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How much range does an electric car really need?

One of the main concerns that people still have about electric cars is the limited range. It was certainly our biggest concern when we bought our Renault ZOE at the end of 2014. We even kept our old diesel car for a couple of months because we were scared that we might not cope with the limited range with the ZOE. Those fears soon evaporated though. Day to day, we no longer ever really think about the range because the car’s range of over 70 miles in general use is far in excess of what we would do on a typical day. We plug the car in at home, so we rarely have to think about charging points and unless we are planning on making a trip outside the local area then range is literally not an issue.  For us, and I think most people, around 70 of range is more than enough most of the time.

But what about long journeys?

We’ve driven our ZOE on a number of long journeys from our home in The New Forest including to Warwickshire, Bath, many trips to London, a holiday in Belgium and even a holiday in Germany, proving that long journeys are absolutely possible, even in a car with quick limited range. However, we’ve also been up to the Lake District a few times and on all three occasions, we decided to take the train instead of drive.

By Werner Hillebrand-Hansen

The reality is that you can do long journeys in an electric car like the ZOE, but it does take a lot longer than in a conventional car. This might be okay if you’re on a relaxed holiday or if you’re retired, but most people want to get to their destination quickly, making the limited range of most electric vehicles a bit of a problem.

How much long distance range do you need?

Our experiences so far have got me thinking about how much range we would really need to make an electric car as fast and convenient as a petrol or diesel car when used on long journeys?

I have concluded that it depends on a few factors:

  1. The availability of charging points on your route
  2. The speed that you drive at (energy consumption increases significantly above 60 mph)
  3. The frequency of breaks or what Robert Llewellyn calls “bladder range”
  4. The outside temperature (because batteries hold less energy when cold AND you switch the heating on – double whammy!)

For the sake of example, I’m going to make the following assumptions:

  1. The UK motorway charging infrastructure is already good enough to not limit your journey and it will continue to get better
  2. You want to cruise at around 70 mph on the motorway
  3. You need to stop at least once every two hours of driving
  4. That you drive your car in the winter

Some very simple maths therefore tells me that we would need a range of 140 miles when driving at 70mph on a cold day winters day in the UK. In reality, however, we need a bit more because we never want to arrive at a charging point with zero miles remaining, especially when traveling on an unfamiliar route. In our experience, we ideally like to have 20-25 miles margin of error, which would mean that we really need 165 miles of range.  This is just in case the route uses more energy than predicted, the planned charger is not working, we take a wrong turn or get diverted around a road closure.  This might sound like a big safety margin, but trust me when I say that we have used every last mile of it on several occasions and without it, we would have run out of batteries.  Thankfully, and partly due to this cautious approach, we have so far never run out of juice!

This does have some profound implications though. With a car like the Renault ZOE, we can get as much as 115 miles of range on traffic-free A-roads in the summer, but driving at 70 mph on the motorway in winter pushes the range down to something more like 65 miles. If we knock off our 25 margin of error, then it means that we need to plan a charging stop every 40 miles.   Suddenly the range of the car seems ludicrously small.  Due to the fact that the cars range is so low in winter, motorway conditions, it means that the safety margin knocks  a whopping 40% off the total journey’s range.  Basically, the lower the battery capacity of the car, the more the safety margin brings the range down in relative (and practical) terms.

If we take our required 165 miles of total range that I have estimated, then the 25 mile safety margin is actually only 15% of the total range and leaves the driver with 140 miles of winter motorway driving, which seems like a much more reasonable balance.

What size battery would we need to get 165 miles range?

Our Renault ZOE has a battery capacity of 22kWh, giving the winter motorway range of sixty-five miles.  This works out to 2.95 miles per kWh.

In reality, we average about 4 miles per kWh because we  don’t do a lot of high speed motorway driving, and it is possible to achieve much higher if you are a really efficient driver. However, for this exercise, we’re looking at steady winter motorway driving, which is probably a reasonable worst-case scenario for anyone who actually obeys motorway speed limits.

Therefore, to have a range of a 165 miles in these conditions would require a battery capacity of 56kWh, or 2.5 times the size of our Renault ZOE battery.

Not as implausible as it sounds!

We’re moving in the right direction. The new Nissan LEAF has a 30kWh battery, which theoretically, by these calculations would deliver 88 miles of winter motorway range or 63 miles when we remove the safety margin.  It might not sound like much, but that means you can space you can go 50% further between planned charging points on the motorway, which is already a huge improvement.


The Tesla Model S, by contrast, has battery options of 70kWh or 85kWh, which would theoretically achieve winter motorway ranges of 206 miles (181 miles with the safety margin) and 250 miles (225 miles with the safety margin) respectively.  These cars might be expensive, but they prove that range well in excess of our 165 mile target is already possible and available on the market.

Interestingly, these Model S range predictions are just a few miles below the official EPA estimates, suggesting that the US EPA system is a fairly reliable indicator of real world range, as oppose to manufacturer claims or European test results that are generally far too optimistic.  Of course, there will always be variation depending on the exact model of car, the driving style, route and weather, but based on my own experience in the ZOE, I think these calculations give a rough idea.  As a very rough rule of thumb, when looking at purchasing an electric car, I would assume that 3 times battery capacity would give you a low end range estimate (e.g. 3 x 30kWh = 90 miles) and allow easier comparison between vehicles.

Hopefully, it won’t be too long before a wider range of vehicles is available that can achieve at least 165 miles of winter motorway range at a more acceptable price, because when that happens, the days of petrol and diesel will surely be numbered.

One thought on “How much range does an electric car really need?

  1. It’s certainly interesting to read your thoughts on the practicality of electric cars & with the range demonstrated by the Tesla, it would seem that such cars just need to become affordable in order to be practical for the masses ……. in the UK.

    Unfortunately from an Australian perspective however, such practicality is much further away. I saw my first Tesla on the road just a few days ago, a good looking car, but largely limited as to where it can go. We don’t have the charging infrastructure it appears that you enjoy, our distances are much greater, in winter we need to use the car’s heater, & in summer air conditioning is essential. Away from the coastal strips it is not unusual for services to be between 300 & 400kms apart (185 to 250 miles), with nothing man made between them except for the bitumen strip. Away from these main roads distance between services can easily be 3 times that. These services generally rely on their own diesel generators for electricity. Increasingly good use is being made of solar, but the reality is that these purveyors of fossil based fuels have limited electricity & don’t have any to spare, so currently ‘Tesla technology’ in Australia is probably about as useful as your ‘Zoe technology’ in the UK, & largely restricted to city use. In the towns & cities supplied by the electricity network, the vast majority of that power is still generated by burning coal.

    I hope that we will eventually see a network of sustainably powered re-charging stations to service more than just a minority of ‘hard core’ electric car enthusiasts as the costs of producing these cars drops around the world, but fear that if it happens, it will be too little, too late.

    In the meantime, somewhat hypocritically, I continue to drive a vehicle which for us is practical & safe, a large diesel 4wd with a fuel range of 1200kms (750 miles) & the capacity to sustain us for extended periods away from ‘civilisation’. It is adequate but not excessive given the remote country we choose to travel in. I do so with mixed feelings. I drive it knowing I could choose to drive something which uses far less fuel & is less polluting, (& do drive a small,cheap & economical petrol car at home) but as long as we want to enjoy the opportunity to explore this huge country’s natural & remote features a vehicle like this is necessary.

    Wherever we live the most sustainable travel choice for our planet is to avoid all powered travel, whether by air, by large fuel guzzling sea vessels, fossil fuel powered cars & public transport or even indirectly fossil fuel powered electric cars, instead living as our grandparents’ or great grandparents’ generations did, living their whole lives locally. It seems (to me) however that this is not a choice many would make willingly & whether it be trips to Europe, the Lake District or across Australian deserts we each instead salve our conscience with choices about ‘necessity’ & ‘excess’. I do believe that sooner or later ‘developed’ world will need to take a step back to a more decentralised, locally self sufficient, locally living means of existence, & travelling distances will become the exception rather than the rule, but, like most others I guess, I need decisions to do this to be made at a community level before I feel ready to make that step individually. So we advocate for sustainability whilst continuing to live as part of an unsustainable system. Hard isn’t it?

    I find it impossible to consider matters of planet wide sustainability without including the ‘elephant in the room’ – something for which, like most others, I have no solution. The need for sustainable population. Technology & science got us into this mess, & appears to promise solutions which are essentially a means of continuing with largely what we have become accustomed to (electric vehicle technology being just one). We have one planet with finite resources which are being used up. We can perhaps learn to ’shit in our nest’ less as individuals, but with increasing populations resources are being used ever faster & more people ’shitting’ than ever before we still make more ’shit’ despite people ’shitting’ more thoughtfully. Certainly room to make improvements, but unless that elephant has some attention paid to it I can’t help thinking that they only delay the inevitable.


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