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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