Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Range anxiety: 'The infrastructure is not here yet for electric vehicles'

December 7, 2011 - 01:47 PM
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Powerless to find one. (Photo: YouTube/EVAofDC)

Heralded this week is the TED conference's notion of "The City 2.0," the concept of a sustainable future city that we're all working toward now. TED believes so strongly in the idea that it gave its 2012 prize of $100,000 to that abstract concept rather than to a specific person, as in years past.

As I mentioned yesterday, our transition to a City 2.0 stage will have immense implications for our urban transportation. Even as transit options such as Metro and streetcars grow, it's unlikely that we'll ever remove drivers from the road completely. So my thinking turns to oil alternatives, to technologies like the electric car. Last Friday I reported on 47 new electric-vehicle (EV) charging stations that are coming to D.C., Virginia, and Maryland in our Walgreens, the Pentagon City Fashion Centre, and other Simon Property Group spots.

Four of the new EV charging stations debuted at the Pentagon City mall garage on Friday in a small ribbon-cutting ceremony. Here's video from the event, which reminded me of another critical concept in developing the transportation tech of the future — a little thing called "range anxiety."

Among the folks gathered in the video are Eric Cardwell, vice president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Washington, D.C.; David Goodridge vice president of sales at station-provider 350Green; David Gott, general manager at the Fashion Centre; Kathy Burnett, director parking services at Simon Property Group; Lee Slezak, a U.S. Department of Energy manager; Congresswoman Janice Hahn of the 36th District of California; and Congressman Jim Moran of the 8th District of Virginia. Quite the little gathering, and all devoted to the expansion of the electric-car network in D.C.

Congresswoman Hahn brought up an underling issue about electric-car ownership as she spoke in Arlington about the new charging stations.

"The best part about this event today is I finally learned the word of hte disease that I clearly have — range anxiety," Hahn said. "I didn't know it had a term, I didn't know there was a word for it, I hope it's covered by the Affordable Healthcare Act. Range anxiety ... I have it. Because the infrastructure, even in Los Angeles, is not there."

What Hahn speaks of, of course, is the infrastructure for electric vehicles. Alternative fuels inevitably require our nation's drivers to adjust many of their familiar habits, and one overriding concern has come up a few different times — no one will want to drive with an alternative fuel if it's impossible to fuel up. Hahn described her own concerns about running out of power in California.

"The other night, I drove too far, and I was frantically looking up on my GPS where the charging station was, and there was none around," she told the crowd with a smile. "I started sweating. It was night, I turned off everything, the lights, the radio, I was coasting the last five miles. In my mind, I was thinking, 'Oh my god, I'm going to have to walk home.'"

Range anxiety is a familiar concept for those who do drive electric vehicles. The Wikipedia dictionary defines it this way: "Range anxiety is the fear that a vehicle has insufficient range to reach its destination and thus stranding the vehicle's occupants."

Those afflicted will, like Hahn, find themselves driving slower and getting nervous. Transportation suddenly loses any sense of ease. Watch here as a British driver new to electric vehicles experiences similar panic and apologizes to all the other faster vehicles passing him by on the road:

Industry executives acknowledge the issue for drivers and have talked about the problem many times before. Below is a discussion that some clean-tech people had in Sonoma, California, where they talk about how they're able to expand the power of batteries and the different charging levels that are out there.

Are current solutions enough to change drivers' perception of how far they can get in an electric car though? Those perceptions take time to build and take time to change. The right discussions are happening, at least. The right infrastructure looks poised to follow. The biggest driver of change might, I suspect, be the way that auto manufacturers have seized the idea of electric recently. Multiple major companies are rolling out different versions of electric cars. More is good, in this case. There will be more competition. There will be more incentive to build EV charging stations. Recently people worried that the Chevy Volt might pose a fire risk, which could have hurt the electric-car market significantly and damaged the perception of vehicle safety, but U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has declared them safe.

Over time, this issue of range anxiety will presumably disappear but it's worth noting now. I wonder if early gasoline-powered drivers ran into the same issue a century ago, stranded out in the middle of nowhere with no gas station nearby. We take for granted the fact that gas stations are ubiquitous now and have been for decades. We've united them with our convenience stores and see them as bright spots on long road trips. If the electric car — and any transportation alternative, whether a fuel or transit like streetcars — will succeed, it needs to be convenient in much the same way.

"Until we make it convenient for consumers, it's not going to catch on like I think we need it to," Hahn remarked. "The infrastructure is not here yet for electric vehicles."

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