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Electric cars good enough for 90 percent of trips

Aerial view of traffic manhattan
Alija | Getty Images

"Range anxiety" is real for many consumers who are driving or considering an electric car, but a new study suggests it need not be.

On any given day, current electric cars provide enough range for 87 percent of drivers on America's roads, on just an overnight charge, according to a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

However, electric cars still struggle to fill certain needs, such as long-range travel, and fast and convenient ways to charge batteries that can match the ease of locating a gas station and filling a fuel tank. The research paints a picture of the gaps that the industry needs to fill in before "range anxiety," or the fear that a dead electric vehicle battery will delay a trip or leave a driver stranded, will be a thing of the past and adoption of EVs will become more widespread.

The team blended four data sets to reach its conclusion. The first set was taken from three state studies that used GPS trackers in cars to log second-by-second driving behavior in Georgia, Texas and California. The second was taken from the National Household Travel Survey, a study of driving habits around the country. The third set held information on fuel economy tests, and a fourth listed ambient temperatures around the country, which can impact battery performance.

They modeled a hypothetical car after the 2013 Nissan Leaf, a relatively affordable electric car.

From this, the team found that in the vast majority of driving situations, batteries will provide more than enough juice for the trip.

However, as the study acknowledges, some consumers may still be slow to buy EVs, especially if they think they might need a car for road trips — or long commutes. Internal combustion engines still beat out electrics for long drives, and will continue to even as battery packs and charging stations become more efficient.

For example, the team estimated the range of its electric car, based on the 2013 Leaf, at 73 miles, though they also showed that this can vary significantly based on driving style and speed. (The 2016 Nissan Leaf, has a greatly improved advertised range of 107 miles, but that is still less than half the distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles.)

Higher-end Tesla cars have longer ranges — the company's highest range is 294 miles for the Model S 90D. But the 90D starts a $89,500, while Nissan Leaf starts at just under $30,000.

The study acknowledged the limitation, and says it could be overcome with some kind of commercial car-sharing program that uses internal combustion engines.

Manufacturers have been reported to be working on long-range cars. Rumors have circulated recently that Tesla is planning to release a 100 kilowatt hour battery, which could push the car's range to more than 300 miles. Tesla has not commented on such a battery. Nissan is also said to be working on a long-range Leaf, which has not been confirmed, and the 2017 Chevy Bolt, expected later this year, is advertised to offer more than 200 miles of range.

Charging time is also a stumbling block, Tesla says its supercharger station can charge a car for up to 170 miles in 30 minutes, but that is still a lot longer than it takes to fill up a gas tank, and other brands can take hours to charge. The Nissan Leaf now takes five to six hours, depending on the model.

Charging stations are still rare in many parts of the country, though the Obama administration has recently announced $4.5 billion in loan guarantees to spur growth.

While electric vehicles may appear to benefit riders or drivers in cities more than those in rural areas — simply because city dwellers are less likely to have to drive longer distances, the paper said — drivers who live in cities may have to park on the street, which can make accessing charging stations difficult.

But the research does suggest that a great share of drivers may have little reason to pass on electric cars.

Though they focused on the Leaf, the team also considered the upcoming 2017 Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model S, along with improved batteries, said study co-author and MIT professor of energy studies Jessika Trancik in an email to CNBC. Including those boosted the daily adoption potential from 87 percent to above 95 percent.

One key finding is that electric vehicle replacement seems to be almost equally feasible in any American city, regardless of climate, topography, or size. EVs were found to be just as practical in dense cities such as New York as they were in sprawling cities, like Phoenix or Houston.

The team's next goal is to create a tool a consumer could use to easily calculate the feasibility of owning an electric car, and outlining what other options a household might use to compensate for any shortcomings.