It sounds like something an unfit hiker might experience gazing up at mighty Mount Everest.
The nervous flutter felt by a novice golfer taking the first swing on a PGA course while a bunch of seasoned professional players watch on.
Or perhaps a condition that billboards claim can be cured by SMS-ing “Longer Lasting Sex” to a 1-800 number for your free sample of a nasal spray.
But range anxiety is none of these.
Instead it’s the fear that your electric vehicle won’t make it to the next recharge socket.
Expect to hear this phrase a lot more as plug-in cars make inroads into our lives and take to our roads. And expect range anxiety to be especially prevalent in the days when: a) electric vehicles’ performance capabilities are still under scrutiny; and b) there are relatively few places to recharge.
Having had the i-MiEV for a week or so, Clare and I have taken it on a few short test drives, chiefly from Newington to Sydney and back again. It has performed this 30km or so round-trip like a champ, handling almost exactly as a petrol-run hatchback would.
Last weekend, on Saturday morning, we resolved to confront our range anxiety and take the i-MiEV from Newington to Blackheath in the upper Blue Mountains, where Ava had spent a week of her school holidays with her grandparents.
Mitsubishi’s marketing says the i-MiEV can do 160km on a full charge under ideal conditions. Drivers, the company says, should expect 110km in the normal urban environment.
We’d charged the car for 24 hours, but even so the digital indicator that predicts range only showed 102km. This calculation, so we’ve read, is based not only on the charge in the battery but also on previous driving experiences as recorded by the car’s tech. Confusing. But with 90km of road between Newington and Blackheath, we drove off feeling confident.
“We should make it,” Clare said, behind the wheel, as she took us towards the M4.
“Unless the range margin of error is 10 percent or more, we’ll be right,” I agreed, busying myself with the important task of putting a Whitney Houston CD into the player (Clare’s choice, I swear). Note from Clare: I stand by my choice! It was her breakthrough album before Bobby Brown, drugs and a cringe-inducing reality TV show.
Keen for us to test the car over such a distance, EnergyAustralia had installed the correct 240v/15amp socket at the in-laws’ place so we could recharge the i-MiEV for the return trip.
Heading along the M4, everything was going according to plan. We were averaging 90km’h, occasionally hitting 110km/h when the speed limit permitted, and the range indicator still showed a comfortable buffer between getting to Blackheath and running out of juice.
Then, with the rain intensifying outside and the windshield misting up inside, I cranked the air-conditioner to demist the vehicle. It was on for a minute or so before the windshield cleared and I switched it back to a normal gentle cool breeze.
It was about then, approaching Penrith, that the range indicator was down to 45km. Which really isn’t what you want to see when you still have at least 55km to go.
“Turn off the air conditioner,” Clare commanded.
I complied and cracked the windows. And killed Whitney Houston for good measure.
Clare put the car into “Eco” mode in which regenerative braking helps recharge the battery a little.
These three measures boosted the range back to 52km. It’d be close, but we’d probably still make it — given we’d been told that even when you hit zero energy bars and the range display reads “—” you might still get a bit more distance out of the i-MiEV.
But now we were experiencing real range anxiety. We knew that if the battery drained there was nowhere to recharge and we’d have to leave the car where it stopped and seek assistance. We’ve all run on empty in a petrol vehicle and while it’s nerve-wracking you also know that if the fumes run out you can most likely walk to the nearest service station with a jerry can.
Not us. Not this time.
The i-MiEV stayed just below range-distance parity as we climbed the hill from Emu Plains to Glenbrook and into the Blue Mountains proper. We used to live in Glenbrook when Ava was a newborn and would’ve been nice to pull over and have a coffee. In reality, stopping would not have affected our range but that didn’t matter — with range anxiety you feel compelled to keep going. We were not stopping, despite the lure of a bargain on pre-loved Levi’s at the fantastic local charity op-shop, Linen & Lace.
Giving thanks that at least it wasn’t a sweltering summer day, we grimly rose through the long, slow gradient that is the lower Blue Mountains. Just as gradually, the gap between available range and the kilometres we needed to travel opened up.
By the time we were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic in Woodford, the result of the long-term widening of the Great Western Highway, the i-MiEV had jsut 15km left on the dial. We had at least twice that to go. We were gonna miss, and not by a mere kilometre either.
I called Clare’s parents to let them know we may be late. And that we may need rescuing.
“At least it’s not sucking juice when we’re not moving,” I said.
That much was true – the range didn’t go down in the slightest while we’re idling for long minutes. But it wasn’t going to make any difference… unless…
Unless the range display was actually way off.
When the traffic cleared a little and we were moving again, we marked off five kilometres on the odometer and saw… that the range decreased exactly the same amount.
We were now down to two energy bars on the dashboard display, available range of eight kilometres. The little recharge symbol had started to flash.
“I wonder how much power that’s using up?” Clare laughed.
A few kilometres later, we had one energy bar left. All too soon we’d be like a health food store overrun by triathletes. Not an energy bar in sight. Boom-tish, I’ll be here all week. Which, if the car died, could become reality.
With five kilometres left on the range indicator, it was now a matter of whether we’d even make it to Wentworth Falls, some seven or so kilometres distant.
While in traffic I used my Blackberry to Google the i-MiEV. Not much comfort there – test drivers in the United States had reported range from 50 to 80 miles. I’d also consulted the i-MiEV’s instruction manual and read that when the battery runs out we’d see a little turtle appear on the dashboard display. Again, not much comfort.
“When the turtle appears, your home recharging point should be in sight” is how one web site describes the function of the LED reptile.
I told Clare this.
At her suggestion I’ve been Tweeting about our drive and I now hashtag #seeingtheturtle as a new phrase describing the realisation that your situation is hopeless.
And it is. The only recharge point in the Blue Mountains is in a garage in Blackheath. Though apparently we could feasibly plug into the socket used by vending machines. I can imagine how that conversation would go as we tried to convince a service station register operator to let us hook up to the grid – for eight hours. And wouldn’t it be a conflict of interests for a petrol station to charge up an electric car?
We saw out our last few kilometres in bumper-to-bumper traffic caused by a lane closure. Much of the road is enclosed by concrete barriers so there’s no shoulder to pull (or push) onto. If the i-MiEV totally carked it we’d have to push it a long way or it would completely block the Great Western Highway for as long it took someone to move us. With heavy traffic, wet weather and it being a long weekend, that could be hours. And would make us very unpopular with our fellow motorists.
Three kilometres became two. We’d passed Bullaburra.
“How far is it to Wentworth Falls?” asked Clare.
“Must be soon.” I said
“We’re on one!” said Clare as the i-MiEV crept forward in the traffic.
A gap opened up and we covered a bit of ground.
“Now we’re on zero!” reported Clare.
The range indicator read “—” and the energy bars were now depleted.
Luckily, we were coming to a crest and there was a side street.
“Do we try to make it to Wentworth Falls?” asked Clare. “The turtle’s not there yet.”
Thing is, we had no idea how much further we could go without conking out. It was at least another kilometre to Wentworth Falls and after this rise the concrete barriers and one-lane roadworks continued.
“We better pull over,” I said. “If we get stuck, we’re in trouble. At least on a side street, the car’ll be safe.”
“And us, too.”
Clare had a good point: breaking down in wet weather on a highway is a dangerous business and to be avoided.
“There’s the turtle,” she said with a laugh. “Bloody hell.”
Thing is, the turtle was the wrong way up. The little thing should’ve been on its shell, toes pointed at the sky. An upright turtle can still move, albeit slowly, which was the whole point of Aesop’s Fable, though he used the tortoise.
We made it into the side street and parked the i-MiEV.
Then we trudged into Wentworth Falls, fortunate to get a break in the rain, and had a nice lunch at an Italian place while we waited for Clare’s dad to pick us up. We called EnergyAustralia to tell them that all had not gone according to plan.
The rest of the weekend was fun, though we were car-less and had to return to Sydney on the train.
The i-MiEV, meanwhile, returned to the house on Tuesday — on the back of an NRMA truck.
Obviously, despite the promise held by electric cars, range anxiety is going to be a major issue.
Had we not had the i-MiEV on loan, and had instead paid $65,000 for the vehicle, we might not have kept our senses of humour about the experience. Same goes if we’d had Ava in the back and had to walk in the torrential rain that set in soon after we came to a stop. And were we not up in the Blue Mountains visiting family and able to fall back on them for a pick-up, the inconvenience of getting taxis and tows and trains would’ve only added to range anxiety becoming range rage.
Range rage: you heard it here first.
Clearly, the i-MiEV’s range needs to be more reliable. If the display reads 102km, you need to know you can get that distance in most circumstances. The 70km we got wasn’t even close — and that was without the air-con or stereo on.
Further, while we’d figured that the electricity to charge the car four times to cover 400km costs about one-quarter the price of the petrol required by our Honda Jazz to cover the same distance, that saving diminishes if in reality you have to charge the car six or seven times.
Anyway, the i-MiEV is off for tests to ensure the battery storage and charge is working correctly.
Next post we’ll also hear what Mitsubishi has to say about the experience.