How Much Driving Range is Enough for an Electric Car?

By · February 27, 2017


The Hyundai Ioniq Electric (left) offers 124 miles of driving range, while the Chevy Bolt (right) provides 238 miles on a single charge.

The latest generation of affordable electric cars offers more than 100 miles of range. In the case of the Hyundai Ioniq, which goes on sale in April, you can travel 124 miles on a single charge—while the Chevy Bolt EV, available now, goes a whopping 238 miles on a full charge. With the introduction of these two battery-electric cars—the two most recent EV models to hit the market—we see for the first time that maximizing range might not be the most critical factor for electric car buyers.

Automotive design and road manners are a matter of personal taste. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that compared to the Bolt you prefer the Ioniq’s extra 12 inches of vehicle length, seven more cubic feet of cargo, the softer feel of its dashboard, and its lower purchase price. Should you nonetheless cross the Ioniq off your shopping list solely because it offers half as much range as the Bolt?

This question reveals the new reality of EV buying—requiring consumers to do soul-searching and mileage-counting to determine how many times over a lifetime of ownership you will actually need 238 miles on a single charge. Very few drivers have any intention of traveling more than 100 miles in a day. The average daily commute is around 40 miles. That means most Bolt drivers will typically use only a fraction of its range capacity—barely draining the battery pack down to about 200 miles of remaining range and returning home to top the battery back up again.

Based on this scenario, nearly ever Ioniq driver will make much greater use of the Ioniq’s 28 kilowatt-hour pack, while Bolt drivers will pay for and carry a lot of battery capacity that doesn’t get used. A bigger battery also means less
cargo space, more vehicle weight and lower operating efficiency. Hyundai executives equate this scenario to owners of conventional cars wanting to max out on horsepower or towing capacity but almost never put the car on the track or tow a boat. It comes down to the consumer psychology of what buyers want versus what they need.

The auto industry is not nearly at the end of improvements in EV range. Soon, a car like the Ioniq will offer 150 or 160 miles of range. In turn, the Bolt could offer even more than its 238 miles. It once again begs the question: How much EV driving range is enough?


The Hyundai Ioniq Electric (left) is bigger and less expensive than the Chevy Bolt (right).

Five years ago, I asked that question to J.B. Straubel, Tesla's chief technology officer. He told me, “A functional minimum we should aim for is the 125- to 150-mile range. I think it gets meaningful constrained when you get below that.”

For the past three years, I have driven a 2014 Toyota RAV4 EV, which offers 120 miles of range. During that time, I did not experience so-called range anxiety a single time—and never missed the vehicle’s lack of quick-charging capability. (That wasn’t the case with my previous EV, a first-generation 84-mile Nissan LEAF). My experience—granted, in the mild weather of Northern California—makes me think that I don’t need a 200-mile EV. We are a two-car family with an efficient hybrid available for road trips once or twice a year.

Of course, there are extenuating factors. If you live in a place with very cold weather, An EV’s range can drop by 30 percent or more on freezing days. So the Ioniq’s range could drop to below 100 miles in frigid weather. On the other hand, the Bolt’s huge battery could serve as a buffer in cold-weather, making all the difference for long-distance commuters living in places like Minneapolis or Buffalo. And if you like the Bolt’s looks, creature comforts and interior space, then the value of its 238 miles of range is beyond question.

But if you prefer the style, space and handling of another EV, even if it offers less range than the Bolt or upcoming Tesla Model 3—or if you want to save a few thousand dollars—then 124 miles of range is plenty. Could driving range no longer be the ultimate purchase criteria that it once was?

Comments

· · 15 weeks ago

238 mile range would be a lot more useful if you could quick charge and use it for long trips. Since GM isn't support CCS rollout, it becomes a 238 mile commuter car. For commuting, there's not much point beyond 124 mile range.

· · 15 weeks ago

Just want to point out one little error in the posting above. The 40 miles a day for US drivers is not an average but actually one deviation of the mean off the average. What the number in the US60 study actually says is that 94% of US drivers drive 40 miles or less a day. Triple A (AAA) auto club has this number around 32 miles per day. Having that number correct actually bolsters the view of the article that 124 miles range would be more than enough for most drivers.

However, when I studied the beginnings of the automobile entering the marketplace in the early 1900s in the US I found ads talking about long trips between cities and driving out to the country as part of their marketing, even though roads between cities were nothing more than dirt cart paths and drives to the country had no driving infrastructure such as fueling stations. This expanded somewhat with produce stands carrying gasoline in cans and as cars gained popularity those stands added gasoline pumps. The early ads were tapping into a psychology they called the "pull of the open road." I believe the longer range and fast charging stations such as Tesla SuperChargers, CCS and Chademo, help solidify the marketability of EVs. Whether it is actually practical or not, consumers want that longer range.
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I believe it's because we are a very mobile society in the US and travel and move a lot. We are also very independent minded, so having your car towed to a new home or having to rent a vehicle just to go out to the country just doesn't fit into our psyche.
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GM's Bolt offering, created because of an assertion from Tesla to do a 200 mile affordable EV the Model 3 that will be out this year and the Renault Zoe 40e in Europe that can go 200 miles as well, has changed the landscape for electric vehicles, I'm afraid. Electric vehicles that don't go at least 200 miles and provide charging in about a half hour time will simply be inadequate to meet the desires of the marketplace. In the end consumers dictate what they want and it is up to manufacturers to meet that need.

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