5 Reasons Battery-Electric Vehicle Road Trip Range Stinks
Battery-electric vehicles are about to become the default family vehicle in America. It may happen in a year or two, or maybe five or ten, but every major automaker and the entirety of the party controlling Congress and the Executive branch have sworn to make it so. Who are we to stand in front of a train? All aboard!
BEVs are so good at so many things, we won't recount them here. We have a team of about a dozen employed doing that. Read the stuff we write. Some of it is very good. All of it is free. Let's examine one aspect of vehicle ownership where BEVs may not lead the pack - Long road trips.
What Is The Maximum Range Of An EV?
Electric vehicles have a maximum or average maximum range that is often used to compare one model to another. The EPA controls how facts like range and efficiency are discussed, and with EVs the range the EPA estimates is a good way to cross-shop EVs. As our example above of the Volkswagen ID.4 shows, the maximum estimated range is 249 miles. The EPA averages a lot of different scenarios to come up with that number. It includes mostly warm-weather operation, a mix of speeds, and multiple trips. It includes a bit of range to be used for heating and cooling, as well as some stops and restarts. It’s not the ideal maximum, nor is it a wildly optimistic number in temperate weather. Overall it is handly but not set in stone.
Charging From 10% to 80% Means 30% of Your EV’s Max. Range Is Useless
The first and perhaps largest deduction of one’s EV range on a road trip is due to how owners charge EVs at public charging stations. You need some buffer to ensure that if you arrive at a station that is damaged, full, or ICED-out you can move on to another station. Shall we call that 10% of the total range? Would you be comfortable on a road trip arriving at a charging station with less than 25 miles remaining? Maybe you would. In any case, most folks are not comfortable arriving with near-zero range.
You arrive at the charger and you plug it in. One might expect that the charger would be from the starting point to the 100% state of charge level, but normally this is not the case. Ask any savvy EV owner and they will tell you that the proper public EV charging etiquette is to stop charging at 80% of the maximum state of charge (SOC) ie, range. So your ID.4’s range is really from 25 miles to 199 miles. That is a distance of roughly 174 miles total range between road trip charges. As you will see, it may be less than that.
There are two additional reasons besides being a good citizen that EV owners stop charging at 80% and they are all related. EVs charge relatively rapidly in the middle of their state of charge, but once past 80% most slow their rate of charging dramatically. This slows down your road trip and the cost can also go up at chargers that have a per-minute charge plan.
Steven Loveday is an experienced EV reporter. In one guide he wrote for U.S. News, here's what Steven said: "Charging to 80% is also better for the life of your battery, it will speed up your road trips, and it’s more considerate to other EV drivers who may be waiting to use the charging station. Before you depart for your road trip, you should charge to 100% at home. Once you arrive at your destination, you can use a Level 2 public charging station to charge the car to 100%. Level 2 charging is cheaper than DCFC (or free), and when it comes to charging that final 20%, DCFC isn’t going to provide a time advantage."
Steven is being polite. Your fellow BEV owners are going to give you the stink eye if you charge past 80% at a public fast charger. For proof, see what EV owners say about public fast charging past 80% SOC in the comments under our story below.
Long Highway Runs - Lower Efficiency For Two Reasons
If your road trip is mostly high-speed highway miles, your total range will be reduced. This is not theoretical. Owners of EVs are keenly aware of the lower efficiency of their vehicles on the highway. EVs are meaningfully less efficient at speeds of say, 75 than they are at speeds of say, 55 MPH. This makes sense. Wind resistance is one big contributor to energy consumption and it rises significantly as speeds increase. Join any social media club for any model and ask owners what they observe. You will see there is a lively discussion about how driving at the pace of traffic uses more range than you might expect. You could of course move over to the right lane and watch cars whiz past you during your road trip. That’s fun (Not).
Long uninterrupted highway trips also have far fewer opportunities for electric vehicles to perform their very best party trick - brake regeneration. Although EVs do regain energy from regenerative braking on downhill sections of highways in certain circumstances, and all of us brake a bit from time to time due to merges and slow motorists ahead (like those EVs in the merge lane going 55 MPH), the regeneration of energy is far lower on highway trips than it is in mixed driving. Look closely at the EPA’s “Highway” efficiency for the ID.4. You can see that is about 12% lower than its city efficiency. Just to be safe, assume your EV’s highway road trip range will be about 5 to 15% lower than its maximum range in mixed lower-speed driving. So, let's deduct 13 to 25 miles of range from your above total of 174 miles. Now your EV with a “range” of 249 miles is down to about 161 to 149 miles. That’s unless it’s cold.
The EPA’s EV range estimate gets a bad rap from most of the media. Because heat is a major contributor to range depletion, the range estimates your vehicle displays may be downright scary when you enter it in the winter. We’ve observed drops of 40% in various test vehicles from major brands. These range estimation reductions have been widely reported. AAA and Consumer Reports have both done studies documenting the range reduction.
We spoke to the EPA about this controversial cold-weather range issue and learned a few things. First, the EPA’s hands are mostly tied. Unless something changes later they need to report one big range number and that means they have to pick a scenario or blend conditions. They didn’t pick the conservative winter number to display as the range. Why should they in a country where most of the EVs are in sunny California?
However, the EPA also reminded us that the drastic range reductions your in-dash estimator displays may be too conservative. Most cars predict you will make many stops and require many warmup cycles. “It’s not as bad as you think” is the general theme. Let’s say it’s about 10% lower than temperate conditions. So deduct another 25 miles. Now your ID.4’s road trip range is 136 to 124 miles between public charging stops. Be patient. We’re not done yet.
Is Your Trunk Full? Do You Have A Full Car?
Is the cargo compartment of your ID.4 full on this road trip by any chance? Cooler full of soda cans and ice? Some roast beast sandwiches to snack on at the lonely public chargers not in front of a Starbucks? Your clothes, toilet kit, maybe some hiking boots. Heavens forbid a bike on a roof rack or a kayak up top. Maybe you took the family? All of this stuff is dead weight you are carrying around. Weight reduces range. Maybe that’s why you don’t have a spare tire in your EV, right? We’ll let you guestimate your range reduction for all that road trip stuff you brought along. It’s not zero. Let's not get started on range reduction and charging hassles associated with bringing a trailer on a long road trip. It's just not fair to bash BEVs that way.
Easy Proof That Using EVs on Long Road Trips Is Questionable
In reality, EVs are not able to drive their maximum range between EV chargers on road trips. They have a meaningfully lower range between charges than the maximum. This casts the use of EVs on long road trips into doubt. Can they be used for long road trips?
We can prove that EV road trip use is questionable in one simple way. Google “EV road trip.” You will find a slew of well-written EV road trip stories. “We made it!” is the general theme “No problem!” is popular. There is even a Facebook group specifically dedicated to dispelling the myth that EV road trip range is an issue. EV owners share their success stories about using EVs on road trips. The proof that using EVs for long road trips is questionable is proven in each of these stories. If it wasn’t questionable, then why write a story about it telling everyone you made it?
Summary - BEVs Are Awesome, But…
Battery-electric vehicles like the Volkswagen ID.4 and Ford Mustang Mach-E are rapidly expanding in the marketplace. Hyundai, Kia, Toyota, and others will bring their models to market this calendar year, and each one has new and innovative features that make driving not just possible, but joyous. EVs are a blast to drive. They are going to save us all a lot of money on fuel and hopefully reduce our maintenance and repair hassles as well. But they are not the best vehicles for all tasks. And they are not the best electrified vehicle options for long road trips. Plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles and hybrids are.
Image of I-PACE with bike rack courtesy of Jaguar. Fuel economy chart courtesy of EPA. ID.4 with motorcycle courtesy of VW media. Images of Chevy Bolt charging by John Goreham.
John Goreham is a long-time New England Motor Press Association member and recovering engineer. John's interest in EVs goes back to 1990 when he designed the thermal control system for an EV battery as part of an academic team. After earning his mechanical engineering degree, John completed a marketing program at Northeastern University and worked with automotive component manufacturers, in the semiconductor industry, and in biotech. In addition to Torque News, John's work has appeared in print in dozens of American news outlets and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites. You can follow John on TikTok @ToknCars, on Twitter, and view his credentials at Linkedin
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