My commute is seven miles round trip across Evanston and back again, and I decided that my subcompact getting 30 mpg wasn’t cutting it anymore. Why not get an electric car and avoid gas altogether? So I bought a Nissan Leaf, and I love it! Of course, I can’t help but analyze the user experience of my new car… and here’s what I’ve noticed:

Even though the range of ~90 miles is likely more than I’ll drive in an average week, I still suffer from range anxiety. Oxford Dictionary defines range anxiety as:

range anx·i·e·ty

Worry on the part of a person driving an electric car that the battery will run out of power before the destination or a suitable charging point is reached.

So why do I experience range anxiety despite being a perfect candidate for an electric car? Is it because like most Americans I’m prone to feeling anxious? Maybe…but I think it’s more than that. I think the interface promotes anxiety in a variety of ways:

  • Everywhere I look, my car is telling me how much range I have left. In a standard gas powered vehicle, you have a gas gauge to tell you approximately how full your tank is. In my car, I have a ticking time bomb that counts down until I will no longer be able to drive. The display shows my range in a large font alongside a graphic of how full the battery is. But this number is simply an estimate, and it drives the engineer inside me nuts! Just tell me how much battery I have…
  • When I run my air conditioner or heating, my car lets me know what impact that will have on my range. Suddenly, it dawns me that even charging my phone will draw energy away from my ability to drive my car. It will cost me to charge my phone. It will cost me to have the radio on. Everything has a cost, and my car is making sure I know what it is.
  • Along the top of my dash, there is a small gauge to help remind me to drive more economically. Just below it, there’s a series of dots that communicate how much energy I am using when I accelerate and how much recharging occurs when I slow down. I find myself watching these measurements more than my speed.

All of this information on the interface is good to have, but it also serves as a constant reminder that I do not have unlimited resources. I’ve found that I overanalyze the information that the interface does provide and start trying to figure out their formula for calculating my range. Does it depreciate faster when the battery is full? Does it intentionally under estimate so I don’t end up stranded?

I realize that when my range runs out I won’t be able to stop at a gas station for 10 minutes like everyone else and get back on the road without worry. While the times for recharging vary based on how fast your charger is, the standard outlet charger that comes with the car takes 21 hours to fully charge the car. And since I haven’t installed a ‘level 2’ charger yet, I’ve estimated that for every hour I drive the car I’ll need to charge it for 10 hours. That’s a big commitment, and my car is constantly reminding me.

But that’s also not how I’m using my car. I’m not driving around for hours. My commute is only seven miles round trip! (Yes, I keep telling myself that.) It’s true that there are limitations to owning an electric car, but I for one am more than happy to borrow someone’s gas powered car for my occasional road trip, and I will continue to battle range anxiety by proving to myself that it more than meets my needs. Over the last month that I’ve had my electric car, that anxiety has lessened. But what about everyone else? What about the millions of other people who could buy an electric car but won’t because of range anxiety?

When Oxford Dictionary defines range anxiety it provides this sentence for clarification:

"Range anxiety is often cited as the most important reason why many are reluctant to buy electric cars"

And if the cars themselves are feeding in to it, my question is, what are the makers of electric cars going to do about it? The design challenge for these auto makers will be to communicate all of this new information without overwhelming the users and causing anxiety. How can they tell us about energy consumption while reassuring us how our needs will be met?

My advice: Cut to the chase and tell me how much energy I have instead of the estimated range. A simple battery percentage would be more informative. Display the mileage purely as an estimate so users don’t have to guess how it’s calculated. This one change could remove a large component of the anxiety.

Also, help users understand how to best utilize their car. Owning an electric car with the current range restrictions takes some planning. So help them think through their plans. For example, help users estimate their average driving needs for a week and how an electric car would (or would not) fit into their lives. Once a user owns an electric car and is familiar with their day to day use, they would only need help anticipating battery usage for longer trips. The GPS already shows an eco-route versus the fastest route, but there’s no connection to the current battery status. It would be great to know how much battery will remain at the end of the journey to help make a more informed decision.

I would love to see the car industry actively tackle the design problem of range anxiety. Let’s make it easier for people to buy an electric car! Let’s make it fun to drive and easy to understand!