If you’re considering buying an electric car, but just aren’t sure if an electric car will be able to do what you need, you can stop wondering, because some researchers you’ve never met have already figured it out for you: it’ll work. Well, at least for nearly 90% of you.
Here’s the abstract of the study from Nature Energy:
Electric vehicles can contribute to climate change mitigation if coupled with decarbonized electricity, but only if vehicle range matches travellers’ needs. Evaluating electric vehicle range against a population’s needs is challenging because detailed driving behaviour must be taken into account. Here we develop a model to combine information from coarse-grained but expansive travel surveys with high-resolution GPS data to estimate the energy requirements of personal vehicle trips across the US. We find that the energy requirements of 87% of vehicle-days could be met by an existing, affordable electric vehicle. This percentage is markedly similar across diverse cities, even when per capita gasoline consumption differs significantly. We also find that for the highest-energy days, other vehicle technologies are likely to be needed even as batteries improve and charging infrastructure expands. Car sharing or other means to serve this small number of high-energy days could play an important role in the electrification and decarbonization of transportation. (emphasis mine)
What’s interesting about this study is that it is likely the largest study of its kind, using GPS-acquired data as well as large national surveys, the total of which comes to millions of driving trips. That’s why the result is in “vehicle days,” because they’re evaluating the car’s daily use as opposed to the car itself.
It seems that the ‘affordable electric vehicle’ referenced in the study is a Nissan Leaf, which has a range of around 80-100 miles on a full charge. The study only assumes overnight charging, which is more realistic, since workplace and general public-use chargers are still pretty uncommon.
The study also finds that, when you factor in the emissions from the power plants generating the electricity, switching to electric vehicles can provide a 30% reduction in emissions from transportation.
The hedge factor here is the reference to those “highest-energy days,” where the abstract says “other vehicle technologies are likely to be needed.” What this means, of course, is that for long road trips, you’ll still most likely need an internal-combustion car.
And that also speaks to an unspoken subtext of the study: yes, for most people’s lives, an electric car with an 80 mile or so range will work just fine. Possibly even better than a combustion commuter car, since it’s quieter in traffic, has less mechanical parts to go wrong, and, if you charge it every night, saves trips to gas stations.
But this also assumes that you always keep to a schedule, and limit your travels to the daily range of your vehicle. That’s almost always fine, but if you find the idea of a spontaneous road trip appealing, or your the sort of person without such a set routine, or are the sort of person with less-predictable driving habits, then an electric car likely still isn’t ideal.
Again, for the vast majority of people, there’s little reason why something like a Leaf won’t work. But this report doesn’t really take into account all of the irrational reasons why people buy cars: emotional reasons, aesthetic reasons, driving enjoyment reasons, and the likely ridiculous but very real feeling people have that makes them think at any point, they need to be ready to take off on a 12-hour road trip to who the hell knows where.
These aren’t things that fit well into any study, but they’re part of being human.
That said, these guys aren’t wrong; maybe the solution is an electric car for most of your daily commute, and something nice and bonkers with a big gas tank for those days you feel gleefully unhinged. Maybe even just knowing something like that is in your driveway while you electro-scoot to work is enough.