Range Anxiety

Sparky Arrives 003

Seventy-three miles is a long distance. Few people drive that much each day. If you put the average 12,000 miles on your car a year, that’s only thirty-three miles per day. Seventy-three available miles is overkill.

But we are used to big gas tanks, giving ranges of 400 miles. That makes seventy-three miles feel like you are always driving around with a quarter tank of gas. In a mid-size Kia, if you could only go seventy-three miles, that means you had two gallons of gas left. Two milk jugs. The needle would be uncomfortably close to empty.

In a gas car, unless you are in the middle of the desert on Interstate 10, you are almost never seventy-three miles from a gas station. So, no big deal. Drop in and fill up anywhere in about six minutes. That isn’t true with an electric. A city hums with power, but you and your car have very few places to access it. And when you do, it takes hours to refill your tank of electrons.

So you have what you perceive as a relatively short range, and no help but a tow truck if you miscalculate and don’t make it to a rare charge point. That means when you first buy an electric car, from the minute you leave the house, you start a mental countdown to being stranded. It’s impossible not to.

I drove Sparky around that first weekend and got a feel for the accuracy of the range estimate on the dash. In a mix of highway and around town driving, it was pretty accurate. It certainly had enough data to monitor performance.

sparky energy

The next morning was the commute, the first long trip, the usual Monday morning slog to the airport. Thirty miles, half the range the battery display shows when fully changed. Piece of cake.

Now even on Florida where I live, it gets cool in the winter. That morning it was 42 degrees. In Florida, that’s considered polar. Time for some heat in this car.

An internal combustion engine creates waste heat for a living. It makes so much waste heat that it needs a radiator and pressurized coolant pumped through the engine block to dissipate it. Part of that hot coolant runs through a tiny radiator under the dashboard, and a fan blows air through that to heat the cabin, and even then there’s still excess heat from the engine.

An electric car doesn’t work that way. The engine has no coolant system. There is no heater core to deliver waste heat. Instead, there is an electric heater. And anyone with electric heat in their home can tell you it is an inefficient and expensive way to warm air. And wasting electricity in an electric car is bad. It is like punching a hole in a conventional car’s gas tank.

I naively popped on the heat on the way to the airport. For every mile I drove, the displayed remaining usable miles left dropped by two. What the hell?

Off went the heat or I’d be pushing Sparky the last few miles. I turned the more energy efficient seat heater on. The cabin soon felt like the inside of a refrigerator. I went on and off with the heat all the way to the airport, praying I’d get in with a few kilowatts left. I actually had 25 miles to spare at the end, so I could have shivered a bit less.

The trip home, on a pleasant day that did not require heat, left 50 miles in the tank upon arrival. Range anxiety solved, as long as it wasn’t too cold. Next chilly morning, it will be time for a more controlled heater experiment. Knowledge is power. Electric power.