Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Range Anxiety

As I think about what I’ll look for in my first electric car, one of my primary concerns is range. I didn’t invent the term “Range Anxiety”, but that is precisely what I am feeling. I think about the driving I’ll do, and how I’ll be limited by lack of range. When I want to visit my daughter, 95 miles away, I realize that the round-trip will not be possible with most electric cars in my price range. I know that charging stations will be popping up everywhere, but will I find one when I need one? When I get to one, will I have to wait in line? My “Range Anxiety” is likely to be replaced by “Charging Station Anxiety”, once I actually own an electric car.

It seems that GM considered “Range Anxiety” when they decided to put a gas-engine in their Volt. If it delivers as promised, it will be an excellent choice. On the other hand Nisson just doesn’t seem to get it. Their Leif car not only doesn’t have a gas-engine, it also requires a special charger, and that charger is not portable. Trips to visit my daughter in a Leaf are out. I won’t be able to recharge for the trip back home. The Leif would be great for my daily work commute, but I would have to own a second car for longer trips.

The Plug-in Prius, expected to be available in 2012, will be a wise choice for some. For those who drive less than 13 miles per day, as many commuters do, it will do that without using a drop of gas. After the initial 13 miles, it becomes an efficient gas-powered car, getting up to 50 miles per gallon. Like the Volt, there will be no range anxiety with a Plug-in Prius. And with it's smaller battery pack, the Plug-in Prius should cost less than the Volt. The Plug-in Prius can be charged in 3 hours or less, using a standard 110 volt outlet. For those who can charge while at work, electric-only round-trip (work commute) range will be 26 miles.

It’s not hard to predict how we’ll drive in the future. The Volt and the Plug-in Prius will be excellent cross-over cars, until technology catches up and solves the range problem with the early electric-only cars. It’s bound to happen. With tens of thousands of batteries in production, prices will drop and performance will improve. This is precisely what has happened with televisions, computers, and just about everything else in mass-production. And keep in mind that the total cost of ownership includes more than just the purchase price. Televisions, for example, once had tubes in them. Those TV’s quickly disappeared when they became too expensive to maintain. And like televisions, VCR’s were once large and expensive. Now we get the same results with a smaller and much less expensive device. Electric cars will be much less expensive to fuel, repair and maintain.

Nisson is not the only car company that “doesn’t get it”. Many manufacturers think we’ll settle for “Clown Cars”. (That’s what they look like to me). Not only do I not want to be seen in such a car, I wouldn’t dare drive it on an expressway. I would be better off with a golf cart for neighborhood-only driving.

Making safe electric cars will be a big challenge. A lighter car will deliver greater range per charge, but will probably be less safe in an accident than a heavier car. On the other hand, I can’t imagine anything more dangerous than sitting a few feet from 15 gallons of gasoline and a hot engine. Battery-powered cars will have devices designed to cut power in the event of a crash.

How much will it cost to drive a Plug-in Prius?

According to the Plug-in Prius webpage, it will take 1000 watts for 3 hours (3kwh) to charge the Plug-in Prius, and you’ll be able to drive 13 miles on a full charge.

If electricity costs 10 cents per kwh, 13 miles of driving in a Plug-in Prius will cost 30 cents in electricity.

If gasoline costs $3.00 per gallon, and you drive a car that gets 26 miles per gallon, it will cost $1.50 in gas to drive 13 miles.

In some locations, electric rates vary, depending on the time of day. In fact, I pay less than 3 cents per kwh late at night. At that rate, my cost to drive a Plug-in Prius, for the first 13 miles, will be less than 9 cents. Now 13 miles doesn’t sound like a lot, but my work commute (before I moved to GTMO) was about 13 miles. With the Plug-in Prius, I will trade $30.00 in gasoline for $1.80 in electricity each month. After the first 13 miles, Plug-in Prius gas range is expected to be about 50mpg, or about twice as good as the car I currently drive.

Someday soon, owning a gas-powered car will be like owning a television from the 60’s. Unless it’s a “Show Car”, it just won’t make sense. It might be fun to keep one around to tinker with, but it will not be practical as a source of transportation. Some will have trouble leaving the memories behind, like the sound of a well-tuned V8 engine, but I can live without it. I can live without the grease, pollution, and noise. If I have to have high-performance, I’ll save up for a Tesla Roadster.

Range anxiety is likely to be a household term soon, but we’ll quickly forget about that, just as we’ve forgotten about all of those VCR’s that constantly flashed 12:00. The Volt and the Plug-in Prius will soon be thought of as a sensible forms of transportation, but years from now we’ll think of them as quaint.