If the average UK car journey is under 10 miles, why is range still the defining factor in electric vehicle development?
Range is often considered one of the most important performance metrics for electric cars. Other than high price, so called ‘range anxiety’ was and still is considered by many to be the biggest turn-off when considering the switch to an electric vehicle (EV).
Flip through any car magazine or blog and an EV’s range is typically shown as a defining factor in whether or not it’s recommended compared with its peers. Range mileages running into the hundreds are presented as the be all and end all, with editors suggesting potential buyers will only be able to sleep well at night knowing they can drive half-way across Europe on a single charge.
This is despite many EVs being able to travel 300 miles or more on a single charge, while the average journey distance in the UK is estimated to be only 8.4 miles [PDF].
The preoccupation with range has numerous negative effects. It is bad for the environment as manufacturers cram increasingly large batteries, with greater carbon footprints, into increasingly large vehicles to justify the range promise, in a law of diminishing returns which sees the efficiency of the vehicle decrease due to its increasing weight and size. This has led to consumers having a hang-up that only a large, heavy, long-range EV will do; a status quo manufacturers are happy with as large SUV designs are very profitable.
Cost is the other negative effect, for both manufacturers and consumers. Bigger batteries are more expensive and require extra materials, including critical earth elements which are rising in price thanks to demand. Entire demographics are being priced out of the electric revolution due to this.
The narrative and resounding image of the current generation of EVs is of a luxury SUV or sedan parked in a private garage, tethered to its dedicated home charger. While range prioritisation may fit this image, it is far from the reality of most people’s lives and needs. For widespread adoption of EVs to happen outside of early adopter communities and the affluent, we need to change the narrative to be more inclusive, flexible and relatable to what people need in a vehicle.
What the world needs for mass adoption, is not larger, more expensive EVs with long-ranges, but smaller, cheaper EVs with shorter ranges and close to zero carbon footprint, which can be charged quickly and flexibly.
The latest innovations in battery technology have the potential to reduce charging times from hours to minutes, generating a similar or better performance output than a bank of batteries double the size. Using high-power, fast-charging batteries will reduce the weight of vehicles and therefore increase their efficiency while reducing the overall cost of the vehicle due to savings in the batteries and general structural volume of the vehicle. What is arguably sacrificed in range is offset by power output and convenience. This is of course also a good thing for the environment and the car industry’s green credentials, as smaller batteries mean a smaller carbon footprint and far less need for critical earth elements such as cobalt.
With vehicle design being less dedicated by the shape and weight of batteries, new vehicle designs and mobility solutions can develop which better suit people’s needs, particularly given the extraordinary changes in the lifestyles that many people have experienced in the last year. We will see a greater choice of smaller, lighter weight and less expensive cars, which will increase the uptake of EVs in varied demographics and consumer types who have been priced out by the sector’s focus and prioritisation of luxury and range.
The use of high-power, fast-charging batteries will benefit commercial users too, increasing the uptime and enabling far higher use for fleets of vehicles.
The shift in focus, from long range to fast charging, will completely change the way we use our cars and will make the shift to EVs a genuine option for people who were previously on the fence, but it can only happen of course with the right infrastructure. In many countries, including the UK and the US, charging infrastructure is either lacking or fragmented. Of the roughly 42,000 public charging stations in the US only about 5,000 are considered fast chargers – the others charge like a home charger, requiring a driver to be plugged-in for hours. For EV adoption to succeed, it needs to be supported by the roll-out of fast charging networks, strategically located and universally sharable.
Fast charging stations can cost tens of thousands of dollars though, and this risks creating an inequality or ‘postcode’ lottery in where they are placed. This is something the governments of every country need to consider for ensuring the success of this shift to EV.
People need to see the expansion of the EV infrastructure with their own eyes if they are going to have the confidence to switch, but changing the range narrative is a crucial first step in presenting drivers with a reality and choice which is relevant to their needs and lifestyles. Only through doing this can we ensure that going electric is a viable and desirable option for everyone.
Mark Newman is CCO of Nyobolt.
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