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range anxiety

noun [uncountable]

a worried feeling whilst driving an electric car caused by thinking that you might run out of power before reaching your destination

'Range anxiety, the fear that your all-electric vehicle won't make it to your destination before you run out of power, is thought to be one reason that gives pause to prospective electric vehicle buyers.'

New York Times 12th January 2011

With domestic fuel prices hitting record highs in the UK, and the grim prediction that, by the summer of 2011, in some parts of the country prices could rise to a jaw-dropping £1.75 a litre, the concept of the electric car is becoming an increasingly appealing option. But those Brits who decide to take the plunge and swap petrol pumps for sockets and cables could fall prey to a new psychological affliction – the phenomenon of range anxiety.

a study … of electric car drivers revealed that they were frequently plagued by nagging fears of being stranded by a flat battery

The electric car seems likely to play a significant part in domestic travel in the future, since our fuel consumption habits will undoubtedly have to change in years to come. Currently however, its widespread adoption in the UK seems to be thwarted by logistical problems, and these issues form the basis of the concept of range anxiety. Certain models of electric car are, the manufacturers claim, capable of travelling 100 miles before their crucial lifeline – a suitcase-sized battery – needs to be re-charged. In principle therefore, it should be possible to cover a reasonable distance before running out of juice. In practice however, the current problem in the UK is that there are only around 300 charging points, the majority of which are in London. A further issue is that, once drained, an electric car's battery takes as much as 6 hours or more to re-charge.

A study undertaken in 2010 of over 250 electric car drivers revealed that they were frequently plagued by nagging fears of being stranded by a flat battery. Such range anxiety resulted in different patterns of driving behaviour representing a major contrast to the carefree, fill-up-your-tank-and-drive-as-far-as-you-want approach that we know and love. Sufferers of range anxiety were forced to abandon the freedom of the open road, rarely venturing far from home and travelling only short distances. The study revealed that the longest journey undertaken was only a quarter of the 'official' range of the car – so no more than about 25 miles.

In early 2011, range anxiety was thrown into the spotlight by a high-profile experiment, undertaken by the BBC, in which a reporter attempted a journey from London to Edinburgh in an electric car. Despite periodic bouts of range anxiety (for example at one stage the range indicator displaying a remaining charge of 48 miles, when the distance to the next charging point was 50), the 484 mile journey was completed – though it did take four days!

Background – range anxiety

The term range anxiety first appeared in the late nineties, but has not been significantly used until relatively recently, gaining currency in the context of increased concern about sustainable energy and the wider availability of electric and hybrid vehicles (hybrid is the term now widely used to describe vehicles which incorporate both a conventional engine and one or more electric motors).

In the expression, range is the term adopted by electric car manufacturers to describe the maximum distance a vehicle can travel before its battery needs to be recharged.

Though range anxiety is essentially a negative phenomenon and not something you'd expect makers of electric cars to want associated with their products, it has been put to positive use by manufacturers General Motors (GM), who even applied to trademark the term in 2010. Capitalizing on customer fears as a marketing tactic, GM claimed that its Volt hybrid model, incorporating an internal-combustion engine which automatically kicks in after the 40 mile electric battery range is used up, was the antidote to range anxiety.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

Last week …

Read last week's BuzzWord. Drunkorexia.

This article was first published on 7th February 2011.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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