The Problem With Electric Car Range Figures

bebop plug

I see a troubling pattern emerging in how the most critical aspect of EVs – range – is discussed by companies and the media alike. These are problems that could have a significant negative effect on the way the public responds to electric vehicles if manufacturers don’t change the way they communicate expectations about range.

The basic problem is that when an EV is described, it usually has a single “range” number associated with it. For example, the Tesla Roadster has a range of 244 miles. When people talk about the range of a car that is planned in the future, they also offer a single number. For example, the media has reported that several car companies plan to come to market with EVs that have “100 mile range.”

Every time a single range figure is given, it should have about 3 asterisks next to it.

The biggest one is fairly well known, and is the EV equivalent of “your mileage may vary.” Using the Tesla Roadster as an example, the car can indeed achieve a range of 244 miles (which is the “EPA combined” number.) In fact, one Roadster was driven as far as 275 miles before it was fully depleted. But under aggressive driving the actual range from a full charge to completely dead can be dramatically lower.

That is all well and good, but the problem is that the EPA driving cycle numbers systematically overstate what the typical driver is going to see in their daily driving. It wouldn’t be so bad if the EPA number was close to the average and depending on your driving you might see less or you might see more. But it doesn’t work that way. In reality, the EPA number is essentially an upper limit number. The actual range you will get from a complete charge depends on a lot of factors, but I would say that as a general rule of thumb, if a company quotes an EPA range, you should apply a factor of 70% to that to get a realistic average range for a full charge.

Which brings us to asterisk #2, which is how “full charge” is defined. Seems like it should be straightforward but it’s not. Nothing in the land of EV marketing and communications is. In general, a battery pack should not always be charged to it’s peak nor should it be drained to completely (or even nearly) empty. This is generally bad for the longevity of the pack. However, when the EPA test is done, the battery can be charged to its absolute maximum and the car is run until the wheels literally stop moving. This is not how a typical customer will experience a “full charge.” The typical charge settings for a car will charge a battery to some point, perhaps 85 or 90%, and will consider the pack “depleted” somewhere above 0%. Lets call it 10%. It may even limit performance or go into “limp home mode” at some level above it, perhaps with 20% charge remaining. These are all important factors to consider when you assess the realistic range of an EV. Depending on how the manufacturer has designed the battery management system, and depending on how the EPA test was conducted, you may have to apply another 70-80% factor to the range that the manufacturer states.

Combine factors one and two above, and you are talking about average usable range of the car potentially being half of what is quoted as the EPA range. That is a very big gap in expectations that will come home to roost with consumers. If you think “range anxiety” is a big issue, wait until the average consumer buys the car and on day 1 the average usable range is about 50-75% of what they were told in the marketing material (depending, of course, on how aggressive the marketing claims are.)

But wait! We aren’t done yet. Asterisk # 3: The EPA range that is quoted to you is the “beginning of life” range, or “BOL”. The problem is that the maximum capacity of a battery pack gets lower over time. There are a lot of factors that affect how rapidly this reduction in capacity occurs, including number of cycles (roughly this can be expressed as miles driven/total miles per full charge), absolute temperature, variability of temperature over the life of the pack, average depth of discharge. This can also be a complicated discussion, but suffice it to say that the effects can be significant. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that you should expect that the range of your EV could be 20% less after 5 years of use. In fact, that’s being charitable.

This is especially true for certain chemistries or cell types, like high-energy cobalt oxide cells used in laptops or mobile phones. The “End of Life” (EOL) range of these types of packs could be significantly lower and the reduction much more dramatic. This is one reason that almost all manufacturers are moving toward chemistries that exhibit better cycle life qualities, like NMC, Iron Phosphate, and Manganese.

So building on the example above, the realistic EOL range of the EV you will buy may be well below half of what was advertised when you bought it. The good news is it will charge to full in less than half the time!

This is a serious issue because the general public is not going to easily understand all the mental gymnastics that go into having a good understanding of what to expect from your EV. This is also an issue that gets more serious as EVs go mainstream and are no longer purchased mostly by wealthy early adopters willing to forgive these quirks and inconveniences.

There are two solutions to this problem, and I propose that both begin immediately. The mass adoption of EVs by the mainstream public depends on it.

First, manufacturers need to communicate honestly and transparently about the realities of range. This may be hard to do because of the complexity of the issue and the fact that it is tempting to just hide behind to rosy EPA figures. In the long run, however, people who actually drive these cars are going to share their real world experience and if expectations aren’t set appropriately up front there is going to be a lot of disappointment.

Second, the EPA must establish new guidelines and standards specifically for EVs that address the issues outlined above. Most importantly, the EPA should develop a standard that includes both BOL range and EOL range with a common definition of the expected life of the vehicle.

If both of these things happen, we can avoid the consumer backlash I fear we are headed for with regard to range expectations. With so much progress being made on the EV front, I would hate to see the momentum slowed by false promises and disappointed consumers.

This post originally appeared on Darryl Siry’s blog.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.