Why Does Range Matter?
When we discuss the various merits and features of gasoline cars, range – how far a vehicle can go on a single tank of gas – rarely enters the discussion. We talk about how much room there is, the performance, or even the fuel efficiency. But when it comes to electric cars, it seems like range is the only thing we talk about – far more than any other spec including power, price, or cargo volume. Why is that?
Gasoline cars have been around for over a hundred years and the infrastructure to refuel them has evolved to the point where there are gas stations everywhere. Hundreds of thousands of them exist across the United States, and all of them with multiple pumps. Pumping gas is also a relatively rapid process as it takes just a few minutes to fill the tank of a tiny city car or a large SUV. Thus, filling up our gas cars is easy and fast enough that we don’t have to think about it.
On the other hand, electric cars are still a relatively new thing. The first Nissan Leafs and Tesla Model Ss are now just over a decade old – mere babies in automotive terms. The infrastructure to charge electric cars isn’t yet at the same level – while the number of total electric vehicle chargers is increasing significantly, and totals about a third of the number of gas stations nationally, DC fast chargers are still relatively scarce, and some regions are much better served than others.
Charging an electric car takes longer, sometimes a lot longer, than filling up a gasoline car. There are multiple kinds of chargers that deliver electricity at different speeds, but all of them are currently slower than filling up with gas.
What that means is that, if you’re on a trip and need to fill up your car, you need to plan ahead to charge. When charging could take a half-hour or more, you start to understand why range means a lot when it comes to electric cars.
Why Doesn’t Range Matter?
While it’s easy to fixate on range and its effects on those long road trips, it’s important to remember that our driving patterns are very predictable, and we don’t need that much range. Most drivers have a predictable daily routine that usually goes from home, perhaps to a school drop-off, to work, to errand-running, and back home. All of that driving generally won’t come close to using up a battery’s full charge. For instance, even electric city cars like the base Nissan Leaf, Mini Cooper S Electric, and Mazda MX-30 have more than 100 miles of usable range, more than enough to get you through the day and back home.
When you’re back home, with an electric car, you simply plug in – just like you do with your mobile phone or other electronic devices at the end of each day. As you go through your evening routine and while you sleep, your electric car charges up and is ready to go with a full “tank” the next morning. If you have access to electric car chargers at work, or at public spaces you frequently visit, life with an EV becomes even more convenient.
So, while an electric car’s range matters in the case of those extreme circumstances, remember that for the vast majority of the driving we do, it doesn’t matter.
So, What Does Matter?
Range is a factor of an electric car’s battery capacity and its overall efficiency. Battery capacity is measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh) – and the bigger the number, the better. Fully electric cars will typically have battery capacities starting at 30 kWh going up to well over 100 kWh. A base 2021 Nissan Leaf, a commuter car, has a relatively small 40 kWh battery. While the Porsche Taycan, a high-performance luxury car, has a 93.4 kWh battery.
The bigger the battery, the more electrical energy you can have “on board” the vehicle. Which should, all else being equal, give you more range. More powerful cars will use more energy, so a car’s range doesn’t scale in direct proportion with its battery size. That Porsche Taycan has over double the Leaf’s battery capacity, but far less than double its range.
Overall vehicle efficiency is the result of multiple variables including its size, frontal area, weight, and performance. Efficiency can be measured in several different ways. Using basic math lets you determine how far you can go on a charge.
One method is measured in MPkWh, or miles per kilowatt-hour. The higher the MPkWh, the more efficient the vehicle. Multiply the MPkWh rating by the kWh size of the battery to get the theoretical range. For instance, an EV with a 100-kWh battery rated at 2.5 MPkWh will deliver range of about 250 miles.
You may also see ratings for kWh/100 miles. Divide the battery’s capacity by the kWh/100 miles rating then multiply b100 to determine your range. An EV with a 75-kWh battery rated at 35 kWh/100 miles will go 214 miles on a full charge. For those of you that think in metric, or Canadians, a similar measure is kWh/100 km.
Many manufacturers and media outlets are now using a MPGe (or miles per gallon equivalent) rating. This gives you a sense of the overall efficiency of the vehicle you are considering but makes it more difficult to calculate the range of the vehicle, even if you know its battery capacity.
Electric is Still More Efficient
One of the more confusing aspects of researching and purchasing an electric vehicle is all the new terminology associated with electric motors and the batteries that power them.
Fortunately, once you’ve learned what each of the new terms means, it’s easy to relate them to their traditional equivalents and compare electric vehicle specs to figure out which one is best for you. No matter what electric car you are considering, it will have superior efficiency compared to a gasoline vehicle thanks to its simpler drivetrain and will also significantly reduce your costs to “fuel” it.