In the quest to keep the message simple, automakers are bordering on dishonesty in their marketing about EV charging and range. I discussed this the other day in this article, but I want to expand upon it. I totally understand that it’s difficult to present complex ideas, especially in marketing, but setting realistic expectations is going to be key to long-term sales and customer sentiment toward EVs.
Here’s a great example of what the problem is. Yes, each mention of charging, time, and range has a link to a disclaimer and a little cross to let you know there’s more information. But realistically, do customers really look at all that? Even if you do click on it, all GM tells us is “Actual charge times will vary based on battery condition, output of charger, vehicle settings and outside temperature.”
As someone who studies and writes about EVs for a living, I have a pretty good idea of what they’re talking about in that disclaimer, but I have to be honest and say that I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into when I bought my first EVs. I didn’t used to know what they meant by “battery condition,” for example.
In this article, I’m going to go through each of the problem areas in marketing and explain the limitations. Then, I’d like to offer some ideas on how to improve it.
Your Mileage May Vary
With a gasoline vehicle, it doesn’t matter that much if the MPG ratings are largely unrealistic. If a driver is running low on gas after getting cruddy MPG, almost every little podunk place along even rural roads has a gas pump you can quickly use to add more range. Make the same mistake in an EV, and you’ll end up either stranded completely or stuck trying to charge on level 1 or 2 for hours. For that reason, educating buyers on what affects their range is extremely important.
Here are some of the things drivers need to understand:
In a gas car, cold weather doesn’t hurt your range significantly. The heater uses waste heat from the engine, so you don’t burn more gas when you run the heater. You can even afford to roll the windows down a bit to let heat escape, and get a refreshing mix of heat and fresh air without hurting your range one bit.
With an EV, winter weather is the Achilles’ Heel. Cold interferes with the chemical reactions in battery cells, making for low battery life all on its own. On top of that, the heater uses up battery, and in many EVs, there’s also a heater of some kind just for the battery, and that will use up battery. All in all, you can lose around half of your EPA range if things are bad enough.
Other factors like wind, rain, and road conditions generally can all affect range.
When I first got my 2018 LEAF, I figured out pretty quick that my initial assumptions weren’t going to cut it. The website, sales literature, and even the really official looking window sticker all said it goes about 150 miles. When I started the car up, it even said that it’d go 160+ miles. Nice!
But when I started hitting the road, I figured out pretty quick that any kind of uphill seriously eats away at range. My first road trip was from a place at 1000 feet above sea level to a place that was at about 4000, and that trip took me across the continental divide, which is at about 5000 feet where the road crosses it. Needless to say, I was struggling to make it from charging station to charging station. The longest stretch without an RV park to charge at was about 144 miles, and I barely made that by driving slow along frontage roads when I saw that we were going to come up short.
I’ve since discovered tools like A Better Routeplanner, which actually tells you what you can expect along a route, and I’ve even experimented with a hill that took the car from 4000-9000 feet in only 15 miles (that ate about 30% of the battery, but gave me about 10% back on the way back down).
New EV buyers aren’t going to know any of this, though. Someone needs to tell them what to expect or point them in the direction of tools that can help them plan for long drives.
While all cars lose efficiency and range at high speeds, highway driving can easily confuse people used to gas cars. EVs get worse range on the highway while gas cars get better mileage as long as you don’t go really fast. The 150 EPA miles for a 40 kWh LEAF can easily drop to 100 at 55-65, and can be as bad as 75 miles if you go 80. Given that many US interstates have speed limits of 75, 80, and even 85 MPH on one highway in Texas, expect to get terrible range on these routes or risk getting run over by trucks that are going the speed limit.
Charging compounds the above problems. If you can’t be sure how many miles are being added, then ambiguity is being stacked on ambiguity when they discuss charging rates in terms of miles added.
Chevy says the Bolt EV adds up to 100 miles in 30 minutes. Jaguar says that a level 3 charger “can charge an I‑PACE up to an 80% charge in less than 45 minutes,” so that’s slightly better, but still leaves a lot of room for customer misunderstanding.
Tesla gets more detailed about Superchargers:
15 minutes can add “up to 200 miles” is vague, but they also tell us what the max charge rate is (250 kW), and mention that preconditioning is very helpful for speeds. They also mention, somewhat indirectly, that charging under 80% is faster, so they hint at tapering.
Probably the best example of education I’ve seen is from Ford.
That gives us some more specific information. We can glean from this that the 10-80% is the only way you charge that fast, and that’s only at a charger delivering the full 150 kW. Slower stations obviously will take longer.
Ford also tells customers in much more detailed terms what to expect if you click on “factors affecting range”:
What we really need is a video for each model explaining what to expect for charging, including tapering. We also need to be directing potential buyers to simple tools where they can see what to expect along a particular route, factoring in terrain and allowing the driver to pick a season to see worst-case temperature and wind along the routes, and how range works for that.
If we can give people a realistic view of what they’re getting into, we will have a lot less trouble getting people to recommend EVs to their friends and family.
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