EV range: How much is enough?

How much EV range is enough? If you decided to design and build an electric car for volume production today, how much range would you give it? That’s a question senior managers at many car companies are asking themselves these days.

Tesla and General Motors have decided the magic number for EV range is 200 miles. That’s how much both the upcoming Tesla Model 3 and Chevy Bolt are expected to offer drivers. “Today’s drivers of 100-mile electric cars always need to look for the next charge,” says Larry Nitz, G.M.’s director of global transmissions and electrification.

The vast majority of EV drivers charge their cars overnight at home. Nitz thinks 200 miles is enough to quell any fears about running out of battery power during the day, even in winter when cold temperatures can reduce range considerably. He thinks his competitors will have to build electric cars with 200 miles of range as well. “They have to. That’s how the free market works.”

Jose Guerrero, head product manager of electric vehicles, high-performance models, and connected technology for BMW of North America disagrees. “I question the race to the 200-mile electric car. We don’t see exponentially increasing sales with a 200-mile battery,” he says. “Putting a 60 kilowatt-hour battery in an i3 would kill the dynamism of the car.”

BMW is always sensitive to how its cars perform on the road. More battery means more weight and less precise handling. The company went to extraordinary lengths to give its i3 electric sedan a lightweight carbon fiber chassis in order to keep the overall weight of its first mass produced EV as low as possible.

The Nissan LEAF all electric sedan only has about 80 miles of range, but that hasn’t kept it from being the best selling EV in the world. Nissan is giving buyers the choice of a larger battery this year. The optional battery will boost range up to about 107 miles. Nissan thinks that is adequate, especially since statistics show the average American only drives 37 miles a day.

But Nissan has chosen a 60 kWh battery for its IDS concept car. That happens to be exactly the same size the Tesla Model 3 and the Chevy Bolt will have. “We are very aware of what’s happening in the market,” says Ken Kcompt, director of product planning for Nissan. “Nissan is developing longer range batteries. There are different ways to look at EV leadership. Range is one of them. It’s not lost on us.”

Siegfried Pint, Audi’s chief of electric powertrains, thinks a small electric car intended for local driving is not the way to go. “I had that opinion six or seven years ago,” Pint says. He was an electric powertrain engineer who worked on the BMW i3 before moving to Audi. “But if you want to sell a decent number of cars, you need ‘first-car ability’.” That means the electric car must be able to replace the traditional combustion engine car in the driveway in every way, particularly range.

The Audi Q6 e-tron quattro will have a 95 kWh battery pack, giving it more than 300 miles of range — considerably more than Tesla’s electric SUV, the Model X. It is also expected to cost less than the Model X. Asked why Audi decided to concentrate on longer range for its new car, Pint says, “That was a strong requirement from the sales department.”

So how much EV range is enough? That’s a question the world’s automakers are trying desperately to find the correct answer to.