The downside to electric cars is both cost and driving range. Cost simply takes time and adoption; as has been shown in every technology from agriculture to computers, it only gets affordable for the masses after enough rich people have uptake. Driving range is a show-stopper for many, though. The stories in Silicon Valley of 'charge rage', where employees at companies are firing off angry emails at each other over available plugs rather than working, have made fewer companies want to install charging stations at all. But without them, many people can't get home.

Though manufacturers won't like reading it, a new paper  by Zhenhong Lin, a senior R&D staff member at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory of Knoxville, in the Articles in Advance section of Transportation Science, finds that until batteries fall below $100 per kilowatt hour, from a cost effectiveness point of view, the majority of U.S. consumers are better off with short driving ranges, even if that means they will remain a luxury for wealthy elites who can afford a commuter vehicle.

Tesla is popular with wealthy elites in California, but for mass uptake a cheap car, which means a cheaper battery and shorter driving range, is the way to go. However, if you have the means, this $109,000 Tesla Roadster goes from 0 to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds and has a 200 mile range. Credit: Tesla

Before the introduction of the Nissan Leaf (officially, a 73 mile electric range, in the real world, often less) in December 2010, many in the public incorrectly assumed ranges were already between 150 and 200 miles, but 8 out of the 10 products on the US market are much shorter range. 

For that reason, the new paper argues that the goal should be to make short-range batteries as cheap as possible right now, rather than have R&D focus on developing new batteries that will make electric cars comparable to combustion engines, which have a much higher energy density. If the cars are cheap enough, people will start adjusting around the limitations, but they will still be part of that marketplace and so more charging infrastructure would be added. 

The electric driving range of an electric is optimized separately for each of the 36,664 sample drivers who represent U.S. new car drivers. It is based on their individual driving pattern and household vehicle flexibility.

Key results are the distribution of optimized electric car range among US consumers and the change of such a distribution in response to battery cost reduction and charging infrastructure improvement.