It's hard to talk about the future of the automobile and its electrification without running into "range anxiety." The term describes the fear that supposedly grips the driver of an electric car who thinks the vehicle could run out of juice before it reaches its destination. And as electric cars inch toward showrooms, range anxiety is turning up more frequently in news stories and blogs and at car events. It's even being used as a weapon by those who believe all-electric cars can't meet the needs of American drivers.

General Motors is trying to trademark the term, presumably to use it in marketing and advertising to drive people away from competitors' all-electric cars and into its own series-parallel plug-in hybrid, the Chevrolet Volt.

With electric vehicles poised to hit the market, the ability of manufacturers to lay range anxiety to rest could spell the difference between success and failure. If you believe the critics, range anxiety is so severe that anyone foolish enough to pilot an electric vehicle (EV) will be in a constant state of panic as the charge dwindles and the range reduces. According to this view, spontaneous excursions and road trips will become a thing of the past.

A post on the GM-Volt blog succinctly describes the automaker's view: "GM has placed a $1 billion bet that range anxiety is important."

That bet is on the Volt, whose production cost swelled when GM added an onboard generator that the carmaker calls a "range extender." After 40 miles of all-electric driving, a gasoline engine kicks in to recharge the batteries on the fly. But with a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $40,280 (before the application of a $7,500 federal tax credit), it costs $8,000 more than the all-electric Nissan Leaf (which also qualifies for the credit).

What's Behind the Worry?

According to a study by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), "running out of battery power on the road" was cited as a disadvantage by 71 percent of people interested in buying an electric car. "Environmental benefits, coupled with potential cost savings in fuel and tune-ups, will lead to increased interest for electric vehicles and potential floor traffic at dealerships," said Chris Ely, CEA's manager of industry analysis. "But concerns regarding battery life, charging stations and limited mileage may keep some consumers away until a comprehensive infrastructure is in place."

After commuting in the 2010 Mini E, Edmunds Director of Vehicle Testing Dan Edmunds shares this view. During his 108-mile round-trip commute, he said the Mini E's 100-mile range was frequently on his mind, and he believes range will weigh heavily on the minds of those considering an all-electric vehicle.

"With all-electric cars, any time you deviate from the norm you have to think about it," Edmunds said. "If you wanted to be spontaneous, you have to make calculations to see if you can actually do it." Larger batteries wouldn't necessarily solve the problem. "Batteries are like salaries — no matter how much you make, it's not enough," he said. (You can read more comments about the Mini E on the long-term blog.)

John O'Dell, senior editor of Green Car Advisor, called the all-electric car's limited range a "tether" that connects the electric vehicle owner to a readily available charging station. "No matter how big the battery is, the pure-electric car will always have a tether on it," O'Dell said. By contrast, the Volt's gas tank untethers the car, giving it an advantage over a pure electric vehicle, O'Dell says.

Another way of looking at why Americans are supposedly freaked out by cars that need a charge was presented by Lindsay Chappell, a bureau chief for Automotive News. He linked range anxiety to a feeling that's very familiar to most of us: "the primal fear of sitting in an airport with a dead cell phone." But Americans now are trained to recharge their cell phones at night, he said, and the challenge for automakers is to ensure consumers get in the habit of plugging in their cars, too.

Quelling Consumer Fear

The makers of electric cars don't deny that range anxiety exists. That would be like the airline industry pretending that some people don't suffer from a fear of flying. Instead, they are talking anxious consumers down with information and technology tools. Nissan officials rely on a simple statistic: 90 percent of motorists worldwide drive less than 100 miles a day and so the Leaf will serve 90 percent of all drivers' needs.

Nissan also points out that the Leaf's onboard navigation system is "smart" enough to tell the driver if he has enough range to make it to his destination, based on the destination he's entered and the state of the charge. Coda, an electric-car maker based in Santa Monica, California, has a "range phobia" tool on its Web site to show potential buyers that their car has more than enough range for most everyday driving needs.

But logic doesn't answer every objection that can be raised about range. At a Leaf press event in Los Angeles where the car's 100-mile range was first announced, an automotive writer put a hypothetical situation to a product manager. "Last weekend I went to see my aunt and she lives 110 miles away," the journalist said. "OK, I'm driving a Leaf. What do I do?" The product manager sighed and delivered the fallback response: The car fulfills 90 percent of the driving needs, not 100 percent. Occasionally, a gas-powered car or another means of transportation will be required.

The reporter's question revealed something about the American view of cars. We buy vehicles not only to fulfill our actual driving needs, but all our imagined or possible needs, too. As someone once observed, Americans buy four-wheel-drive SUVs to tow the boat they don't own up the mountain they never climb.

Journalists who test-drive EVs actually may be the most acute sufferers of range anxiety, says Tom Moloughney, a New Jersey restaurant owner who has driven a Mini E for 16 months and who routinely puts 300 miles a day on it. (He has two 220-volt chargers: one at home and one at work.) Their sweaty palms are "legitimate" for someone who is behind the wheel of an EV for the first time, but it's not a feeling that lasts for owners, he says.

"The vast majority of people who actually live with these cars will tell you they don't have range anxiety," he says.

Paul Scott, vice president and founder of Plug-In America, has been driving an electric Toyota RAV4 for eight years, and says it's never left him stranded. He agrees that range anxiety "is only for people who haven't experienced electric cars." They read about the vehicle's range and think, "That's too short," he says. "But part of that comes from the fact that no chargers have been installed yet."

In the next year, hundreds of charging stations will appear in various locations such as grocery store parking lots. Even faster chargers are planned for various U.S. markets, and some of those units can fully recharge a car battery in only 20 minutes. So in the time it takes for an EV owner to munch a burger, the car can be recharged. That's exactly the scenario Leaf spokespeople describe during Nissan's cross-country Drive Electric tour, which is designed to explain the car's features, let people test-drive it and — in no small part — to assuage their fears about that 100-mile range.

Prospective electric-car buyers also will be able to test their range tolerance by renting a Leaf or a Coda. Enterprise Rent-a-Car plans to offer both these electric vehicles in its fleet beginning in 2011.

Range anxiety will definitely slow up some car buyers, said Chris Paine, who reignited enthusiasm about EVs with his 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? and is now at work on a sequel of sorts, Revenge of the Electric Car. "That's a big reason why GM decided to go with the range-extender idea on its Volt," he said in an e-mail. "But for people who really want to take gasoline off their shopping list, electric cars are it. For those days you need to go more than 100 miles there's your old gasoline car or Hertz."

Although Who Killed the Electric Car? described a conspiracy to sabotage EVs, Paine doesn't see any duplicity at work now. "I don't think range anxiety is any more of a plot by the oil industry than performance anxiety is a plot by the drug companies. Obviously they've both got something to gain by spreading fears, so you've just got to know who's writing the editorials and what their agenda is."

Some EV boosters agree with Paine, saying that the answer to range anxiety is simple: Since most households have two cars now, one can be electric for all the around-town trips while the gas car can be used for long hauls. Still, the idea of a limited range has negative connotations for Americans who have been mainlining gasoline throughout their lives and think nothing of 1,000-mile road trips.

Bigger batteries, longer ranges, smarter route-planning and faster charging stations are all possible cures for range anxiety. While some experts insist that it will always be present when gas fumes are absent, Paine sees it differently. "The cure is to let everyone finally be able to buy and drive electric cars," he said. "Then they can make the judgment for themselves. A lot of people will happily accept the trade-offs when they see the advantages."