Blog: Dave LeggettCompeting range anxiety solutions

Dave Leggett | 15 December 2009

It is interesting to see alternative approaches to the problem of 'range anxiety' that is presented by the constraints to battery performance in electric cars.

The established gasoline-electric hybrid with two powertrains, as typified by the Toyota Prius, is one way to go, of course. But two powertains creates additional weight and the source fuel is ultimately petrol, even if overall fuel efficiency figures (and associated low CO2 emissions) are undoubtedly impressive.

Another approach is the 'range extender' electric vehicle or series hybrid which has a battery that can be plug-in charged for pure electric running. But in addition, in the case of the GM Volt/Ampera, a small on-board petrol engine kicks in to charge the battery on longer journeys, thus removing range anxiety.

GM has managed to get a claimed 40 mile (65km) range on a full plug-in charge. The big idea here is that you can have a practical car suitable for electric only use around town, but which is still okay for the odd longer journey. It's a one-size-fits-all automotive solution skewed to zero emissions in daily use, a 40-mile full charge range seen as getting the car into the area where many users will find it acceptable, especially if there are more charge-points at places of work and so on.

Toyota is responding with a plug-in version of its Prius hybrid. Now you can charge a lithium-ion battery via mains electricity and get some pure electric drive, before going for conventional hybrid operation on a longer journey. Again, this deals with range anxiety in the sense that the driver knows that conventional hybrid operation is there if needed.

 How far will the Toyota Prius plug-in get you on a full plug-in charge? Just 13 miles (21km). That doesn't sound too good, though Toyota would no doubt say that needs to be seen in the context of overall efficiency in use, including hybrid operation.

As well as questions over charging infrastructure and the extent to which battery performance will improve over the next decade, there's the big question of manufacturing economics. How quickly can these vehicles get to higher volume, lower unit cost and therefore even higher volume? There will also be a role for public incentives to encourage take-up in the early days when unit costs are high.

But 'electric drive' is an area where we will continue to see innovation as engineers strive to both improve battery performance and deal with range anxiety. As they get better with the former, the latter drops away, but the indications are that it won't disappear anytime soon.

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