Driving lesson

Think differently to improve the range of electric cars while driving

Can you really improve the range of your electric car by changing the way you drive? Absolutely – and that doesn’t mean you have to drive boring either! Driving an electric car is fun. Unlike gasoline engines, electric motors produce maximum torque from a standstill, without the build-up necessary for gasoline engines to reach maximum power. This means you experience rapid acceleration when behind the wheel, and it helps explain why electric cars from Tesla and Audi are so often seen on drag strips!

You may have also heard that electric vehicles have generally lower fuel costs and generally lower maintenance costs. With fewer and simpler components, they don’t require the same type of fluid changes or tune-ups. Then again, you might also hear horror stories about their electric car range or even battery fires. Are the benefits of driving an electric vehicle enough to make the switch if range is such a barrier? Here’s some information about electric car range that I’ve learned from living with a Nissan LEAF as my daily driver.

Factors that increase the range of electric cars

Battery electric vehicles are designed to be efficient, and most new models have enough range – between 200 and 500 miles on a charge – to meet the needs of a typical driver for several days, even without recharging. The “miles per kilowatt hour” metric tells you the total number of miles you can travel for every kilowatt hour you have left in your electric vehicle battery. Understanding how your driving style affects this number can give you a better idea of ​​your range at any given time.

For example, when driving on the freeway, you may see this number drop as you speed up the on-ramp or put your foot down to pass. This acceleration occurs at higher speeds and higher rpm, where electric motors are less efficient. By accelerating your electric vehicle, especially at highway speeds, you will get fewer kilometers in your range.

Conversely, the range will increase when you drive around in an urban environment or “braking” and “rolling” downhill, the regeneration systems built into your electric vehicle will generate electricity and charge your battery. The lesson EV owners have learned is to accelerate gradually and gently. We really arrive at the same destination at about the same time because electric motors tend to accelerate quickly – we just do it safer and more efficiently.

Range of temperature changes

Image courtesy Tesla

A wonderful warm sunny day means more miles from a full charge, while extreme cold or extreme heat means it’s harder for a battery to stay at optimum temperature. At the same time, demands on the car’s electrical system to supply AC power or heating to keep drivers and passengers comfortable also consume energy, which consequently means less range of the electric car.

When I drove a 2015 Nissan LEAF as my primary vehicle here in Florida, I was tempted to use the air conditioning during the hot months of May through October. When I did, I reduced the battery range, so I compromised. Cool and fresh when I stepped out of my condo, I rolled down the windows and let the passing breeze cool and refresh me as I drove the first few miles. As I returned from my errands, and with a clearer idea of ​​how many miles of range I had left, I opened the windows and blasted the air conditioning to my heart’s content.

It’s also worth noting here that not all EVs are created equal. On my Nissan LEAF, I could activate an eco mode to maximize range. On most similarly equipped cars, this mode will make throttle response less responsive and engage more regenerative braking when taking off or coasting. There’s also a little less power for the air conditioning or heating in eco mode, but that all adds up to more miles.

What does aerodynamics have to do with range?

Many electric car owners will tell you that they like the slick design of their vehicles, but this slick EV style is more than just aesthetic, it has implications for aerodynamics and range. Airflow over the car’s body panels, wheel design, and even overall proportions impact vehicle efficiency at high speeds. The more aerodynamically efficient or “sleek” a vehicle is, the easier it can glide through the air. The force that acts against the car moving through the air is called aerodynamic drag, and vehicles with a larger frontal area (think: wide, tall vehicles with boxy layouts) often have higher drag coefficients, which limits the vehicle’s ability to cut through the air.

This means that you will need more energy to get and maintain an inefficient car at a given speed than a car that weighs the same but has a more efficient shape.

The faster you go, the more wind resistance there is. At higher highway speeds, you use more energy to travel the same distance as you would on secondary or surface roads. The lesson here is that if you have the time and the need to protect the number of miles you can go with your existing load, you’ll go farther if you ride at a lower average speed.

If you want to get as many miles as possible on a single charge, take your eyes off the highway. Look at your GPS and see if there’s a slower route option, or use a trip planning app like Chargeway to help you get the most out of your ride.

If you must take the freeway, avoid sudden gear changes and resist the urge to pass others in favor of a quieter drive in the right lanes. Using cruise control on a flat highway can also help you maintain a steady speed and maintain range.

Driving an electric vehicle, maximizing regenerative braking

Electric cars have a distinct feature from gas-powered cars: regenerative braking. Standard brakes use friction to turn the car’s kinetic energy into thermal energy to slow it down. In an electric vehicle designed to maximize the electric car’s range, a regenerative braking system uses gears or flywheels to convert the car’s forward motion into electrical energy that can charge the battery when the car slows down.

Some modern electric cars like my new Tesla Model Y have really assertive regenerative braking – I rarely use the brakes anymore – while some PHEV hybrids also use regenerative braking to boost their batteries, and that’s only in a sudden traffic situation that I press the brakes; regen is the default slowdown mechanism.

You can learn a little more about the concepts involved in regenerative braking in this fun video from championship-winning Formula 1 team Red Bull, who used an advanced regenerative braking system (called “KERS”, for Kinetic Energy Recovery System) on its way to 8 consecutive World Championships in the early 2010s. Check it out!

Electric motors have far fewer moving parts and some of the simpler ones, like my old Nissan LEAF, don’t even have coolant or transmission fluid to change. Regenerative braking alleviates another area of ​​replacement, as it can extend the life of the brake pads by using the electric motor to decelerate the vehicle (although too much time spent without servicing the brakes can cause other issues, this which leads some manufacturers to specify thinner brake pads from the factory than they would on a car without regenerative brakes).

This reduced maintenance and reduced exposure to volatile fuel prices generally translates into lower overall maintenance costs and increased savings for electric car buyers.

Final Thoughts on Maximizing Electric Car Range

If you haven’t had the chance to be upfront and personal with an EV, do it. Stop by and ask an EV driver questions at a mall or in your neighborhood – we’re quite a gregarious bunch and love to share what we’ve learned. After all, someone taught us once upon a time, didn’t they? You can also go to a community electric vehicle expo day at your local nature center or visit a dealership that is adapting to the future reality of all-electric transportation.

Start by familiarizing yourself with what makes electric vehicles different and special. Before you know it, you too will become familiar with electric vehicles, their autonomy and their pleasure.


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