What Happens When an Electric Car Runs Out of Battery?

  • Liz Kim has written about automobiles, both as a journalist and as a marketer, for 20 years. She enjoys giving advice about them to friends and family who want to make the most of their hard-earned dollars, and incorporates her experience as a mother and savvy consumer in everything she writes.

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Range anxiety is the stuff that fuels nightmares – the fear of getting stuck in a dark, unfamiliar place, still miles from your destination, because you couldn’t find an open charging station as your electric vehicle’s (EV’s) range display runs closer to zero.

Forget to pay attention, and you might find yourself driving along in your EV, rocking out to the latest reincarnation of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (but really, why do they bother), when, all of a sudden, you see unfamiliar warning lights on the dashboard. Your car slows down, and then you get a message saying that you’re out of battery.

Just as Freddie Mercury is singing about how nothing really matters, suddenly you’re going nowhere fast, and the car won’t move another inch.

Now cue the creepy background music.

Breakdowns Can Happen to the Best of Us

SUV Stranded on Side of Road in Desert
Running out of gas in a traditional car is an easy problem to solve. What about an electric car? (Unsplash)

If you were driving a gas engine car, or even a hybrid or plug-in hybrid, and you ran out of fuel, you would probably call an understanding friend to deliver a container of gas, or call roadside assistance to deliver fuel or tow you to the nearest service station.

The Automobile Association of America (AAA) – the nation’s largest roadside assistance service – says that they receive about 16 million such calls a year, so it’s not an infrequent occurrence. And with about 140,000 gas stations crisscrossing this great nation, you hopefully won’t be too far from the pumps where you can fuel up and be blithely back on your way.

But what happens with an electric vehicle? It’s not like your understanding friend would be likely to show up with a portable generator. And you could be far from the closest charging station.

Electric Vehicle Drivers are More Aware

2019 Hyundai Ioniq Electric at Charging Station
By necessity, EV owners are more diligent about keeping their vehicles charged up because if they run out of electricity on the road, the problem isn’t as easy to resolve. (Hyundai)

Thankfully, EV owners get stranded a lot more infrequently than gas engine vehicle drivers. They’re much more aware of their battery capacity and how quickly they’re running through it, as electric vehicles have big graphics and warning signs if you start getting low on charge, so it’s less likely to go unnoticed.

Drivers of EVs also tend to recharge their vehicle every night and keep a fairly consistent driving route and schedule, and often keep at least about 20% charge at all times.

But even with the utmost of vigilance, you could run out of juice, through no fault of your own. Chevrolet, for instance, had to send out a recall notice back in 2017 to Bolt EV owners because of a problem with the battery pack not holding a charge; batteries had to be replaced.

This was in conjunction with a separate software patch to address problems in the original programming, which fell short in notifying drivers of the status of the battery. An acquaintance of mine had this exact problem on a busy California freeway.

Stay Safe In Case of a Depleted Battery Or a Breakdown

AAA Mobile Electric Vehicle Charging Station
Since 2011, AAA has been giving stranded EV drivers a jolt. (AAA)

So, what do you do if you inauspiciously run out of charge for your electric vehicle? It’s very much like having a breakdown in a regular car. Follow these steps:

  • Turn on your hazard lights.
  • Pull over in a safe area. If you’re on the highway, try to safely coast onto the shoulder or breakdown lane.
  • If you’re on the highway, do not attempt to get out of the car. If you’re in a residential area, trust your instincts to see if you’re in a safe area before attempting to get out.
  • Call for help. If your car is so equipped, call your onboard telematics system. They should be able to connect you with a dispatch that handles electric vehicles. Or call a roadside assistance provider, but make sure they know you’re driving an electric vehicle. Some need to be towed with a flatbed carrier, rather than a traditional tow truck, as wheels-on-the-ground towing could result in damage to your vehicle.
  • Some will advise you to get out of the car and open the hood or trunk, but the current thinking is that this reduces visibility.

Roadside assistance companies serve some markets with tow trucks equipped with a 240-volt Level 2 charger, and they can give you 10 miles of range in about 10 minutes. The AAA launched just such a pilot program way back in 2011 in markets like Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, and Orlando.

EV Drivers Need to be Next-level Planners

A Maven Chevrolet Bolt EV at a charging station
Driving an EV requires a lifestyle shift that involves plenty of advance planning. (Maven)

In order to avoid getting stuck in what could be a dangerous situation, here are some steps to take if you’re driving an EV:

  • Be diligent about charging your vehicle every night at home, or at work, or at a convenient charge station.
  • Plan your trip ahead of time so you know that the total trip will be well within your range. Account for time spent in traffic, etc.
  • Limit spontaneous rides that could suck up your charge and leave you shortchanged. That 30-mile detour because your honey texted “You up?” Schedule it for another time.
  • Carry your charging cords. A kind and sympathetic resident or business could let you suck up their electricity if you ask very nicely to charge your vehicle for a little bit if you’re very low on power. Remember, every bit of electricity is costing them money.

Currently, pure electric cars comprise less than 1% of total vehicles on the market. But according to a survey performed by AAA, 20% of Americans are interested in an EV for their next purchase. Infrastructure is scrambling to keep up with the shift in consumer tastes and preferences, but it’ll be a while before alternative-fuel stations are as common as conventional ones.

Driving an EV requires much more vigilance than driving a conventional gas vehicle. But with some proper planning, you’ll always be juiced up for your next destination.


About the Author

  • Liz Kim has written about automobiles, both as a journalist and as a marketer, for 20 years. She enjoys giving advice about them to friends and family who want to make the most of their hard-earned dollars, and incorporates her experience as a mother and savvy consumer in everything she writes.

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