Will My Electric Car Leave Me Stranded?

There’s been a swell of anti-EV sentiment in popular media lately. It’s a trend as unmistakable as it is perplexing, given how it flies in the face of reality. Last year, EV sales exceeded 1.1 million units for the first time ever in the U.S. alone. New models are coming to market all of the time, the public charging infrastructure is improving by leaps and bounds and every automaker has big plans for batteries.

That’s why it’s hard to believe that all of this doom and gloom is emerging organically. But whether some mysterious anti-EV cabal is driving it, or whether it’s just traditional media feeding on the fears of folk who think that the government is going to come for their internal combustion right after they’re done confiscating their guns, the dread in the air is unmistakable.

I do know that I hate misinformation, as do the editors of this fine publication. So, we’re going to tackle it head-on.

Welcome to EV Myths Discharged, a new series where we’ll face the fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the air. We’ll select some anti-EV sentiment or another each month and take it apart. We’ll talk to some experts, look at some numbers, and, most importantly, talk to people who actually drive EVs to get to the real truth.

Ford Pro EV charging

This isn’t going to be an EV greenwashing series. I’ve already sketched out a few of these topics, and some of them will be a little uncomfortable for even the most ardent of EV lovers. But you have to know the good and the bad before you can make a sound decision, and if you’re still unsure that electric cars are a net positive to the world and to your life, you’ve come to the right place.

We’re starting off with a common refrain: EVs can run out of range and get you stuck. Owning one means you’re bound to get stranded at some point, and if you do, you’re in big trouble.

But how true is that, really? Let’s dig in. 

Overall EV Reliability

We’ll start by looking at whether your EV is more likely to leave you stranded due to reliability—essentially, mechanical or software problems independent of running out of range. On the surface, the numbers are gloomy. A recent reliability study from Consumer Reports showed that EVs are a terrifying 79% less reliable than ICE cars on average. 

That clearly isn’t good, but a little context is important. Remember, many EVs on the market are still in their first or second year of production. New models always have some issues, and CR’s report, unfortunately, doesn’t split major bummers like broken motors from minor annoyances like squeaky interiors. But we know that many of the user complaints around “reliability” have to do with how frustrating infotainment systems and software features can be, and those are intrinsic to the EV experience. Most traditional automakers (and many startups) are still figuring out how to make software as well as the kind you experience on your other devices.

When you only look at major issues, the numbers seem to be much lower. A recent study from Recurrent, which specializes in tracking the health of EV batteries, showed that only 1.5% of the EVs had an unexpected battery replacement. 

recurrent battery data

Ultimately, the sample size right now is still very small, so it’s difficult to make a strong conclusion on long-term EV vs. ICE reliability. Regardless, then the same rules apply here that they would when buying any new car: If reliability is key for you, buy from a brand you trust, do your research… and maybe don’t buy a new model in its first year of availability. 

Unpredictable Range

EVs have earned a sad reputation for being unpredictable when it comes to how far they’ll actually go on a given day, with dashboard range estimates rising and falling based on inconceivable, eldritch trends. Sadly, that reputation is well-earned. Historically, EVs have done a terrible job of range prediction, and there are still some EVs on sale today that don’t inspire much confidence.

That situation is rapidly improving. Many modern EVs look at everything from your driving habits to route topology and even local weather to calculate how far you’ll go with the juice you left in your battery. If you’ve been reading my BMW iX long-term log, you know I’ve been blown away by how accurate that thing’s predictions are. Its actual range is often within 1 – 2% of its estimates.

Bolt EV range test

That said, there is some nuance to EV ownership, like figuring out how a given car will respond when driven through inclement conditions or when trying to make up for lost time on the highway. In that way, owning an EV can be more complicated than a gas-powered machine, but having owned and driven EVs for years, I can tell you that you’ll quickly get the hang of it.

Unreliable Charging

Public charging in the U.S. can be a fraught affair. No EV owner will deny that, though if you’re a user of the Supercharger network, then you have a leg up on things. 

The situation continues to improve, with chargers getting more plentiful and more reliable. With any luck, increasing adoption of the NACS charging standard will just accelerate that trend. 

Fast Charging Adapter (NACS)_12

And if you’re new or EV-curious, it’s important to note that the vast majority of EV owners charge at home the vast majority of the time. It’s easy to think that you need as many chargers on the road as you have gas stations today. But ask yourself this: How often would you stop at gas stations if your ICE vehicle’s tank was magically full every morning?

Power Outages

Whenever there’s a power outage, the anti-EV rhetoric hits full stride with claims that EVs are awful to have in an emergency because you can’t recharge them. That is a factually true statement. If your house is out of power, you won’t be able to recharge your car. 

However, it only tells half the story, because there’s a good chance you won’t be able to fuel your car, either. Gas pumps are electric, after all. 

Not long ago, we had a significant ice storm in upstate New York that knocked out power to over 200,000 people for days. I was one of those people, and guess who forgot to get gasoline for their generator until the lights went out.

2024 BMW iX Long Term Report 2 (5)

So, I went into town, dodging the downed trees, only to find that the pumps weren’t working. Yes, my local gas station had a generator, but it wasn’t enough to power the pumps. I drove to another station 10 miles farther down the road. It, too, was dark. 

There are certainly stations out there that have generators to keep their pumps running, and some states even provide funding to pay for those generators. But hey, New York is one of those states, where I live, and yet I was out of luck.

The other side of the equation is that, had I bought something like a Ford F-150 Lightning, and had I made the necessary wiring upgrades to my house, that truck could have actually powered my house through the storm until the lights came back on. Ford estimates that the 131kWh battery pack in its truck can power an average house for three days without any conservation measures. That’s enough to ride out most storms without having a smelly, noisy generator slowly raising the ire of you and your neighbors.

Will I Get Stranded In An EV? 

The above rhetoric got an extra boost in January of 2022, when a storm in Virginia stranded thousands of people in their cars on I-95 for more than a day. You don’t have to look up the headlines to know what they said: Electric cars are death traps since they’ll freeze their owners!

Granted, cold weather range declines are an issue. But being trapped in a freeway traffic jam when your juice runs out is largely a myth.

Car and Driver tested a Tesla Model 3 against a Hyundai Sonata and found that the Model 3 maintained a comfortable cabin temperature of 65 degrees for 45.1 hours straight, well longer than anybody was stuck on that highway. The Hyundai did slightly better, at 51.8 hours, but was about seven times less efficient in the process.

If I’m going to spend a day or two stuck in my car by the side of the road, I would 100 percent want it to be an EV—ideally a Mercedes-Benz EQS SUV with massaging seats and the Atmos sound system. 

Roadside Options

What happens if your EV breaks down or runs out of range? Chances are you’ll need a tow, but there are an increasing number of mobile charging solutions that might just be your saving grace. One of those comes courtesy of a decidedly familiar source: AAA.

AAA Charging

I spoke with David Bennett, senior repair manager at AAA, which provides roadside services for over 60 million members. Bennett said that AAA doesn’t track how many members own EVs, but the company responded to 163,330 roadside calls on EVs in 2023. Of those, only 3,372 were for drivers who had run out of charge. 

“Over a decade ago, as the electric vehicle market began to heat up, AAA launched a mobile charging pilot for electric vehicles in select markets,” Bennett said. “AAA provides 10 to 15 minutes of charge time to members with discharged electric vehicles, which will allow the vehicle to go up to 10 miles, depending on the vehicle, to an electric vehicle charging station.”

While it’s still only available in 24 cities, Bennett said AAA is watching customer demand. Meanwhile, some towing services in major metropolitan areas offer their own remote charging services, Atlas Towing in San Francisco and G1 Towing in Los Angeles, which provide service through SparkCharge

There are options in Europe, too. Allianz maintains a network of over 100 mobile charging trucks spread across Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, which can charge at up to 75kW and are themselves electric. Even Malaysia is getting in on the action. 

And up in the UK, the most recent data from the Association of Assistance for Motorists (the AA) shows that they received 70% fewer calls from EV owners with dead batteries than the year previous, despite 2023 being another record year for EV sales. 

“Our data on ‘out of charge’ EVs clearly shows ‘charging anxiety’ does not match the reality,” said Edmund King, the president of the UK’s AA. “The 70% drop in out-of-charge breakdowns is a clear sign that range, infrastructure, and education are improving.”

What Actual EV Drivers Say

Don’t just take my word for all this. I spoke with a few folks who actually have been stranded by their EV to learn what happened. 

Branden Flasch was stuck when his 2015 Model S 70D stopped instead of giving him the three miles of range promised on the dashboard. Just short of home, he was able to coast into a parking lot with a NEMA 14-50 outlet. He called in a favor from a friend to push the Model S to the outlet and was back home safe and sound a few hours later.

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E

Alexandru Voica, a technology comms professional, got caught out in a Renault Zoe when he pulled up at an IKEA charger on fumes, only to learn it was broken. He had to wait three hours for a tow, but the tow cost nothing thanks to his EV roadside assistance.

Davaish Singh recently rented a Ford Mustang Mach-E on Turo for a little cold-weather EV testing, but wound up instead testing his patience. He drove into a snowstorm and was caught out by the Ford’s inaccurate range estimates and wound up having to spend an unexpected night (in a hotel) while the car’s owner collected and charged it.

By and large, the situations were resolved without too much hassle, certainly no more than would be required had you run out of gas or suffered a breakdown in any other car. And, as our own roadside rescue experiences attest, most owners were within a few miles of a viable charger and so didn’t need lengthy tows or roadside charging.

Pro Tips

As I said above, there is some nuance required to happy EV ownership. It’s no more complicated than owning a gas-powered car, just different, so here’s what you need to know.

Volvo EX90 Dashboard and Infotainment

Just like you really shouldn’t wait like I did to get gas in the midst of a storm, you should take the opportunity to top up your EV before things get bad. Many EVs recommend only charging to 80 or 90 percent to preserve battery health, but an impending storm is one of those situations where you should splurge and top that thing right on up. 

If you’re new to EV ownership, even if you’re getting used to a new EV, don’t push your car’s range right out of the box. Learn how accurate its range predictions are before trying to eke out every last ion from your battery pack on a road trip. Leave yourself a little buffer to be safe, even if your destination is a charger.This is doubly true in cold weather. Modern EVs do far better in cold weather than those of a decade ago, and features like efficiency-boosting heat pumps are increasingly standard fare, but you can still expect to lose upwards of 20 percent of range if temperatures are below freezing.

If you’re road-tripping, making use of the nation’s still-growing public charger network, it’s a good idea to have a backup. Again, don’t cruise in on fumes to the only charger around. It might be broken, it might be occupied, or some charmer in a lifted F-350 dually might be blocking it for kicks. Regardless, leave yourself enough buffer to head to another charger, just in case. 

One lovely side benefit of EV ownership is that they don’t need much maintenance. With no oil to change, timing belts to replace, or transmissions to service, they’re the ideal machine for owners who can’t be bothered with any of that stuff. 

However, there is still some maintenance involved, and the most important thing is tires. EVs are heavier and more powerful than your average car, which means they tend to burn through rubber more quickly — especially if you have a heavy right foot. A blown tire can definitely ruin your day, while a set of bald tires on a rainy day can end your life. Keep an eye on that tread.

Finally, in the worst-case scenario that you do need to get towed, it’s important to know the rules of towing your EV. If you have a front-drive or rear-drive machine, chances are it can be towed with the driven wheels in the air and the other wheels rolling free.

But if you have an all-wheel-drive EV, you’re probably going to need a flatbed, even if you’re just going for a short distance. Many EVs motors cannot be disengaged as such, and dragging them with all four wheels on the ground can do some severe damage. Read your manual to be safe, and happy motoring.

2024 Hyundai Ioniq 6 Limited AWD

All in all, the experience of actually running completely out of range and getting stuck in an EV is fairly rare, and as the charging infrastructure improves, it’s thankfully getting less frequent. And running completely out of gasoline can certainly happen as well. But even as things are getting better all the time in the electric world, a little planning ahead and situational awareness go a long way to averting disaster. 

Tim Stevens is a veteran editor, analyst, and expert in the tech and automotive industries. He helmed CNET’s automotive coverage for nine years and acted as Vice President of Content. Prior to that, Tim served as Editor-in-Chief at Engadget and even led a previous life as an Enterprise Software Architect. Follow Tim on Twitter at @tim_stevens and catch his Substack.