As I was talking to a high-level electric vehicle (EV) engineer recently, I was surprised to hear him say that driving range shouldn't be an issue for EVs, and that the term "range anxiety" was unfairly harming sales.
"We've taught people to be very concerned about range," he told me. "But do you know what the range of your gasoline vehicle is? Most people don't, but they certainly know what the range of an electric vehicle is."
That engineer isn't alone in his beliefs. An auto industry analyst recently told me, "Range anxiety isn't a real issue for most consumers, but automakers still have to consider it." Similarly, a BMW study involving 1,000 consumers this year revealed that the "average daily distance covered was around 30 miles (45 km)." The movie Who Killed the Electric Car? hammered home the same message by saying 90 percent of driving is done within the range of a short-range EV.
Should range not be a buying issue? There are certainly many consumers who simply don't need a longer driving range. Urban commuters come to mind -- a short drive to work, a daily recharge at a parking garage, and then a brief ride home in the evening. As long as the car isn't needed for long night or weekend trips, the EV is a good choice.
But the implication here seems to be that those who don't share that vision are myopic or are resisting EVs because they fear change. It's more likely, though, that those consumers are resisting EVs for a different reason. They don't buy cars to satisfy their average needs. They buy cars to satisfy their exceptional needs.
"We think that a very, very small number of people will buy a car for their average use, rather than their exceptional use," Bill Reinert of Toyota told us in 2011. "Even if you're covered in 90 percent of the cases, you're unlikely to buy a car that leaves you uncovered 10 percent of the time." He was explaining why Toyota supports the idea of a plug-in hybrid with a backup gasoline engine to extend the range.
Designing for exception, of course, isn't a new idea. Engineers do it every day. Automotive seating is a prime example. Though the average number of people in a car for any given trip is about 1.4, most consumers prefer to buy vehicles with four or more seats. That doesn't mean they're suffering from some kind of phobia that causes them to crave extra chairs. It simply means they're buying for the exception, not the average.
So, no, I don't think it's quite fair to point a finger at range-anxious consumers and imply they're afraid of change. In truth, the problem is much simpler than that. Most of the people concerned about range just need to drive their kids to college, visit the in-laws, or take the family on vacation. After they've spent $30,000 on a new car, they don't want to have to get a rental car to fulfill those needs.
Besides, it's the job of engineers to figure out what consumers want and then design to it. It's not the job of engineers to say, "Here's what you should want."