Why Electric Miles Matter

In the GW University study, researchers looked at odometer readings from 12.5 million used cars listed between 2016 and 2022,  concluding that EVs are driven only about 20 miles per day compared to about 32 miles per day for gas cars. Looking at 11.4 million used SUVs, there was less of a difference between electric and gas, roughly 29 miles per day versus 36. All told, electric cars traveled 7,165 miles while gas-powered cars traveled 11,642 miles annually, and electric SUVs traveled 10,587 miles while gas SUVs traveled 12,945 miles annually. 

If this data is an accurate representation of EV driving habits, the findings could be significant for climate change models and legislation. Why so? Well, electric vehicles are better for the environment than gas cars, but only if people drive them. Climate models assume electric vehicles are driven as much as combustion vehicles. If EVs aren’t covering as many miles as previously estimated, there might be less of a reduction in carbon emissions than researchers and governments are counting on to reach climate goals. According to John Helveston, study co-author and assistant professor of engineering management and systems engineering at GW,

“For maximum impact, we need the highest-mileage drivers behind the wheel of EVs rather than low-mileage drivers.”

Fewer Electric Miles? Maybe, or Maybe Not

This recent study paints an incomplete picture of EV usage, however. Other studies have drawn the opposite conclusion. Researchers at UC Davis found EVs are driven as much if not more than gas vehicles. According to their analysis, on average, BEVs are driven about 11,000 to 13,000 miles per year, while gas cars are only driven about 9,000 to 11,000 miles annually. Researchers at MIT found that battery range is a significant factor when looking at driving habits. Long-range EVs are not necessarily driven less than gas vehicles.

There are many reasons electric vehicles may appear to be driven less than gasoline-powered cars. For one thing, the GW study looks at used vehicles, including many older BEVs with limited range. The average range of an EV has increased by about 50% since 2016. Vehicles with less range are more likely to be taken out only for short trips, where long-range EVs are more likely to be driven just as far as gas cars. Immature charging infrastructure and associated range anxiety may have led EV drivers to use their cars more sparingly. This could explain why Teslas were driven farther than other models of BEVs. The automaker’s impressive network of superchargers may have given drivers some peace of mind. With new commitments from the Biden administration to create Alternative Fuel Corridors, establishing a nationwide network of 500,000 EV chargers, drivers of any EV will soon have little to worry about. 

Other Considerations

EVs are also often used as a second car, especially earlier models. Some multi-vehicle households use an electric car for daily commutes and errands while keeping a gas car for long road trips or other heavy-duty needs. That would keep even frequently used electric cars from racking up miles on the odometer.

Next, the GW study only looks at EVs that were sold, meaning the data could be skewed toward drivers who decided EVs weren’t for them. People who love to drive their EVs everywhere might have kept them (which we see plenty of in our community), so these high mileage, single-owner, well-loved data points wouldn’t appear in this study.

It’s also possible that the early adopters of EVs just drive less than people sticking with gas cars. EV adoption is 40% lower in rural areas than in urban areas, and people in rural areas drive more. The majority of charging infrastructure is located in cities, which likely pushes rural drivers to choose gas vehicles that they know they can easily refuel. It’s estimated that 1 in 10 drivers burn 32% of gasoline used in the U.S. These “superusers” are more likely to live in rural areas. Superusers drive three times as much as the average American and they’re more likely to drive less efficient vehicles, like pickup trucks and SUVs.

What Recurrent Data Says

Recurrent has its own data on EV mileage that comes from 33 million miles of driving. This data is pulled automatically from the odometers of real cars on the road in the US today. Our average daily miles driven across EV models came out to a little over 31 miles per day. The GW study’s average for gas cars was just under 32 miles per day. That’s a pretty small difference in driving habits! Much smaller than the difference estimated by the GW study. Their average for electric cars, 19.68 miles per day, is at the very lowest end of the distribution in our data. We found the vehicles driven least were the Nissan LEAF, MINI Hardtop 2 Door, and the Chevrolet Spark EV, all of which have relatively short ranges. The EVs driven most were the Ford F-150 Lightning, Tesla Model Y, and Kia EV6, all vehicles available with over 300 miles of range. Our data is much more closely aligned with the UC Davis study that found EVs are driven as much, if not more, than gas cars.

Based on our findings, it seems like any difference in driving habits between electric vehicles and gas vehicles will even out as EVs become the norm. As electric cars become more affordable and charging infrastructure improves, more people will be willing and able to go fully electric. Even superusers might be convinced by the new EV trucks hitting the market. Still, it’s not a bad idea for legislators to consider incentives that would persuade high mileage drivers to get behind the wheel of an EV sooner. It probably wouldn’t hurt for climate models to account for the heaviest gas users making the switch to electric last, either. No matter how much we drive, we need more people behind the wheels of electric cars if we want to reach a net zero future.