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Electric Cars Are Way More Practical Than You Might Think

A new study finds that electric vehicles could handle most of our driving needs.

By Nathan Collins


A Nissan Leaf charges on a London street. (Photo: Miles Willis/Getty Images)

For a lot of people, electric cars seem like little more than glorified golf carts. Sure, some of the fancier models (think: Tesla’s Roadster) might look pretty cool, but can something like the Nissan Leaf — one of the more affordable electric vehicles out there — really cater to all your day-to-day driving? Actually, yes, according to a new study: Relatively low-cost electric vehicles can handle nearly 90 percent of our daily driving needs.

“Shifting to electric vehicles is one of the most promising ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation but range anxiety prevents many people from purchasing electric vehicles,” Jessika Trancik, an associate professor of Energy Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the study’s senior author, writes in an email. The question, she writes, is whether electric vehicles (EVs) are, in fact, constraining on drivers, and “whether range anxiety is justified, based on how people across the country are driving.”

To find out, Trancik and fellow MIT researchers Zachary Needell, James McNerney, and Michael Chang combined data from the National Household and Transportation Survey; GPS data from more than 117,000 individual drivers in California, Georgia, and Texas; and weather data, which gave the team a way to estimate how much air conditioning drivers used on their trips. To make things concrete, the team used the Environmental Protection Agency’s performance data on the Nissan Leaf, which costs about $29,000 — below average for an EV, and a good deal once fuel savings and maintenance costs are taken into account, according to Trancik — and has a maximum range just over 100 miles.

The potential for electrification is high across many very different kinds of cities in the U.S.

Putting all that data together in a model dubbed TripEnergy, Trancik and her team found that EVs could handle 87 percent of drivers’ daily needs and replace about 60 percent of gasoline needs, even if the vehicles could only be charged once a day. Those numbers are a bit higher in urban areas, but even in rural areas, EVs proved capable on about 80 percent of trips.

“This result suggests that the potential for electrification is high across many very different kinds of cities in the U.S., which has important implications for policy makers and industry,” Trancik writes.

Of course, there are limitations and compromises to switching to electric cars. Drivers would still need to figure out how to make longer trips that EVs aren’t capable of handling, and city dwellers who park on the street would have to figure out a way to charge their cars.

Getting around those and other barriers will require “two key innovations,” Trancik writes: First, we would need to be able to predict which days require a gas-powered car — something that the TripEnergy model is designed to do. Second, drivers need convenient alternatives on days when an EV won’t do—“for example, internal combustion engines that show at their door on demand, or car-sharing among neighborhoods,” Trancik writes. Achieving that, however, “requires further business innovation.”