How Much EV Range Is Enough? It Depends Who You Ask

The marketplace for electric cars is a bubbling cauldron of innovation these days, as manufacturers try to decide what products will get customers excited. All agree that EV range is a critical factor in the minds of most shoppers. The basic Nissan LEAF has a 24 kWh battery and about 80 miles of range. It is currently the best selling electric car in the world. Since the average motorist only drives 36 miles a day, 80 miles of range should be more than enough. But is it?

Chevy Bolt with 200 mile range

Chevrolet and Tesla have decided that a mass market EV needs to have 200 miles of range. Both the Chevy Bolt and the upcoming Tesla Model 3 will come with a 60 kWh battery pack that will allow each to travel about 200 miles on a single charge. Both manufacturers believe attitudes are more important than statistics.

“Today’s drivers of 100-mile electric cars always need to look for the next charge,” said Larry Nitz, G.M.’s director of global transmissions and electrification. He thinks 200 miles of range is essential to get people to stop worrying about whether they will be able to get to work and back without running out of electricity, even in winter when range may drop significantly. Asked by Popular Mechanics if other car makers will offer cars with the same or more range, he said, “They have to. That’s how the free market works.”

Nissan is quietly rolling out a 30 kWh battery that will give the LEAF a 107 mile range. It is only available in models with more amenities, which cost $5,000 more than the entry level LEAF S. But it has a concept car with a 60 kWh battery in the works. “We are very aware of what’s happening in the market,” says Ken Kcomp, director of product planning at Nissan. “Nissan is developing longer range batteries. There are different ways to look at EV leadership. Range is one of them. It’s not lost on us.”

BMW i3 Teardown Reveals Profitability After Only 20,000 Cars

“I question the race to the 200-mile electric car,” says Jose Guerrero, head product manager of electric vehicles, high-performance models, and connected technology for BMW of North America.He is somebody who looks at the statistics and wonders why someone driving 36 miles a day needs a 200 mile car. “We don’t see exponentially increasing sales with a 200-mile battery,” Guerrero says.

BMW prides itself on building cars that are fun to drive. Guerrero thinks loading an i3 electric sedan down with hundreds of more pounds for a larger battery would diminish the cars handling prowess. “Putting a 60 kilowatt-hour battery in an i3 would kill the dynamism of the car,” he says.

Audi Q6 e-tron

Siegfried Pint used to agree with Guerrero. He worked at BMW when he was part of the team that developed the BMW i3. But now he works for Audi, where he is head of the electric powertrain program and has different ideas about EV range. “I had that opinion six or seven years ago,” Pint says, “but if you want to sell a decent number of cars, you need ‘first-car ability’.” By that he means an electric car will need to do everything the conventional car with the internal combustion engine sitting outside in the driveway can do.

For its part, Audi is hard at work on an electric SUV, the Audi e-tron quattro. That car will have a 95 kWh battery and 300 miles of range. That’s quite a bit more than the Tesla’s electric SUV, the Model X. The Audi will also be priced below the Tesla at about $70,000. Why did Audi push driving range of the e-tron all the way to 300 miles? “That was a strong requirement from the sales department,” Pint said.

Sales professionals say people buy on emotion and justify their decisions later with facts. Attitudes are important motivators when it comes to choosing one product over another. A person may only need 80 miles of range, but want 200 miles or more. Typically, wants trump needs when it comes time to make a buying decision. It seems a consensus is developing among electric car buyers that 200 miles of EV range is something they expect from an electric car.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.