Shorter-range electric cars meet the needs of almost all US drivers


(credit: Nissan)

The vast majority of American drivers could switch to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) tomorrow and carry on with their lives unaffected, according to a new study in Nature Energy. What’s more, those BEVs need not be a $100,000 Tesla, either. That’s the conclusion from a team at MIT and the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico that looked at the potential for BEV adoption in the US in light of current driving patterns. Perhaps most interestingly, the study found that claim to be true for a wide range of cities with very distinct geography and even per-capita gasoline consumption.

The authors—led by MIT’s Zachary Needell—used the Nissan Leaf as their representative vehicle. The Leaf is one of the best-selling BEVs on the market, second only to the Tesla Model S in 2015 (10,990 sold vs 13,300 Teslas). But it’s not particularly long-legged; although the vehicle got an optional battery bump from 24kWh to 30kWh for 2016, its quoted range is 107 miles on a full charge. You don’t need to spend long browsing comment threads or car forums to discover that many drivers think this is too short a range for their particular use cases. Yet, Needell and colleagues disagree.

The authors use the 24kWh Nissan Leaf as the basis for their calculations, based on a probabilistic model of BEV range based on driving behavior (rather than just looking at average commute distances and BEV range). This involved using information from the National Household Travel Survey, hourly temperature data for 16 US cities, and GPS data from travel surveys in California, Atlanta, and Houston (to calculate second-by-second speed profiles of different trip types).

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