Can you really improve your electric car range by changing the way you drive? Absolutely – and that doesn’t mean you have to drive boring, either! Driving an electric car is fun. Unlike gas-powered engines, electric motors produce peak torque from a standstill, without the buildup gasoline engines require to reach maximum power. That means you experience fast acceleration when you’re behind the wheel, and helps explain why electric cars from Tesla and Audi are so often seen at drag strips!
You might have also heard that EVs have overall lower fueling costs and generally lower maintenance costs. With fewer and simpler components, they don’t require the same kind of fluid changes or tune-ups. Then again, you might also be hearing horror stories about their electric car range or even battery fires. Are the benefits of driving an EV enough to make the switch if range is such an obstacle? Here are some tidbits about electric car range that I’ve picked up while living with a Nissan LEAF as my daily driver.
Factors that Increase Electric Car Range
Battery electric vehicles are designed to be efficient, and most newer models have enough range – between 200 and 500 miles on a charge – to satisfy the needs of a typical driver for multiple days, even without recharging. The measurement “miles per kilowatt-hour” tells you how many total miles you can go for each kilowatt-hour you have remaining in your EV battery. Understanding how your driving style affects this number can give you a better sense of your range at all times.
For example, when driving on the highway, you might see that number drop as you accelerate up the on-ramp or put your foot down to pass. That acceleration is happening at higher speeds and higher rpm, where electric motors are less efficient. By accelerating your EV, especially at highway speeds, you’ll get fewer miles you get in your range.
Conversely, range will climb when you’re noodling around in an urban setting or “riding the brakes” and “coasting” down hill, the regenerative systems built into your EV will generate electricity and charge your battery. The lesson EV owners have learned is to speed up gradually and gently. We really do get to the same destination in about the same time, since electric motors tend to accelerate briskly – we’re just doing so more safely and efficiently.
Temperature Changes Range
A wonderful, warm sunny day means more miles from a full charge, while extreme cold or extreme heat means it’s harder for a battery to stay at optimal temperature. At the same time, the demands on the car’s electrical system to power the AC or heater to keep drivers and passengers comfortable also draws power, which means less electric car range as a result.
When I drove a 2015 Nissan LEAF as my primary vehicle here in Florida, I was tempted to use the air conditioning in the hot weather months of May through October. When I did so, I drew down the battery range, so I compromised. Fresh and cool when I emerged from my condo, I rolled down the windows and let the passing breezes waft by and refresh me as I drove the early miles. As I was returning from my errands, and with a clearer sense of how many miles of range I had remaining, I would roll the windows back up and blow the AC to my heart’s contentment.
It’s also worth noting here that not all EVs are created equal. On my Nissan LEAF, I could activate an eco mode to help maximize range. On most similarly-equipped cars, this mode will make the throttle response less sensitive, and will engage more regenerative braking when you lift off or coast. There’s also a bit less power going to air conditioning or heater in eco mode, but it all adds up to more miles.
What Do Aerodynamics Have to Do with Range?
Many electric car owners will tell you they love the smooth design of their rides, but that smooth EV style is more than aesthetics, it has implications for aerodynamics and range. The flow of air over the car’s body panels, the design of the wheels, and even the overall proportions impact the vehicle’s efficiency at speed. The more aerodynamically efficient, or “sleek” that a vehicle is, the more easily it can slip through the air. The force that acts against the car moving forward through the air is called aerodynamic drag, and vehicles with a larger frontal area (think: wide, tall vehicles with squared-off configurations) often have higher drag coefficients, which limit the vehicle’s ability to cut through the air.
What that means is that you’ll need more energy to get and keep an inefficient car at a given speed than you would a car that weighs the same but has a more efficient shape.
The faster you go, the more wind resistance there is. At higher highway speeds, you’re using more energy to go the same distance as you would on secondary or surface roads. The lesson here is, if you have the time and need to protect the amount of miles you can drive on your existing charge, you’ll go further if you’re going at a lower average speed.
If you’re keen to do as many miles as possible on a single charge, then, turn your sights away from the highway. Look at your GPS and see if there’s a slower-road option, or use a trip planning app like Chargeway to help make the most of your drive.
If you need to take the highway, avoid zooming sudden speed changes and resist the urge to blast past others in favor of a more leisurely drive in the right lanes. Using cruise control on a flat highway can also help you maintain a constant speed and conserve range.
Driving an EV, Maximizing Regenerative Braking
Electric cars have a feature that’s distinct from gas-powered cars: regenerative braking. Standard brakes use friction to turn the car’s kinetic energy into heat energy to slow it down. In an EV built to maximize electric car range, a regenerative brake system uses gears or flywheels to convert the car’s forward motion into electrical energy that can charge the battery as it the car slows.
Some modern electric cars like my new Tesla Model Y have really assertive regenerative breaking – I rarely use the brakes anymore – while some hybrids PHEVs also use regenerative brakes to boost their batteries, and it’s only in a sudden traffic situation that I hit the brakes; regen is the default slowing mechanism.
You can learn a bit more about the concepts involved in regenerative braking in this fun video from the championship-winning Red Bull Formula 1 team, which used an advanced regenerative brake system (called “KERS”, for Kinetic Energy Recovery System) on its way to 8 consecutive world championships in the early 2010s. Check it out!
Electric motors have far fewer moving parts and some of the really simple ones, like my old Nissan LEAF, don’t even have coolant or transmission fluid to change. Regenerative braking alleviates another replacement area, as it can extend the lifespan of brake pads by using the electric motor to decelerate the vehicle (although too much time spent without servicing the brakes can cause other problems, which leads to some manufacturers specifying thinner brake pads from the factory than they would on a car without regenerative brakes).
This reduced maintenance and reduced exposure to volatile fuel prices typically translates to lower overall maintenance costs and increased savings for electric car buyers.
Final Thoughts About Maximizing Electric Car Range
If you haven’t had the chance to get up-front-and-personal with an EV, make it happen. Stop by and ask questions of an EV driver at a shopping center or in your neighborhood – we’re a pretty gregarious bunch, and we like to share what we’ve learned. After all, somebody taught us once upon a time, right? You can also head to a community EV exposure day at your local nature center or visit a dealership that’s stepping up to the future-is-now reality of all-electric transportation.
Start by familiarizing yourself with what makes EVs different and special. Before you know it, you, too, will become knowledgeable about EVs, range, and how much fun they are.
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