EV Energy Efficiency: You Gotta Play the Game

Chris Calwell

In early February, I set off on a long road trip in my electric vehicle (EV) to make two presentations on zero net energy (ZNE) homes in California. For my initial thoughts on the journey, check out my first blog post.


Since then, I’ve traveled across the deserts of New Mexico, Arizona and California, up along the Pacific Coast, through Silicon Valley, the Wine Country, the Central Valley, and now Yosemite. In the process, I’ve gotten firsthand experience with what EV owners call “range anxiety”― the fear of running out of electricity before reaching your destination. I’ve gotten close to zero a few times, but have yet to run out, and I’ve really come to enjoy the challenge of getting from one charger to the next efficiently, rather than viewing it as a source of anxiety.


There is much talk in the energy efficiency world about “gamification”―the notion that people will pay more attention to the energy efficiency consequences of their behavior if we make it a game and introduce elements of competition with others. Many of the conferences we at Ecova attend speak about the power of gamification to encourage behavior change and save energy in buildings. I can report that gamification is already here with electric cars. They basically make a game out of the physics of kinetic energy, potential energy, elevation gain and loss, wind resistance, and all the other factors that influence how much energy we consume when driving. And they don’t need a virtual energy “dashboard” to explain it –they have a real dashboard!

Some cars make the game easier to play than others. The dashboard of the Chevy Volt challenges you to keep an animated energy efficiency ball green and centered within its rectangular box. This seems a little abstract, but my friends who own Volts like how it reduces clutter on an already crowded display screen.

Ford’s EVs offer “coaches” for your braking and acceleration behavior, and offer visual rewards in the form of butterflies for driving efficiently as possible.

I’m more of a numbers guy, so I want my car to just “cut to the chase” and let me know quantitatively, how efficiently I’m driving. It’s easier and more direct than counting butterflies. I’ve really come to admire the way the efficiency game is played in my car. The dashboard tells me:

  1. How far I’ve traveled since my last charge or on my entire trip (miles)
  2. Using how much energy (kWh)
  3. How efficiently (Wh/mile)

The map on the main screen tells how far I have left to reach my destination. And so the game of “enhanced range awareness” is very simple―keep the remaining range number comfortably higher than the remaining distance left to travel number.


Once that game got too easy, I added an extra challenge―make sure I have enough extra range, but not too much, because it wastes time charging. Superchargers will add about 300 miles of range to my battery per hour when the battery is nearly empty, but that charge rate plunges to 30 miles of range per hour once the battery is nearly full. At some point, it’s faster to get to my destination by driving more slowly and extending my range, than by stopping to grab another slow charge. It may not surprise you to learn that I enjoy playing this game more than my wife does…

My car also monitors my real-time energy use over the previous 30 miles and graphs it out. Folding this information into my driving habits answers a key question―if I keep driving this way, will I have enough range to make it to my destination? If not, I better start driving more efficiently!


Beyond the car’s dashboard itself, there are a few key tools to help EV drivers win the game:

  • Google Maps is great for finding the shortest distance to your destination and understanding the time tradeoffs of different routes.
  • EV Trip Planner takes into account vehicle characteristics, driving speed, cargo weight, and elevation changes to estimate the amount of energy needed to make the trip.
  • teslamotors.com and teslamotorsclub.com host forums where EV owners trade ideas about the best driving strategies and routes. You can accumulate key geek cred here for being the first to visit new chargers or conquer new routes.
  • Plugshare is an essential app to have on your phone to find public charging stations in parts of the country where no Superchargers exist.
  • Trim average driving speed, avoid strong headwinds, and drive at the time of day when temperatures are moderate to maximize range.

By using all of these tricks, I may have been the first person to drive a Tesla Model S with a 60 kWh battery from the Kingman, AZ to Barstow, CA Superchargers without stopping in-between to recharge. It’s normally 210 miles on Interstate 40, but I shaved 10 miles and a little driving speed by taking the old Route 66 option through Oatman instead.


As a result, I drove those 200 miles about 12% more efficiently than I had driven the rest of the trip. One thing’s for sure―when your fuel “tank” only holds 150-200 miles of range, you become acutely aware of the efficiency consequences of your actions, not just in your car, but at home as well. See what kind of nerd joy it can be to take an electric vehicle road trip?

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