Anxiety, Bias and Battery Cars

By Bill Moore

Posted: 11 May 2010

range anx•i•e•ty - noun: distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune when driving a battery electric car, as in running out of 'juice' far from a power outlet.

Okay, there is no such definition in Webster's Dictionary, but if the media -- most of whom probably haven't driven an electric car in their lives -- have their way, it will be, even if they have to make up facts or distort data. Yes, you can, if you are not planning ahead, deplete a EV's battery and find yourself stranded, as did Shirley Jahad recently. Ms. Jahad is chronicling her experiences in a Mitsubishi i-MiEV for KPCC radio in Los Angeles. She found herself 14 miles from home with 12 miles of range left in the battery, and nowhere visible to get a recharge at 10 pm at night. She risked the drive, hoping she could squeeze those two extra miles from the pack. She didn't and she had to call a tow truck. Lesson learned: know the capabilities and limitations of your vehicle. It has to accomplish what a gasoline vehicle does, but on one-tenth the amount of energy.

In time, Ms. Jahad will learn to accommodate her driving to the capabilities of the vehicle, as long-time EV drivers have, and will come to appreciate it, if not develop a strong affection for it. That is not, however, the impression given by a recent Times of London article reviewing recently completed EV trials in the northeast of England. In an article that begins "the era of carefree motoring may soon be over…" the impression is very clearly left that drivers were in a constant state of "anxiety" while driving electric cars. Reports the Times ofn the Cenex demonstration program using a quartet of modified Smart cars, "drivers of the new generation of electric cars are plagued by nagging fears of being left stranded by a flat battery."

A six-month trial involving 264 drivers found that almost all experienced “range anxiety” and traveled only short distances.

They were over cautious when planning journeys and allowed themselves a generous safety margin to avoid the need to recharge en route. They tended to avoid using their cars if the battery indicator showed that the charge level was less than 50 per cent.
Taking the Times report at face value would leave you with the impression that the trial program was a failure and electric cars were a flop. However, if you take the time to read Cenex's report on the trial, you actually come away with an entirely different conclusion. Here is what the Center for Excellence actually learned and reported in The Smart Move Trial.
• 58% of fleet users felt more positive about electric vehicles after taking part in the trial.

• Users in their 20s experience the highest opinion shift of all the age groups with 83% of users feeling more positive about electric vehicles after their trial experience.

• 95% of users found the vehicles always or normally had enough charge for their intended journey

• 34% of users had experienced moments where they felt the vehicle may not have had enough charge for their intended journey.

• 72% of test drivers said they would use an electric vehicle as their regular car after their test drive compared with just 47% before the test drive.

• 82% of the general public who test drove the EV would consider owning an electric vehicle compared with 56% from a captive test drive audience.
Perhaps most telling of all was the change in attitude that occurred after people drove the Smart EVs, which were converted to run on 16kWh sodium nickle chloride (ZEBRA) batteries. The histogram below demonstrates this vividly. The blue lines represent people's attitudes before driving the EVs. The red lines show how they felt after driving them; the higher the number the better.

Cenex electric car perceptions graph

Importantly, from the perspective of the British government's policy of decarbonizing their transportation system, the EVs performed admirably. Using the UK's predominately fossil-fuel and nuclear-powered grid, the cars produced just 81.4 g of CO2 per kilometer traveled. When the electricity was generated by lower-carbon, largely natural gas-fired combined heat and power systems (CHP), this dropped to 45 g CO2/km. And when wind, wave and solar power alone are used, this evaporates to essentially 0 g CO2/km.

Yes, drivers did experience some anxiety initially, but you'd expect that with any new, unfamiliar activity; like getting an airplane for the first time or trying a new, foreign food. But these tests certainly don't suggest that battery electric cars are going to suddenly parochialize our perception of personal mobility. Besides, if you have to jump on the M1 frequently to run up to Leeds, there's always the Vauxhall Ampera, due out in 2011. It's the British cousin of the Volt. Or you can always hire (rent) a conventional car for the odd holiday in Bath.

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