Even with range loss, most low-end electric cars like the Nissan LEAF can still meet most American commuting duties.

The Psychology of Range Anxiety: The Car


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 and the human factor now she looks at the car’s role.

The car's gauges will tell you a lot about your battery -- which can be a factor in range anxiety.

The car’s gauges will tell you a lot about your battery — which can be a factor in range anxiety.

So far, I’ve looked at the driver’s role in range-anxious journeys: this section will consider the role of the EV itself. Firstly, it’s important to consider range anxiety in terms of how far people really need to travel. If most typical journeys could be made without exceeding the comfortable range, anxiety should be minimal.

Missed part one? Read it here

EVs display a measure of ‘distance to empty’ (DTE) showing an estimate how how far you will be able to travel before needing to re-charge. As a population in the UK, our average driving distance is quite low: according to the 2012 National Travel Survey looking at average journey distances in Great Britain, the average journey is 7 miles.

Our cars are built to let us know when the battery is getting low. Sometimes that helps -- sometimes it doesn't.

Our cars are built to let us know when the battery is getting low. Sometimes that helps — sometimes it doesn’t.

A cross-EU survey carried out in 2011 by Ingo Bunzeck, C.F.J. Feenstra, and Mia Paukovic found that 40% of UK respondents had a daily travel need under 12 miles, the smallest average reported in the survey. EVs currently on sale in the UK have ranges roughly in the region of 80-125 miles so theoretically we should only be anxious on a tiny fraction of our journeys.

However, estimates of range requirements are based on a higher expectation of what we would like the car to be able to do, rather than what is actually needed for our everyday journeys. A study by Ona Egbue and Suzanna Long in 2012 surveyed people on their actual regular journeys, and compared this to the range they would like in an EV. At the time of the survey, the average journey for those participants would have been 36 miles according to the local National Household Survey. As the table below shows, hardly any participants cited this as their desired range, and the majority had a desired range greatly in exceed of their day to day needs regardless of their actual driving patterns.


From Egbue and Long (2012): Comparing actual driving and desired range.

This might seem like an obvious conclusion: when asked how much range they want, people are likely to want more regardless of need! Cars have been symbolic of freedom for several generations, and putting limits on that freedom seems bound to feel constraining.

At the moment range appears to be increasing by small increments and it will probably be several years before there is an affordable EV with a range that can match an ICE vehicle and/or live up to people’s desired ranges. In the meantime, tools that help EVs to communicate with their drivers and give them detailed information about how their current driving affects the range they can achieve are crucial.

This is especially the case when comparing the range of your new EV to the old internal combustion engines you were used to: no matter whether you only need to go a handful of miles, a ‘tank’ of even 125 miles feels small if you are used to a conventional range of 300 miles or more. According to Tomas Franke’s 2011 study, one way to help with range anxiety would be to provide more information along with the raw estimate of the distance to empty.

Read part two here

For example, some indication of confidence levels in how the remaining range had been calculated would help drivers to understand whether that was being calculated based on the last few seconds of driving behaviour, or whether a longer-term measurement was being used to calculate it. Their study found that reducing ambiguity while increasing the driver’s sense of control over the situation was key to helping them make the most of their available range. Similarly, being able to select route finding options for most efficient routes as well as shortest or fastest routes would allow drivers to feel more in control of their driving, shifting the locus of control back to the driver and thus diminishing the anxiety.

Adding information to augment understanding is laudable but can be hard to achieve practically in car designs. Given that these are systems designed for use in motion, drivers will only be able to look at in-car displays very briefly. If those displays present more information, there is the risk that they may be harder to comprehend in those at-a-glance moments, and may actually cause distraction or confusion.

The car can play a big part in helping you minimise your range anxiety.

The car can play a big part in helping you minimise your range anxiety.

There is a rich and detailed literature in cognitive psychology that deals with attention and how certain cues may actually distract from the task at hand rather than providing a supplementary service. (Size, colour and movement are particularly salient for visual displays, with volume and repetition significant for audio cues.) To date, there has been no applied cognitive psychology research into the interfaces that might help EV drivers make the most of their available range, but this would be a fruitful area for future research.

The picture for individual drivers is made more complex as many systems for estimating DTE are highly proprietary. Changing to an EV from a different manufacturer may require accommodating a new type of interface and learning how the DTE estimates are calculated. It could be argued that more standardisation is required across the industry: but then, would some manufacturers experience a loss of competitive advantage?

Finally, a last area to consider is the issue of range anxiety as function of how long a driver has had an EV. In many ways, range anxiety could be predominantly a new user phenomenon: Franke’s work suggests that learning about your car’s limitations will certainly help to alleviate any anxiety. His team found that as drivers understood more about how the range estimates provided by their vehicle were calculated, they began to feel more comfortable with the vehicle, and decrease the safety buffer limiting their comfortable range.

Knowledge and experience are key to efficient range utilisation and the avoidance of anxiety, and it may be that some common techniques can be suggested by vehicle manufacturers as a way for new drivers to make the most of their comfortable range quickly. Based on the observations made by Franke’s team, new EV buyers should be encouraged to keep a diary of their actual driving behaviour between ordering their new EV and taking receipt.

Having a concrete document showing what their real-world requirements were before moving to an EV may help them adjust their requirements downward, and be more comfortable with their EV when it arrives. While experience may well help in alleviating that anxiety experienced because of unfamiliarity, we may find that there is a U-shaped curve in anxiety: an initial highly anxious period while adjusting to the limitations of an EV is followed by a less anxious spell helped by understanding those limitations, which then eventually culminates in another anxious period when battery depreciation means that familiar journey are no longer as easy or even possible.


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  • Jim Pike

    My Leaf displays a very optimistic DTE after charging which invariably dropped precipitously by half charge. This number would also jump around subject to driving experience. This did NOT give confidence in the prediction and thus promoted range anxiety On the other hand, Tesla’s DTE is based on a fixed linear standard from the EPA which is achievable in real life driving by a normal person. I easily achieve my Tesla’s predicted range and thus could set out on a journey with confidence in the DTE. I find my Leaf is optimistic initially then more realistic at lower charge states but would only get the original predicted mileage if driven VERY conservatively (SLOW). This non linearity and variability promotes range anxiety. I would need to add a large ‘fudge factor’ to the Leaf’s DTE to be confident setting out on a longer trip. Also, the much better aerodynamics of the Tesla reduce the speed factor substantially, although slowing down always increases range in either car. nnIf you become anxious, JUST SLOW DOWN.

    • suoko

      Does the GPS navigation system on board of the leaf tell you the nearest fast charging station ? It should tell you that and if it’s available. Does the on board computer also calculate dte based on the kind of road you’re gonna drive ?

  • Jim Pike

    My Tesla is the Cheapy 40 with no tech pkg., thus no nav capability other than a Garmin on the dash. It will show location and traffic. I believe all superchargers are shown but there are none to see here in Canada yet, so I’ve never seen one displayed. It does show all visited charge points. I don’t believe the Nav. predicts range yet, but it could be in a future update. We’re expecting 6.0 in the next few weeks and it’s promised to have several new goodies. The excitement is building :-)nnAgain, the Leaf hasn’t shown any fast chargers here as none have been available ’till now. Nissan has just installed one at their headquarters and Mitsubishi likewise (about 1km apart). It does give nearest charge stations but this info seems to be rather dated. Plugshare gives better data.The on-board Nav doesn’t predict range other than a circle around your position. The Carwings internet Route Planner site does use actual reported experience on a route to predict how many bars will be used. It tells how many Leaf trips have been on the route, the average bars used, the Max. and the Min. It even gives an altitude graph for the route. It doesn’t mention seasonal effects.

  • Jim Pike

    I forgot to mention neither Tesla nor Leaf show availability of a charge point yet.

  • nooooddy

    Interesting article. Particularly like the final bit with recommendations about re-aligning expectations with reality by keeping a driving diary – a great idea!

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