Is it right to be worried about getting stranded in an electric car? | Business

Of all the reasons car buyers give to avoid buying an electric car, two words stand out above all: range anxiety. Drivers wary of making the switch from petrol or diesel to electric overwhelmingly cite a concern that batteries will not last the journey. Our EV mythbusters series is taking a closer look at some of the most common criticisms of electric cars, highlighting the myths, the realities and the grey areas.

We have asked whether we should be more concerned about fires in electric cars and whether cars have a mining problem. This article asks whether fears about battery range mean the transition away from internal combustion engines never reaches its destination.

The claim

Range anxiety has two components: that batteries don’t have enough capacity for journeys and that there is a lack of chargers.

The Sun newspaper warned of “EV misery” in a report citing Auto Trader polling that found less than half of drivers said they were willing to switch, with range anxiety the top factor. The Conservative MP John Redwood, who has campaigned against the ban on petrol and diesel cars, said recently: “Many people are put off buying EVs by the absence of reliable charging points, the short range and the time it takes to charge a car.”

Donald Trump, who is hoping to regain the US presidency, has repeatedly criticised the Democratic White House’s push for electric cars, which he has claimed need to charge every 15 minutes.

The science

There is no doubt that range anxiety is real. Polling by Bloomberg Intelligence in September found that range anxiety and the closely related concern over finding a charger were the two biggest fears cited by people across Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the UK.

Whether that anxiety is justified is a very different question. Figures on average driving ranges can help. The US Environmental Protection Agency (in its own handy mythbusting page) notes that the average American household covers 50 miles a day, and only 15% of households do more than 100 miles in a typical day. In Europe average driving distances are generally lower. UK government data shows 99% of car journeys are less than 100 miles.

The energy company Octopus says the average EV range in the UK is 211 miles, and more expensive models can reach 300 miles. If you can charge overnight (when energy prices are cheapest) then there is simply no need to worry about typical usage.

Tesla Model 3 interior
UK government data shows 99% of car journeys are less than 100 miles. Photograph: Sjoerd van der Wal/Getty

For longer trips, drivers are dependent on the charger network. The International Energy Agency says the number of public charge points grew by 55% worldwide in 2022 to 2.7m. That is rapid growth, and means that in places like the UK or western Europe longer trips are gradually turning into a non-issue, with a quick toilet break doubling as top-up time. Edmund King, president of the AA, said 2.5% of its EV customers’ breakdown callouts are for flat batteries, and he expects that to fall to 1%, in line with the proportion of people who run out of petrol or diesel.

Maurice Neligan, the co-founder of Jolt, a public charger company in Germany that is expanding to the UK, said: “My view is there’s no reason why we won’t have enough chargers. There may be a bit of a bottleneck in the next three to four years but there’s no reason that it can’t be solved.”

Melanie Shufflebotham, the chief operating officer of ZapMap,the UK’s authority on charger numbers, said the network “has taken great strides forward in the past year”, with 43% more rapid chargers and double the number of hubs. She acknowledged that “there are still concerns around finding a reliable charging point, particularly on longer journeys”, but she expected the quick pace of new installations to continue.

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Any caveats?

The main problem for the EV transition is for people who do not have access to off-street parking, such as this reporter. The relatively widespread public charger network in south London meant there were no problems with charging a Kia EV6 and a much shorter-range Citroën Ami in public, but it was more effort when charge points nearer home were occupied (and prices and parking tariffs can be tricky). In many other cities around the world it is a still bigger challenge.

For rapid chargers on longer journeys there could still be issues when the public charger network has to deal with absolute peak periods, such as public holidays, when millions of people are doing the 1% of journeys that are more than 100 miles.

The number of ultra-rapid chargers is rising quickly in countries such as the UK to address this. Nevertheless, issues with the electricity grid are holding back progress on chargers across Europe, says Quentin Willson, former Top Gear presenter turned campaigner at FairCharge. He said the number of chargers needs to be “much, much more or else you’ll get people starting to queue”.

The verdict

Banishing range anxiety is tricky because it relies on electric vehicles’ use patterns as well as the charging network. It is not yet possible to say that every journey is well served.

And governments cannot afford to get complacent about charging, or else those anxieties will turn into reality for more people as increasing numbers make the switch to EVs.

Most authorities are clear, however, that range anxiety should not be a problem for most people. If you only carry out the occasional journey of more than 200 miles, you are very unlikely to be caught short in areas such as the UK, western Europe and parts of the US where the number of chargers is already large, and rapidly growing.