To the uninitiated, range anxiety is a scholarly sounding term that originated in the early 2010s that describes the stress of driving an electric vehicle (EV) when you’re not exactly sure when or where your next charge stop might be. But does range anxiety still exist in 2022, or is it just a bland talking point for the EV critics to assuage their ideas that EVs can never replace traditional gas-powered cars? I thought about this a lot while road-tripping a few electric cars around Ohio.
In my roughly month-long test of EVs in the midwest, I learned the real answer is more complicated than what I’ve read. Public charging infrastructure can’t hide the fact that charging an electric car takes much, much longer than refueling a gas car. That recharging space is time that isn’t always usable for those who aren’t middle-class work-from-home folks like me.
Part of the testing including taking a Mustang Mach-E on a journey from Columbus to Cleveland, almost as a sort of poetic duality. The Mustang is a new take on an old classic in that it has recognizable features, but it’s vastly different. In a way, so was I, right? At 19, I left Cleveland behind to start a whole new life in Columbus. I got my degree, made a life, became a whole new person, but not really, right? I don’t think people change all that much. The Mustang Mach-E is still a Mustang at its core, and I’m still the same 19-year-old kid that ran away from Cleveland not quite a decade ago.
I didn’t set out to extrapolate my personal life to some sort of allegory of change and new bodies, but I couldn’t help that the thought crossed my mind. Eventually, after revisiting my old stomping grounds in nearby Akron, Ohio, it was time for me to go home to Columbus. The Mustang had about a 24 percent charge, not completely flat, but not enough to make the 125-mile drive. I had lost track of time, it was late, and I was tired and hungry. If the Mustang were a gas car, I would have stopped at a Sheetz on the way home, filled up with some gasoline, cheap coffee, an MTO snack, and banged out the not-so-bad 98-minute drive home. I couldn’t do that with the Mach-E, though.
My hometown’s ChargePoint-branded DC fast charger was in the middle of nowhere, next to the Akron Metro bus depot, at the back of an unmanned CNG station. That’s not the car’s fault; the other DC fast-charging stations were miles away, and judging from what I saw on the map, they were pretty lonesome stations too. Defeated, I drove to the charger and plugged in. The Ford app said it would take about an hour to get to 80 percent, netting me 150 miles. It had gotten colder, and the return drive was nearly entirely all freeway driving. I knew that 150 miles was probably on the optimistic side. I needed more cushion to not only make it home but to account for the cold parasitic drain, as the Mustang would need to keep its batteries warm in the below-freezing temps overnight. Again, not the car’s fault, most EVs need to keep their batteries warm so the electrolyte solutions in them don’t freeze and harm the battery.
“So, what do I do now?” I said out loud, after hooking the Mustang up to the lone DC fast charger. I kind of twiddled my thumbs, tried watching a video or two on my phone, but that quickly got boring. The Mustang’s central screen looked like it had some infotainment things to toy with as I waited, but they got boring, too. The car’s seats were perfectly comfortable and supportive for driving, but as a whole, it wasn’t designed to be a lounging vehicle. After about 30 minutes of photo-taking, YouTube, and Netflix browsing, the piddly 50-kW fast charger would need at least another 90 minutes or so to get me enough range to get home.
Tesla’s charging experience was better, and that had little to do with the speed of charging. The Tesla’s seats were softer, more conducive to lounging in the car. Most superchargers were in busy parking lots, near lots of amenities like grocery stores and coffee shops. I could leave the Model 3 and get a drink or bite to eat. The Tesla’s central screen was annoying while driving, but when charging, the high-fidelity screen was a pleasure to look at. The integrated games, while criticized for existing, played well. None of the other electric cars I had driven seemed like they ever thought about what the EV charging experience downtime would look like. A big battery Tesla would take about as much time as the other EVs to charge, but the experience in the Tesla was much easier than the other brands.
Without a home charger, I found myself revolving around planning my week around times when I could drop my vehicle off to charge, and wait with it. That ruled out nearly all Level 2 public charging options, as I simply did not have the time to leave my car in a random space or work at a coffee shop for six to eight hours.
The mall was a constant, though. Easton Mall, a higher-end (or maybe mid-tier for you coastal readers used to Rodeo Drive or 5th Avenue) shopping center, has the most charging options. I live a short drive from it, and Easton offers free charging, so most of my charging events were there. But wow, did that quickly get old. During winter driving in normal conditions, I could only eke out on average of about 150-175 miles (save for the Tesla’s 125-ish miles) until I needed to find a charging station. On average, each EV took about two to three hours to charge, including driving to, unhooking, and searching for an unoccupied or working charger. So, about six hours of my week were spent elsewhere, awaiting my vehicle to charge. Quickly, window shopping at the mall went from novelty to chore, as I struggled to find other things to do with my time at the mall. Near the end of the test, I dreaded the mall.
Thankfully, working at Car Autance is entirely remote. The infrastructure in Columbus could be better, but there were other charging options better located in spaces near coffee shops or co-working spaces where I could productively use those two to three hours to work. But what if Car Autance weren’t remote? What if I were back in my old, pre-Car Autance life, as a rideshare driver or retail worker? What if I had kids or a spouse? Would I be able to set aside four to six hours (if not more) of twiddling my thumbs, waiting for my car to be usable again? The answer is probably no.
When I was parked at the loneliest DC fast charger in my hometown of Akron I called for an Uber to take me across town for a sit-down meal as I awaited my car to charge. That in itself is a point of privilege. True, charging was free, but I had the luxury of time, money, and energy to waste nearly two and a half hours for a nearly $60,000 vehicle to complete charging. The timesuck was merely an inconvenience. Tesla’s in-car games or Polestar’s Google Play apps might make passing the time while charging easier, but that opportunity cost would need to be better served working, tending home, or doing other things. As the saying goes, being poor takes a lot of time.
Home charging, or at least a dedicated space to charge near your home, is necessary for electric car ownership. With that, most of the time poverty and timesuck implications surrounding EV ownership without home charging evaporate. Instead of twiddling your thumbs in the car or window shopping for hours at the mall, the car can easily charge at home, in your sleep, often right after you use it.
Many automakers, including Ford, insist that wanting to charge to 100 percent is merely psychological, and there’s no real reason to need to charge that full. I resent that. In theory having a 100-percent charged car meant I wouldn’t have to visit the charger as often, and I could spend my time doing other things. I’d imagine most low-income folks who could find themselves driving electric would find themselves acting similarly.
I hope that we don’t forget about the poor, those who might not necessarily care about environmentalism, but may find themselves using electric vehicles as primary transportation. Range anxiety is more than a bougie concern from online anti-EV enthusiasts, it’s a real problem that has real costs that are only exacerbated for those who are poor. It’s time for electric vehicles to have their “come to Jesus” moment, lest we venture down a road of good intentions, only to make things worse for those who aren’t middle-class homeowners.
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