What happens when an electric car runs out?

Just like running out of fuel, an electric car can run out of power. Here's how to avoid it – and what to do if the worst happens

Many potential electric-car buyers are concerned about the amount of range they'll get from the car's battery and what will happen if they run out of electricity while driving.

Early electric cars like the Peugeot iOn struggled to hit the 100-mile mark, but technology has advanced rapidly; these days, even the reasonably priced Renault ZOE can manage 245 miles and the top-of-the-range Teslas can exceed 350 miles.

In any case, there's little difference between electric and internal-combustion cars in this respect; electric cars need to be charged every so often, just as internal-combustion cars need petrol or diesel fuel every few hundred miles. And just as a petrol or diesel car has a fuel gauge that warns you when the tank is nearing empty, electric cars have a range indicator on the dashboard showing how much further you can go before needing a top-up.

When it's time to charge, built-in sat-nav systems or third-party apps like Zap Map can navigate to the nearest charging point, and also show if the station is free to use, what type of connectors available and how much a charge will cost you. 

We don't recommend running you electric car to empty. Manufacturers warn that this can damage the battery. Running completely out of power, or 'deep discharging' as it's known, can cause the battery cells to deteriorate and reduce their performance in the long run. It’s always better to top up with around 10-20% battery life left.

How far can an electric car go?

This depends entirely on the size of the batteries on board, the type of driving you’re doing, the weather and even traffic conditions. Electric cars come with a range indicator on the dashboard that tells you the realistic, real-world mileage you can expect from your car as you’re driving. This real-world mileage differs between cars. A 40kWh Nissan Leaf can do over 160 miles in the real world, while a Tesla Model S P100D can do over 360 miles thanks to its 100kWh battery.

Can you tow an electric car?

On the off chance you do run out of electricity, contact your breakdown provider and ask for a flatbed truck to take you to a nearby charging station. Electric vehicles shouldn’t be towed with a rope or lift, as this can damage the traction motors that generate electricity through regenerative braking.

Different manufacturers give different advice. Tesla and Renault, for example, advise owners to only use a flatbed truck for recovery. However, Nissan says that the latest Leaf can be towed with the front wheels raised, as this avoids damaging the traction motor. However, a flatbed is always the safest choice.

What is range anxiety?

The term 'range anxiety' is often mentioned in connection with electric cars. In general, it refers to the worry a driver has that their car will run out of electricity before they reach their destination or charging point. It's generally accepted that the more time you spend in an electric car, the less range anxiety you'll have. This is because the UK’s public charging infrastructure is rapidly growing. There are currently over 12,000 locations where you can top up, making it extremely unlikely you'll find yourself stranded out of range of somewhere to plug in.