Picture it: You've just bought the electric car of your dreams, but you lost track of your charge and are now stranded miles away from home or an electrical outlet.
This concern is called "range anxiety," and it's the No. 1 reason consumers give for not wanting to purchase an electric vehicle.
"It's there in the minds of the 95 percent of people who have never had experience with electric vehicles," says Steven Lough, a longtime Seattle EV owner and evangelist. "But it does go away once they know what the car can and cannot do."
Lough says the driving range of highway-ready EVs is enough to cover most people's daily driving needs in the city. According to the EPA, the Nissan Leaf has a range of 73 miles and the Mitsubishi i goes 62 miles. The new Tesla Model S and Tesla Roadster are both rated for more than 200 miles.
A charge monitor on the dash helps to show how much power remains, but this information is sometimes not as exact as drivers would prefer. So, to prevent anxiety, drivers need to keep the length of their route below the average range of the vehicle, says Tom Saxton, vice president of Plug-In America, a nonprofit EV advocacy group based in California.
Saxton advises potential EV owners to tally their normal mileage; they're often surprised at how little they drive each day. "Seventy-eight percent of Americans drive less than 40 miles round-trip a day," he says.
Chad Schwitters, of Redmond, owns a Tesla Roadster and an electric Toyota RAV4. To him, range limitations are the same as any other tradeoff people make when choosing a vehicle.
"Before we got electric cars, I drove a Honda Insight, which is a two-seater," he says. "People never asked me what I would do if I ever wanted to carry more people. The answer would have been, 'I'd arrange to take a different car.' "
He applies the same logic to his EVs. About once every four months, Schwitters' wife, who typically drives the RAV4, needs to drive farther than the 100-mile range of the car. On those days, she swaps vehicles with her husband, whose Tesla Roadster can go twice as far on a full battery.
Lough says range anxiety can be alleviated by having a gas-powered car for longer trips. Another important way to prevent range anxiety, Saxton says, is to recharge the batteries at home every night. This assures that the EV has a maximum charge the next day for the longest possible drive time.
As more public charging stations are installed in cities and on major thoroughfares, the risk of getting caught with your watts down will diminish. Already, Tesla owners can comfortably drive from the Canadian border to San Diego, stopping to charge at stations located about every 150 miles along I-5.
Schwitters has made five round-trips to California in his Roadster, never worrying about his range, he says.
In fact, range anxiety is so far from his mind that he hopes to sell his hybrid Toyota Prius to his son, leaving him with two electric cars and no "backup" vehicle.
"I grew up in the '70s, the era of Earth Day, environmental stuff, gas shortages," Schwitters says. "I've never liked giving money to gas companies. I always bought fuel-efficient cars. The key for me was that I was willing to sacrifice in order to not burn gasoline.
"Not until after I bought an electric car did I find out that there was no sacrifice. This is better. I prefer this."