Public Electric Car Charging Stations May Go Largely Unused

“Range anxiety” — the worry that your EV will run out juice before you get to where you’re going — is a term that has been bandied about a lot recently… almost annoyingly so. From a common sense standpoint, it seems only logical that range anxiety is a real phenomenon. But since we have so few EVs on the roads right now, the fact of the matter is that range anxiety is, at this point, a made up concept based on what we can logically expect.

And it’s this expectation that is spurring a huge amount of both private and public investment in nationwide charging networks for EVs — the assumption being that the only way EVs will ever become mass-accepted is to eliminate range anxiety.

But will those public charging stations that we’re dumping money into go unused because we have an expectation for a phenomenon that turns out to not really be an issue?

It’s not only a question of whether or not the investment in a charging network will pay off, either. Companies like GM have decided to avoid dealing with potential EV consumers’ range anxiety concerns by designing and building cars like the upcoming Chevy Volt, which has a 40 mile range on batteries and then a small fuel-powered generator that kicks on and charges the batteries for an additional 300 mile range.

While this is a good workaround to the question of range anxiety, it has meant that GM has invested billions of dollars into the technology and it will take perhaps decades for that investment to pay off. Not only that, these EREVs are going to be much more expensive than a pure battery electric car — as borne out by the Volt’s expected $40,000 price tag as compared to the Nissan LEAF’s (an all battery car) expected $25,000 price tag. Certainly there will be some people willing to pay that much more for the peace of mind, but will the majority even care about range anxiety enough to make the extra price worth it?

Some recent independent studies, and GM’s own data, suggest that as we get closer to the mass market launch of electric cars later this year, all of this worry about range anxiety and all of the effort spent in trying to avoid it may end up being a massive waste of resources.

A study by the Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle Center at the University of California, Davis, showed that of the 150 Mini E driver respondents who participated in Mini’s electric car trial run over the last year, the vast majority were completely satisfied with the 80-100 mile driving range and it met all of their daily driving needs. As I’ve said before, many households have two or more cars, and if one of them is electric and meets their daily needs, they can use the non-electric one to travel on the longer trips.

In the end, most drivers of EVs in these studies seem to be happy to never have to go the gas station again and find that virtually all of their needs are met with at-home charging stations. For the companies and governments currently involved in building out the massive charging networks that are perceived to be necessary for EV adoption, this could spell bad news.

In an article, Tom Turrentine, the director at the UC Davis center, said “While many statements are made about the need for infrastructure prior to [EV] sales, I have seen much more evidence to the contrary.” For instance, in Berlin Germany, the charging network goes largely unused by the many EV drivers in the city.

Range anxiety is one of those things we’ll just have to wait and see if it actually becomes a real problem, but until then, companies that are banking on it being real are risking a lot of capital.


Image Credit: Coulomb Technologies

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.