The Psychology of Range Anxiety: The Human Factor


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 siteShe gives us a psychological look at range anxiety: She has already talked about her personal experiences, now she looks at the human factor.

One explanation for range anxiety could be that the people who buy EVs are simply generally anxious types: maybe they also worried about running out of petrol in their old conventionally-powered car, and made sure they always had more than enough in the tank to cover any journey.

Do you suffer from range anxiety

Do you suffer from range anxiety?

None of the evidence I reviewed supported this, and in fact the opposite may be the case: particularly in the early days of mass-market EVs, buying one was a risky thing to do. The technology had seen limited testing in real-world scenarios, the assurances of battery longevity and resale value had yet to be proven. This level of risk-taking does not seem to correlate with people who would be willing to experience anxiety at the idea of running out of charge, creating something of a paradox of risk-taking versus conservatism in EV drivers.

So, is there a personality profile typical of EV drivers? Several studies have investigated this, but this article will focus on three key projects. Stephen Skippon and Mike Garwood’s research in 2011 used a ‘vignette’ approach to measure the symbolic meaning that volunteers attributed to EVs.

Their volunteers were people who only had a limited experience of EVs before the study but had borrowed an iMiEV for a short period before being asked to take part in the research. Skippon and Garwood used the five-factor personality model: a standard measure of personality type. Participants were asked to describe a typical EV driver on five measures: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. According to their 58 volunteers, a typical EV driver would be characterised by significantly high scores for openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

EV drivers: nice people?

EV drivers: nice people?

In other words, a typical EV driver is someone open to new ideas, who cares about others and who is keen on planning ahead. Of those three traits, conscientiousness was the one that had a particularly strong relationship with attitudes to EVs, and this was especially notable when it came to views on charging. They concluded that EVs would appeal particularly to people who value structure and certainty: people prone to anxiety would be less likely to take risks with the limited resources available, and less likely to make an EV purchase.

EV drivers appear to be different from the general population on some key measures: this probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise! But how can this be applied practically to an understanding of range anxiety? A leading theorist in this area is Thomas Franke, who has published several articles exploring the experiences of EV drivers, looking at the ways they manage the challenge of limited mobility resources.

His team argued that there is more to ‘range’ than just the distance that an EV can travel on a charge: EV mobility resources can be heavily influenced by the driver’s perceptions and behaviour. They broke down the concept of range as a whole into four separate types, illustrated below:


After Franke et al, 2011

Cycle range is the manufacture’s asserted range, used here as the maximum that could be achieved by using 100% of the available battery charge.

Competent range takes into account the human and environmental factors that occur when driving in real world conditions: an experienced driver could realise most of the cycle range under optimal conditions when they hyper-mile and attempt to drive as efficiently as possible.

Performant range is the range used by an experienced driver who has other motivations on a journey that means not driving at maximum efficiency, perhaps hurrying to meet a deadline or not choosing the most efficient route.

Comfortable range is what most drivers actually use and involves keeping a safety buffer available for unexpected events.

Range anxiety would rarely be a problem if the driver could always be confident that their performant range and comfortable range would be roughly the same on most journeys. However, for most drivers the comfortable range is significantly less than that: in most cases the comfortable range was around 80% of the cycle range. This common desire for a ‘safety buffer’ of around 20% meant they were consistently under-using the capabilities of their vehicle, due to feeling that maintaining this buffer was important. Whether the term range anxiety is used or not, if it was possible to decrease the size of that safety buffer so that comfortable range was more in line with the competent or performant ranges, then EV driving would be both more pleasant for the driver and also more efficient, as unnecessary top up charges to maintain that sense of safety would be avoided.

In two studies carried out in 2011 and 2013, Franke’s team theorised that range anxiety shared similarities with other stressful scenarios, and used measures from the literature on general stress reactions to explore how different drivers used coping strategies to keep their journeys in the comfortable range.

The participants in these studies leased a specially converted electric Mini for six months and took part in interviews and questionnaires before they received the car, after some weeks of driving and again at the end of the six months. The team used regression analysis to identify those personality traits that helped as a stress buffer in assisting drivers in keeping to a comfortable range. They measured two key traits: firstly, the ability to tolerate ambiguity and deal with fluctuating, unclear situations. Secondly, they measured how strongly participants had a sense of their own ability to control events that influence them (a trait known as internal control).

Early EV pioneers were studied in great length by physiologists keen to see how they adapted to range anxiety.

Early EV pioneers were studied in great length by physiologists keen to see how they adapted to range anxiety.

High scores on these traits were related to making most use of the available range: drivers with low scores on these measures were likely to have the smallest comfortable ranges and largest safety buffers. The 2013 study added a measure of impulsivity: drivers with low impulsivity had a higher comfortable range, and very impulsive drivers had a lower comfortable range.

Drivers also developed coping strategies for making the most of their comfortable range, regardless of their personality traits. Experience of real-world range was key to this, and the more they used their cars and learned about the limitations, the less anxiety played a part in their driving experience. Participants also changed their conceptions about the range over time: rather than thinking of the range in terms of kilometres, they knew how many of their common journeys they would be able to make before needing another charge.

Finally, they employed safety strategies such as avoiding journeys at the limit of their comfortable range, or making detours to ensure they could top up when needed. Interestingly, many drivers reported that they relished the problem solving aspect of the limited range, and saw it as a challenge!

The evidence suggests that being able to minimise the safety buffer is key to avoiding range anxiety. Some drivers are ‘naturally’ able to do that if they are well able to tolerate ambiguity, are not particularly impulsive and have a strong sense that they can control events around them. For those drivers who don’t have those traits, experience is key to developing a comfortable range with a minimal safety buffer, so learning about your own driving style and being able to make the most of your own competent range would make for the most comfortable driving experience.


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