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Monday, December 17, 2012

EV Range: It's a Moving Target

This sign hanging at the BMW i Born Electric tour in New York City clearly states the i3 concept has a 100 mile range while BMW also states it has an "80 to a 100 mile" range in other places
Electric vehicle range is misquoted, misinterpreted, misrepresented and most importantly misunderstood. I've been driving electric for over 3 1/2 years now and I field all kinds of questions about EVs from curious motorists, friends, relatives and patrons of my restaurant in Montclair, NJ. However the one question I get from everyone is: "How far can it go?"

My answer depends on how much time I have to spend explaining it to them, or how interested I really think they are. If it's very casual and I think they are just kicking the tires, I'll usually tell them my ActiveE can go "about 100 miles" between charges. If I have time and I think they really want to know more details, I'll go into how there are many factors that go into how far you can go like your speed, driving style, ambient temperature, etc. I'll tell them I've driven as far as 110 miles on a charge, but I've also had cold winter days where I can't even make 70 miles. I'll then go into the whole EPA rating system and compare it to how manufacturers advertise gas mileage that the owner seldom can attain.

However the range of an EV is much more critical than whether you get 25mpg or the advertised 30 on your gas car. Most gas car owners don't even really know the exact MPG they are getting, but ask any EV owner and they can tell you exactly what range they can get depending on the different conditions. That's why it's very important that manufacturers don't overstate how far their EV offerings can go. It won't take long for the owner to realize if the car they just bought lives up to the range the manufacturer stated. Sure every EV undergoes the EPA 5-cycle test and gets a range rating, but that only tells half the story. If the EPA range rating told the whole story then all I'd have to tell people who ask me is: "The car has a 94 mile range". While I already admitted I sometimes simplify the range and tell people "about 100 miles" without going into details, I realize that's really not being all that truthful. Prospective electric car owners need to be better prepared for the different ranges they will observe during ownership, as well as thoroughly explaining the range decline as their battery ages.

I also haven't seen anyone really address battery degradation properly yet. We all know the battery will degrade and the car's range will decrease, but how much and when? It's like the 500lb gorilla in the room that nobody wants to address. Nissan is currently having problems with 'early battery degradation' on some LEAFs sold in Arizona and other hot climate areas. They are even buying back some cars that are less than two years old. The prevailing thought is the hot temperatures in Arizona were too much for the LEAF's primitive thermal management system and the batteries were prematurely damaged. But what is 'early degradation'? What should you expect from a car that had a 100 mile EPA rating after five years and 70,000 miles? If that question isn't answered at the time of purchase then it's certain some customers will be crying foul, complaining their batteries are bad and demanding replacements after only a few years of ownership.
LEAF range estimate page 1
LEAF range estimate page 2

In my opinion nobody is currently doing a good job of properly explaining to their customers the range differences under different driving conditions as well as declining range as the battery ages. This only sets them up for problems down the road. Nissan did take a stab at it and published the range estimate guide I've posted here. However dealers don't explain this information to their prospective customers and I don't even think they included these in their sales documentation. Without a guide of what to expect customers will undoubtedly think there is something wrong with their car when they can't drive as far as they are used to when the temperatures drops or when they suddenly can't make the same round trip to the office in year four of ownership that they had been making the first three years.

I could only squeeze out about 65 miles on this cold night
How do we then effectively communicate the difference in range expectations to a person driving at highway speeds in Buffalo, NY in the winter compared to someone driving the exact same EV @ 30mph in the city of San Diego without sounding too confusing? Clearly the car driven in San Diego will have a much greater range. The manufacturers have to come up with some kind of point of sale "EV range for idiots" material and have the client advisers explain it to the customer, and personally I'd even have the customer sign a document that states they understand the range differences. There are people in the ActiveE program now who are very disappointed that the car will barely do 70 miles per charge now that it's winter and getting cold. I've had quite a few of them reach out to me already and some swear BMW reduced the range of their car at the last service visit. What BMW did do was update the software that predicts the range and remaining miles you can drive so it is a bit more conservative. Now the car displays the new, lower range prediction, and that coupled with the cold weather and the use of the heater prevents the car from going as far as it used to, but it's not because of anything BMW did. The bottom line is there is confusion and there need not be. I hope (and I believe they will) that BMW will do a much better job preparing the customer for life with an EV when they actually sell them, beginning with the i3 next year.

The i3 coupe Concept promises 80 -100 mile range. Is that for driving conditions in Southern California or Fargo, North Dakota, or both?
Speaking of the i3, BMW has been saying it will have an 80 to 100 mile range. If that turns out to be true, and 80 miles is really the low water mark in most normal circumstances then I will be very pleased. However if it can only go 60 or 65 miles in New Jersey in the winter, then I think BMW has a problem on their hands if they continue to market it as an 80 to 100 mile EV. Enough with the over-promising and under delivering that I've seen from some of the other automakers. Everybody talks about their "100 mile EV" yet nobody besides Tesla has really delivered one. If the i3 does deliver 100 miles of driving in most normal driving conditions and 80+ miles even in winter driving then I do believe it will be a big success. If it falls short of that promise then I'm not so sure. Time will tell.

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam, and my EV has a true 100 mile range...


  1. I agree with you completely Tom. Stated another way, I don't care if the i3 can do 80 miles or 110 - but I care deeply that BMW is honest with me about it. If they (like all other EV manufacturers including Tesla) advertise it with a larger range than it actually has, I am immediately distrustful of the company and the product.

  2. Here's a tidbit you may not or may know.

    The EPA will inform the manufacture what is to be placed on the Monroney label. Manufacturers may come in with a number or numbers but in the end, the honesty is a game played by EPA and Manfacturers for every model it gains approval for.

    So, manufacturers cannot say for example 100 miles on the Monroney for an i3 if the EPA says 92 miles. Same goes for ICE models.

    1. Not true Gerald. The EPA sets the guidelines for the testing, but it's the manufacturer that conducts the actual test, NOT the EPA so they do have some control over what they provide as the official EPA figure.

      Ford is currently in a mess over their C-Max hybrid rating as well as their Focus Hybrid. It seems they have overstated the mileage quite a bit and Consumer Reports as well as Edmunds have confirmed they vastly overstated it.

    2. Gerald:

  3. Gerald, Tesla still has a giant "300 Miles per charge" claim at despite the EPA rating of 265. To their credit, Tesla has been very forthcoming with data regarding range and have even published a range vs. speed chart for their car which seems to be very accurate. Other manufacturers have not been so honest. Nissan's LEAF page is ridiculous: even on the "Charging & Range" subpage they do NOT list the range of the vehicle. In fact, I can't find it anywhere on their site. They repeat ad nauseum the MPGe, cost per mile, time to recharge, capacity of battery in kwh.

  4. Ahhh, indeed I see your points.

    Okay, first question is this. Is the Monroney label state the number or does their advertisement state the number you reference is incorrectIf its the latter I can see why the concerns exist.

  5. Lots of good thoughts here Tom. I wonder if the Monroney label should have three range ratings for electric cars. One for the average range expected and they could use the 5-cycle test like they do now to get that number. Then a second number for driving in 32 degree(freezing) temperatures at highway speeds to simulate a "low water mark" as you put it. Then a range achieved driving at 40 mph on a flat surface in 75 degree temperatures to offer an "optimal" range. This way the public could really see the range variation they may observe.

  6. Great entry Tom! I agree that auto makers do customers, and themselves, a disservice by claiming greater range than what is typically delivered. But, as your San Diego vs. Buffalo example clearly shows, EV range is complicated, and most consumers don't want to get into the details -- which is why they have NO idea that they're getting much poorer mileage in the winter than in the summer, etc. BTW, the range/mileage issue is now biting Ford in the you know what with the C-Max hybrid. I have a friend who's had one for about 2 weeks and isn't getting anything close to the 47 mpg Ford claims. She's now telling me that if her mileage (low 30s) keeps on where it is, she'd like to return the C-Max (good luck on that one eh?).

  7. Hi Christof,

    Yes, it is complicated. It's not nearly as simple as advertising 47mpg and then realizing you only get 32. That's why I think it is very important for the manufacturers to spend time reviewing that with their customer.

    The sales process for an EV should be different than it is for a gas car. I know that means spending time and money and reinventing the wheel, but it's necessary. BMW prides itself on being a 'premium' automobile manufacturer. If they really want the i brand to be successful they will reinvent the sales process for these cars.

  8. I just hand out a "Range Chart" when folks ask me how far the LEAF/Rav4 go. They cover all the variables that affect an EV:

    By the way, my Rav4 is a "real" 100 mile car. I regularly drive 130 miles at 60-65 mph down the freeway, with just a nibble left. With that New Jersey blizzard, I think it may be possible to still do 100 miles, but probably not with the heater on (seat heaters only).

  9. Hi Tony,

    Yes the RAV4 is definitely a 100 car. But it's kinda like the ActiveE, very small production and limited to only a small area. If I didn't have the ActiveE I would seriously consider getting one and shipping it here to NJ but I'd have to figure out how to get it serviced first, if that's even possible.

    I've seen your range charts and they are impressive. That kind of information needs to be explained thoroughly at the point of sale in my opinion.