The electric car revolution needs to woo buyers on average incomes to win sales in the European mass market, but it will crash and burn if manufacturers persist in providing unaffordable vehicles with fanciful range claims.
I’ve been road testing electric cars regularly for more than two years now, and not once has a battery-only vehicle met the claimed capacity for its battery after hours plugged into my home charger. The average shortfall is close to 20% with the MINI electric off by 32%. The range leading Tesla
Electric cars in Europe come with an official estimated battery capacity. This data is compiled using so-called WLTP (Worldwide Harmonized Light Vehicle Test Procedure) computerized estimations. Most are rose-tinted over-estimates. The industry says these numbers are compiled to allow buyers a meaningful comparison across all models. The trouble is the data offered is often just about meaningless.
One high-profile British buyer, news radio personality Iain Dale (of which more later), regrets his purchase of an expensive electric car, and urges would-be buyers to avoid them if they drive longer distances.
Official comparison data for long-distance high-speed cruising is not offered, which is just as well because the results are horrendous. If you cruise at legal maximums – say an indicated 75 mph – on Britain’s motorways for long journeys the average shortfall is about 37%. In other words, if the available range says 100 miles, you will only get an average 63. On continental Europe’s faster roads where 85 mph is probably the norm, the results will be much worse. Germany still has long sections of motorway with no speed limit. The Polestar 2 78 kWh was the worst performer with a 59% shortfall. The Vauxhall Corsa 50 kWh, Fiat 500e 42 kWh, and Nissan Leaf 62 kWh all edged beyond 50%.
These poor battery-capacity and long-range estimates are in fact understated. They will be worse when you remember manufacturers recommend recharging only to 80% of capacity to prolong battery life, and the need for at least 50 miles in reserve when seeking a recharge on a motorway because of the unreliability and paucity of charging stations. The impact of extreme hot or cold temperatures is another excluded negative; extreme cold can knock another 30% off capacity.
To be fair, if electric cars are driven in cities and on country roads below 60 mph their brilliant regenerative braking systems – which recapture energy as the car free-wheels or eases downhill – will make sure offered range is pretty much attained and sometimes beaten.
But for instance the Audi E-Tron Sportback 55 Quattro S-Line 95 kWh I tested promised 241 miles but I averaged only 180 miles from home charging. It was pretty good at high-speed cruising with only a 23% penalty, and around town and country the range offered was very reliable. Which makes it a terrific city car, but it cost £89,470 ($111,700) after taxes and before a government subsidy. That’s a fancy price for a city car.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which speaks for the British auto industry, recently hosted an electric car test day for journalists with 29 EVs. In a statement, the SMMT listed the WLTP battery capacity of all the vehicles, none of which were likely to have any real-world relevance. The SMMT said since 2011 the industry has made big progress when the average electric car range was only 74 miles. That is undoubtedly true, but it said the average battery range of the latest electric vehicles was almost 260 miles. A quick check on the real world battery capacity in my data box below shows this is largely fanciful. The industry concedes that there will be a difference between lab tests and real-world use, with variables like driving style, load and weather having an impact.
Given that the price of current electric vehicles makes them unaffordable to price-conscious mass-market buyers, most sales so far have been to well-heeled early adopters so thrilled to be at the forefront of the new wave they’ve not expressed criticism about the shortcomings of their cars and SUVs.
That was until high-profile LBC news radio personality Iain Dale bought an Audi e-tron GT
“My advice is if you only do relatively short journeys, then buying an electric car is a good decision. If you regularly travel more than 150 miles, it isn’t. In my experience, the car manufacturers lie about the expected range.”
Dale’s rage hasn’t dissipated since then, and he said this in reply to an email.
“Range claims from all manufacturers are pure fiction and you should automatically assume the range is around two-thirds of what they claim. Had I realized the car would be utterly useless for journeys of more than 100 miles I wouldn’t have bought it. It’s a lovely car to drive but there are parts of the country where the charging infrastructure isn’t good enough to risk a journey. If you’re thinking of going electric analyse your driving habits, your driving style and how much of your mileage is long distance. I am lucky and can afford to keep my diesel (Audi) Q7. Thank God I didn’t trade it in,” Dale said.
British-based automotive analyst Charles Tennant said auto manufacturers have a long history of exaggerating range, with estimates for internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles also relying on artificial rather than real-world data. The VW “dieselgate” scandal was supposed to change all that, but the new rules for WLTP data again provide unreliable data.
“And it is the driving range for battery electric vehicles that is so important to the phenomenon known as range anxiety. Whilst manufacturers are primarily concerned with battery size (kWh) and cost ($/kWh) customers are more bothered about battery range. And yet we still have reports of wildly varying real-world electric car range versus that specified by the manufacturer of up to 30%,” Tennant said in an email exchange.
Felipe Munoz, global automotive analyst at JATO Dynamics, says manufacturers’ claims aren’t false, just not always achievable in the real world.
“This is exactly the case of the range claimed and communicated by the (manufacturers). I agree with you. However, I would not call their claims false, because that would be penalized by law. I’m sure that if you drive your Fiat 500e in the city, under ideal weather conditions and with a limited top speed, and by taking the charge to zero, you could achieve the range they claim. However, that is not how real life works,” Munoz said.
“Consequently, the industry should start including more range information according to many variables: weather, average speed, location, etc. Just as they do with fuel consumption nowadays: urban, highway, combined. I think this will be the case when more people join the EV wave. Otherwise, independent analyst/data centres will do it for the consumers,” Munoz said in an email.
When manufacturers finally manage to produce an affordable electric car and that appears to be years away (my suggestion; less than £10,000 ($12,500) after-tax, range 100 miles, top-speed 60 mph, 4-seats, no safety compromise, ideal for daily school runs, shopping and commuting, rent a diesel for rare long journeys) they will find car buyers with real-world budgets merciless if they fail to meet promises.
But as European governments price people out of their ICE vehicles and force them to buy electric, motorists will find themselves surprised and frustrated unless manufacturers provide better information.
Tennant puts it this way.
“So not much has really changed (since the ICE era) and as more consumers adopt expensive electric cars – there are no low-cost mass-market vehicles available right now – they are going to find that when they cruise up the motorway with the climate control, heated seats, and infotainment systems in full swing they will be pulling in for a much-needed battery top-up sooner than they thought”.
That process needs to be as quick and easy as a traditional ICE fill-up, and there’s no chance of that in the foreseeable future.