim that's particularly apropos for electric cars.

Battery life cycle 

Like depreciation, this is a somewhat arcane factor that car buyers prefer to ignore but larger, long range batteries scale the problems of resource extraction, manufacturing emissions and battery recycling. In all three areas EV batteries are largely a problem by the pound, not the unit. The recycling problem looms large enough that it's garnered serious attention from Argonne National Labs and former Tesla Co-Founder JB Straubel, among others. Smaller EV batteries today can mean fewer environmental ironies.

Know your needs

Most EV buyers will reflexively seek future-proofing and edge case peace of mind with long range electric vehicles. We've been spoiled by the virtually effortless range of gas engine cars. But the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics has long documented the average personal car clocks about 14,500 miles a year -- or under 40 miles a day in a combination of commute, shopping, errands and pleasure trips. It may surprise many drivers to know that only 15% of those trips are commutes, with a much larger 45% being shorter runs for shopping and errands, and 27% for social trips or meeting friends.

A recent survey sponsored by Castrol found that a stout 319 miles of range is the mental tipping point for many US consumers to consider an EV. Assuming an average of 40 miles per day, that 319-mile range equates to needing a full charge only every six days, even assuming the driver never depletes their car's battery below 20%. For drivers who have access to home charging, this suggests a desire for range that is more emotional than rational.

And while aggregate commute patterns are trending toward pre-pandemic levels, all that matters is your commute pattern: If you've permanently shifted to a work style that reduces your commute, you need to frame EV range in that reality -- not in the aggregate of all commuters or in the driving pattern you were used to before the pandemic.

On the other hand, there are good reasons for high EV range: You may drive long distances as a matter of course, either due to the nature of your work or if you live in a spread-out part of the US. It's little wonder that few EVs are registered in long-legged states like Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota.

You may desire high battery capacity for emergencies like regional power outages that disable the grid for an extended period or for disaster evacuation where charging on the road may be impossible to forecast. But EVs of any range are, frankly, hard to feel good about in those scenarios. The difficulty of making an EV the complete equivalent of a conventional car is perhaps why 90% of US households that have an EV also own a conventional gas-engine vehicle.

Finally, a less-considered option: Do you need a pure electric car or a plug-in hybrid? A Toyota RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrid offers 42 miles of pure electric range under most driving conditions, enough for most daily needs before a 4.5-hour Level II full charge that's easily accomplished overnight, every night.

Whether you're considering a pure EV or plug-in hybrid, don't let perfect become the enemy of good. The conceptions and expectations formed by generations of using combustion engine cars are important to reexamine.

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