When Bryan Nakagawa purchased an Audi e-tron in 2018, he fell in love with the car’s interior and handling, the space for his kids and surfing gear and, of course, its small carbon footprint. But the Salem, Oregon-based dentist soon discovered that his affection was fleeting — it flew away right around 70 miles per hour.
“I wouldn’t even drive a mile and I’d lose like three miles off the estimated range,” Nakagawa says of cruising the interstate in his electric Audi. “It always made me nervous.”
In January, Nakagawa traded in his e-tron for a hybrid: the Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe. Now he gets 25 miles of electric driving, enough to run around town, plus a gas-engine backup for any longer, higher-speed journeys.
All over the world, electric vehicle fever is running high, but battery-powered vehicles are still underperforming against expectations in one critical place: highways, the most fraught part of electric driving and one of the biggest hurdles to mass EV adoption. As a crowd of buyers like Nakagawa are finding out the hard way, speed is a particularly relentless range-killer. Blame the laws of physics, the federal government or both.
When deciding which EV to buy, consumers typically refer to a range estimate provided by the Environmental Protection Agency — treating it as something of an efficiency North Star, just as gas-guzzlers can be loosely categorized by miles per gallon. The EPA arrives at its figure after a vehicle is tested in two ways: one on a prescribed schedule intended to replicate a highway trip, and another as a proxy for the type of city miles one might log running errands or picking up the kids at school.
In determining its final range estimate, however, the government puts slightly more weight (55 percent) on how a vehicle performed in the “city” portion of the test. Nor do any EPA tests push cars faster than 60 miles per hour, a figure out of step with vast stretches of American interstate and with crowds of time-starved commuters. Some 19 states have speed limits of 75 mph or more (looking at you, Montana). The result is a disconnect between EV performance and expectations.
“The EPA range is for the most part pretty good if you just drove a steady 65 miles per hour,” says Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. “But not everybody drives like that.”