The Psychology of Range Anxiety: Personal Experience


Stephanie Lay

Stephanie Lay is a post-graduate psychology researcher at the Open University. She doesn’t drive but has had the pleasure of being a passenger in the Magic Flying Leaf for the last three years. She works full-time for the Open University and studies part-time working on a thesis about the uncanny valley phenomenon: she spends most of her free time studying near-human faces and researching why they can be unsettling and creepy. Her research page can be found at the Uncanny Valley Open University site. She gives us a psychological look at range anxiety. 

First things first, being an electric car (EV) passenger is usually lovely. There’s the smoothness and comfort of the ride, listening to birdsong on country lanes over the near-silent motor, or grinning inanely when The Driver occasionally speeds away at the lights leaving boy racers in the dust. But there are a few occasions when it’s no fun at all, when the range anxiety bites and it’s hard to imagine how we’re ever going to get home.

The worst occasion was probably Boxing Day, 2013. Our 2011 Leaf struggled valiantly against the sub-zero temperatures, freezing rain and strong winds but there was just no way we were going to get home (a door to door trip of a mere 60 miles) without making a detour to a services to charge up.

Cold weather does effect LEAF range quite a bit.

Cold weather does effect LEAF range quite a bit.

Festive bonhomie faded fast and I found myself sulking in the small hours, cursing that particular vehicle as well as the whole concept of owning an electric car. Then again, there was the night about a year into our EV adventure when the car decided that a diversion from a comfortable and familiar route would be a great idea, taking us about twenty miles out of our way for no apparent reason and meaning that we coasted home on sparks, I suppose, rather than fumes.

Two events over three years of otherwise comfortable and brilliant driving shouldn’t really matter but they do: they cast shadows over the whole experience, and mean I’m cautious about recommending EVs unless I know the person I’m talking to is either very very laid back, can afford to buy themselves a Tesla or who does not need to drive too far. Most people I know don’t meet any of those criteria. In my experience, range anxiety is a genuine concern.

Range anxiety as a term describes an emotional reaction to a detrimental discrepancy between how far a vehicle is able to go at a particular moment and what our expectations or requirements of its mobility are. It can apply equally well to a conventional vehicle: petrol and diesel tanks are finite, filling stations and services don’t all open 24 hours and aren’t always conveniently located for every journey. However, the scarcity of charging opportunities for EVs (plus issues of reliability and availability of said charging opportunities) mean that range anxiety is a particular issue that electric car owners have to face more than drivers of conventionally fuelled vehicles.

This limited resource is something of a paradox for car manufacturers: the cost of producing batteries with ever-larger capacities is considerable, so for them, the most desirable range is the smallest possible. For the driver, EVs are already expensive and the most desirable range is the biggest one possible. The tension between the two (and basic technical limitations at the time of writing in 2014 means that electric cars generally don’t go as far as people want them to, meaning that being worried about whether you can reach your destination, and either feeling anxious or choosing to make other arrangements is a genuine concern.

These further articles will consider range anxiety as a phenomenon and review recent psychological research: this is newly-defined field and theories are still developing, but this article will consider how the available results help us to understand more about what causes range anxiety, who suffers from it most, and what vehicle manufacturers could be doing to help. I’ve looked separately at the driver and the car: personality characteristics will influence how people response to stressful situations, but the design choices that are made in how the car presents information about how much further it can go, and how fast it’s eating through its limited resources will influence how comfortable drivers feel about their experience.


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  • Andrew Campbell

    As someone who in 50 years of motoring has seldom let the ICE fueltank go below half a tank I had a major adjustment to make on buying Evie.nThen following a trip over/under the channel to Bruge welcome some insight into why I felt the way I felt and what steps I can take , if any, to alleviate the stress that RA produces.nLooking forward to learning more……

  • A.R Wilson
  • nitters

    Great article. Looking forward to the following ones!nnnWe’ve been driving electric for over 6 years, with a number of long distance journeys. But I still regularly squeeze the steeringwheel so tight that my nuckles become white :-). Even though in reality I’ve only *once* run out of charge… (and even then managed to roll into a petrol station to charge from the coffee-machine socket).nnnFunny thing is that the kids (8 & 10) seem much less bothered. “but pappa, don’t worry, if we don’t have enough charge we’ll just ask at a restaurant!” (I suppose they’ve learned from experience :-).

  • nooooddy

    I’m a psych grad, work in mental health for the NHS and drive a LEAF. I think “range anxiety” is already a massive cliche. If people insist on labelling that period of time when a new EV driver is adapting their driving habits to avoid disruption and maximise range, it should be called ‘range hypervigilence’ or ‘range awareness’ or something. I’ve never heard of anyone actually suffering true anxiety in relation to EV driving. nnnThe whole concept of being overtly aware of a cars range has it’s roots in cognition and the various cognitive biases and errors we take for granted. So it’s not really an “emotional reaction”, more a ‘thinking error’. For example, people panic buying petrol when there is talk of a petrol strike. Why suddenly stock up on petrol if you’re only driving the kids to school the next few days? Do we ALWAYS need loads of range? What if we did run out of range? Would it really be the end of the world or just an inconvenience and mildly stressful?nnnIf anything the manner in which EV’s reward people who plan their journeys, make efficient use of chargers and consider all the variables associated with driving suggest experience isn’t negative or ‘anxiety inducing’ but, I think, actually positive, as it gradually teaches and rewards intelligent driving, power use and charging.nnnI’m really interested to hear more about your research but hope you’re articles point out the limitations of this gimmicky phrase and don’t serve to legitimise via academic reporting. Potential EV drivers have to wade through enough dirge with dodgy eMPG figures, multiple charger formats and ever changing prices without having to worry about over-hyped cliches like “range awareness”nn———-nFor those intersted in cognitive biases, this is a good intro: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias

  • Richard Glover

    Forget “range anxiety” 17,000 miles per annum says it doesn’t exist.nConsider this please. Suppose the price of electric vehicles is being kept artificially high by the manufacturers as many of us feel bearing in mind that most get a u00a35k grant in the UK and if on the road prices were on a par or even less than similar styled but ordinary models. I reckon then, so called “range anxiety” would barely get a mention.nWhere we went wrong was someone should have done a survey at the concept stage asking the question “how much less would you expect to pay for a limited range vehicle?”

  • Surya

    I like how you compare the interests of the customer and the manufacturer. There is a really simple solution to finding the perfect balance though: battery size options. Everyone knows it is, yet no one (except Tesla) is doing it. Baffles me.nManufacturers: offer 2 or 3 sizes of battery, with the current size being the lowest one, and charge a fair price for the added capacity. The market will quickly tell you what the best way to go is.

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