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Having range anxiety? Get used to it.

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August 18, 2010 5:50:40 PM PDT rss Having range anxiety? Get used to it.  »  [Read Full Story]   
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Once you've recovered from the shock of paying an exorbitant price for an electric car, you'd better prepare for the anxiety of actually driving one.

If you've made it this far without using the term, you probably haven't driven an electric car.

The term "range anxiety" comes from the place that generates most other forms of anxiety, the US.

And if you've made it this far without using the term, you probably haven't driven an electric car.

During a recent weekend zipping around in an i-MiEV, this writer endured a serious case of the condition.

Range anxiety is defined by as: "Mental distress or uneasiness caused by concerns about running out of power while driving an electric car."

The i-MiEV is an exact small-scale replica of a Mitsubishi road vehicle. It is priced about $65,000 because it is electrically powered. Rather than, say, $13,000 because it isn't.

And if the price doesn't provide a big enough potential cause of stress and unease, my eyes scanned that fuel gauge constantly, even when I knew the car had been fully charged and I had scarcely backed out of the garage.

After nine kilometres, the first bar disappeared from the electronic fuel gauge, which looks like any other electronic fuel gauge.

After 25 kilometres of near-silent city driving, I was down to a quarter of a "tank". This was entirely within expectations, considering the hilly terrain, and I had every reason to believe the car would keep going for another 75 kilometres or so. But I couldn't accept it; I was convinced that at almost any moment, this spark-powered runt would roll to a stop.

Looking back, I realise it's because we fundamentally don't trust anything with a battery to do anything other than let us down when most inconvenient.

My digital recorder, for example, has a"low battery" alert. It beeps and flashes about five seconds before the machine stops working, neatly proving that not all information is useful.

It's a bit like the automated voice in a plane that says: "We are now flying at zero feet, having ploughed into the side of a mountain." Which may or may not exist. But would you ever know?

I once met someone who claimed to know someone else whose laptop had a battery that lasted for as many hours as it said on the advertisement. But we all hear wild stories.

If you absolutely relied on your laptop, you'd take a spare battery and/or a power cord, wouldn't you? It's a bit harder with an electric car, particularly when the battery pack weighs several hundred kilos and recharging it with the cord takes seven hours.

You could argue that range anxiety is not unique to electric cars because fuel gauges have always been designed by sneaky people.

A decade or two ago, many cars (and I seem to remember Hondas as being the worst) travelled about 400 kilometres between the "full" mark and the halfway point. "What terrific economy," you'd think.

At which point the gauge went into free fall, leaving you to splutter into a fuel station 100 or so kilometres later.

Trip computers have largely held these petrol-gauge makers to account. But electricity is different. Even if the person who made the gauge is honest to a fault, battery power is a black art. Not even electricians understand it.

So was my range anxiety - "range paranoia" perhaps - justified? In the end, the ultra-expensive lithium-ion batteries - all 88 cells - didn't miss a beat and the I-MiEV did everything it was meant to do right up until the morning I was due to drop it back.

At which point, it didn't bloody start. Why? Because the bog-standard, everyday 12-volt battery that, among other things, powers the brain that tells the other batteries what to do had gone flat.

"You probably left a door ajar," the engineer said.

Bite your bum. I'm not taking the rap.

It's powered by batteries. It can't be trusted.

What about you? Do you trust batteries? Or will you be relying on petrol for as long as is humanly possible?
Tony Davis