Llewellyn Plugs In: My biggest concern is range anxiety

Electric car journeys require extra thought but it’s not rocket science, says Robert

By Robert Llewellyn on May 31, 2012 10:45 AM

In the pantheon of anxieties the world has on offer the one I am most often exposed to in my interactions within the rich and diverse online community is never about the global drinking water shortage, the massive burden of international debt caused by a few gamblers in the banking sector or the current situation in Syria.

The sentence always starts with, “My biggest concern is range anxiety…”

This is clearly on topic – the question will have been inspired by something I have written about my experience of driving an electric car. It’s not like I was asking, “What should the UN do about President Assad?” If the range anxiety comment came in from a President Assad-related article, well, that would be comedy.

I have, however, been wondering where this particular anxiety comes from. Simply due to the scarcity of electric vehicles, it’s fairly safe to assume most of these comments are coming from people who’ve never driven an electric car. They are certainly not coming from people who’ve been driving an electric car without a care in the world. Those people don’t tootle along the M4 and suddenly, without warning, find the battery has died and have to pull onto the hard shoulder. Then burst into tears.

"People who drive an electric car don’t tootle along the M4 and suddenly, without warning, find the battery has died and have to pull onto the hard shoulder. Then burst into tears."

It’s a tedious discussion, but one I have many times a week. The other day I visited a neighbour in the electric Nissan LEAF; it’s hard to discuss your children’s education or the local parish council planning committee meeting when the first thing your neighbour says is, “Oh my God, that is so weird! That car doesn’t make any noise.”

It begs a response and I do my best to underplay its importance. “It’s just a car,” I say, but the question is visibly ready to burst from their lips.

“What if the battery runs out?”

I then try and patiently explain that, although it is indeed possible, it’s never happened to me and I usually follow this up with a question:

“Have you ever run out of petrol?”

If they answer yes, they also point out that it only takes a can of petrol poured in and off they go. All very true, but what if they run out of petrol in the middle of the night, in a remote rural location, miles from anywhere, and they haven’t got any phone reception. I ladle it on – I’ve learned from the many extreme examples of the range anxiety nightmare I’ve been subjected to over the years.

They then say they wouldn’t start the journey without knowing they would have enough fuel.

I do a knowing shrug. I nod my head. If they don’t get the hint I spell it out:

“Just like me – I don’t start the journey unless I know I can finish it. Yes, it takes longer to charge an electric car than it does to pour a bit of fuel into the tank, but it really isn’t a problem.”

"I patiently explain that, although it is possible, I've never run out of battery. And usually follow this up with a question: 'Have you ever run out of petrol?'"

I don’t get range anxiety in an electric car, but I do plan my journey before I start. I think about it for 10 minutes, and that is different to how we use fossil burners. I make sure I’ve got ample range before the next charge point, I make sure I will have enough time to re-charge.

But here’s an example that I hope puts it into perspective: on two occasions recently I’ve been recording episodes of Fully Charged and on both occasions the journeys were way above the LEAF’s range on one charge. I used Google maps to work out roughly how to break the journey down.

On one occasion the outward journey was very possible – just over 70 miles. We would be filming for several hours and the location had a 13-amp charge point I could use. When we’d finished filming, the battery was full again and I drove home. It was exactly the same as using a fossil burner, I didn’t have to do anything unusual but I did need to know I could re-charge while we worked.

The other occasion was more complex – a longer journey (around 97 miles), which I broke with a 20-minute stop over using one of Nissan’s fast chargers. Again, while I was at work, I had the advantage of a 16-amp charge, and four hours later, when we’d finished filming, the car was full. I then drove into London, parked in an NCP, re-charged while I went to dinner with some pals, moved the car when it was full and parked it out of the rather expensive car park, then drove home the next day.

Some planning required, but truly, not that much.

I could come up with dozens of examples of journeys we wouldn’t think twice about in a fossil car but which would prove close to impossible in an electric with the current level of public charging, but they would all be fairly extreme.

Essentially, if you’ve got the time you can go anywhere and, due to newly installed chargers, it’s genuinely getting easier every day.

When I was using the fast charger at the Nissan dealership the other day, another LEAF driver turned up and we chatted for a while. He had just driven from Cornwall and he was on his way back to Lincoln where he lived. He wasn’t in a rush, he had time to stop overnight and charge at hotels, friend’s houses and various charge points he knew about. Yes, it’s currently more complicated, requires some thought and more time. But he’d driven to Cornwall for a few pence, in a comfortable, quiet car.

About Robert Llewellyn

Columnist Robert Llewellyn is a comedian, actor, presenter and writer. He’s perhaps best known for his role as Kryten in hit BBC comedy Red Dwarf and as co-presenter of Channel 4’s Scrapheap Challenge, but since creating the Carpool series he has been invited to test drive all kinds of cars, from the pure electric Tesla Roadster sports car to the Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell car. As a result Robert has become an expert on alternatively-fuelled vehicles, in particular electric cars, launching EV web series Fully Charged in 2010.

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