Last week AAA released findings from tests it had run on three models of electric automobiles, and announced that the heavily subsidized vehicles suffer dramatic driving range loss in both cold and hot temperatures.
The news wasn’t new, but apparently the broader media noticed because the pronouncement from the nation’s largest consumer automotive club made it official. NLPC (beginning with a Consumer Reports experience) has reported from time to time on such problems since late 2011. The Tulsa World reported that AAA found driving distance for electric vehicles can be diminished up to 57 percent in extremely cold temperatures, and by one-third in very hot temperatures.
The models tested were the Ford Focus EV, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, and the much-hyped Nissan Leaf. AAA said it rated “normal” range as 105 miles on a single charge, but that’s not even realistic for at least one Oklahoma owner.
“My average is just a little over 70 in perfect conditions,” said Leaf owner Murray Thibodeaux, “but when it got really cold we were just getting 40 miles.”
Besides enormous upfront costs (which President Obama’s Department of Energy has attempted to mitigate with billions of dollars in subsidies and tax credits) and long refueling (or re-powering) times, “range anxiety” has been a big deterrent to electric vehicle adoption by the public. Technological progress clearly has not been made despite billions more in taxpayer dollars that have been devoted to the improvement of EV battery performance. And of course one of the biggest reasons range diminishes in immoderate temperatures is because drivers like to use features such as heating and cooling when the outside climate is unpleasant.
As NLPC reported in November 2011, a Consumer Reports analyst based in New York discovered first-hand how driving a Leaf in 39-degree temperatures can chill bones and rattle nerves. Eliza Barth recounted how she started her 33-mile morning commute in a test-Leaf that said she had 70 miles of range, but despite keeping the heater off, the range gauge dropped to 39 miles about halfway “and I was freezing.” She ultimately made it to her office with numb fingers and toes, with little range to spare.
“It seems Leaf ownership is best if you are not in a hurry or live in a climate where the temperature remains moderate, so you can avoid using the climate control for heat or air conditioning,” Barth wrote.
The same month a Los Angeles-based Leaf owner, writer Rob Eshman, related his experience driving in the always-warm Southern California temperatures with hilly – when not mountainous – terrain. He told of one example in which he embarked on a 35-mile trip with the gauge reading 82 miles available, but after reaching his destination had not nearly enough juice for his return trip.
“I drove below the speed limit on the freeway, windows down so I could keep the mileage-guzzling AC off,” Eshman recalled. “Nevertheless, by the time I arrived at camp, I had only 31 of the original 82 miles left. That’s been my experience day in and day out….”
In mid-2012 several Leaf owners in Phoenix complained their batteries lost their capacity after only one year. One owner told a local television station he could drive 90 miles on a charge when he first purchased the vehicle, but within 12 months the range was halved.
And then there’s the story of the Tennessee environmentalist who set out to prove a point over the holidays in 2011, wanting to show that his Leaf could make a 180-mile trip from Knoxville to Nashville to visit family within a reasonable amount of time. Strategically located “fast-chargers” at Cracker Barrel restaurants along the Interstate were supposed to aid the swiftness of his journey.
Alas, it wasn’t to be so. Once again the Leaf’s gauge misled its owner into thinking its battery had more range than it would deliver. The driver – Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy – was unable to travel farther than 55 miles on any leg of the trip. With his wife and five-year-old son as passengers, Smith needed four recharges and six hours for a trip that in a gas-powered vehicle would require less than half the time and no refueling stops (but probably a bathroom break!).
The range woes aren’t limited to the Leaf (or the Focus or the i-MiEV). As NLPC colleague Mark Modica reported in January, a recent study revealed the Chevy Volt has only about half the electric range (it has a small gas tank also) as those that are owned in warmer climates.
AAA’s study only confirmed what has been reported often elsewhere, but the organization’s influence at least caused a few more journalists to notice and some consumers to become more aware of yet another shortcoming of EVs.
Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes CarolinaPlottHound.com, an aggregator of North Carolina news.