This article is part of our “CleanTechnica Answer Box” collection. In this collection of articles, we respond to dozens of common anti-cleantech myths.
Myth: electric cars don’t work in the cold.
Short answer: Electric cars do work in the cold. Their driving range decreases in the cold, as is the case for all cars — because physics. However, they still function fine, and you can also pre-heat many of them.
Critics of electric vehicles sometimes mistakenly or misleadingly try to dismiss electric vehicles by claiming that they don’t work in cold weather. This view is quite untrue and easily proven incorrect. All EVs operate in cold weather. But their driving ranges do decrease to varying degrees in cold weather.
For example, the Tesla Model S 70D reportedly experiences a loss of about 19% in driving range in deep cold (0°F with the heater on), according to a post made by the Union of Concerned Scientists. If you read the Tesla forums, some posters have written that on winter days in Chicago, they have experienced up to a 50% reduction in range.
That figure may be for multiple short trips. One poster wrote that for longer trips in cold weather his driving reduction was about 20–30%. This figure is in line with what a Nissan LEAF owner in Colorado wrote in a blog post about his experiences driving in cold weather there. “This means that in cold weather (15°F), you get about 20% less range, even though you could heat the battery to room temperature with just 0.5 kWh (under 2%) of its energy. Or simply use wall power when it’s plugged in. A 20% penalty in cold climates to avoid adding a $100 heater. Why!??!”
Image via Nissan
He also generously listed some of the benefits of having an EV in such weather:
The electronic traction and stability control systems work much better with an electric motor, because it can be controlled more precisely. In practice this means that while a normal car would dig itself into a rut, the Leaf applies just enough power to get through the snowbank. Or it stops the wheel, giving you a chance to reverse and give it another go.
- There’s no cold-cranking worries or waiting for a cold engine to warm up. You press the button, the car is on, and cabin heat is instantaneous.
- The heated seats and steering wheel make the experience even more luxurious (and reduce the need for cabin heat).
- Remote heating with an in-dash timer or from an app on your phone means your car can be heated and defrosted (or cooled in summer) before you even reach it in your driveway. Without even consuming battery power, if you have the car plugged in.
- Big wheel diameter, low center of gravity and 50/50 weight balance make for better handling and traction.
- Front-wheel drive prevents fishtailing, and is every bit as safe as all-wheel drive. Adding snow tires in winter turns the Leaf into a monster snow crusher.
People who are on the fence about getting EVs might feel that old issue of range anxiety anxiety rising when they hear about reduced ranges in cold weather. However, gas-powered vehicles also have lower fuel efficiency in cold weather. “Fuel economy tests show that, in short-trip city driving, a conventional gasoline car’s gas mileage is about 12% lower at 20°F than it would be at 77°F. It can drop as much as 22% for very short trips (3 to 4 miles).”
So, reduced energy efficiency in cold weather is not only an issue for electric vehicles, but EV critics will probably not mention this fact — or they are not aware enough to mention it.
Most likely, they also will not tell you that Norway is the top country in the world for EV adoption relative to total car sales — of course, it has snowy, icy, cold winters. (The daily mean temperature there in January and February is about 24 degrees Fahrenheit.)
This weather has not stopped Norwegians from driving EVs, with electric car sales starting to reach over 40% of monthly car sales in the country. If EVs didn’t operate well in cold weather, why would there be so many in Norway?
A Model S owner in Norway made a video covering how well his runs in winter, and he said he still has plenty of range.
Here is another Tesla owner talking about taking a trip in -13 Fahrenheit weather.
For more on how Teslas work in the snow, see: “Do Tesla Vehicles Work In The Snow?“
One issue with consumer vehicles (not big rigs, etc.) is the variation in driver awareness and skill, which generally could be broken down as:
For example, there are drivers of gasmobiles who use hypermiling techniques to increase their mileage very much. However, hypermilers are “advanced” and may only be a tiny fraction of the driving public. Many if not most drivers are probably not going to want to think carefully about the machine they are driving in order to wring the utmost energy efficiency out of it.
Some “techie” types or gearheads get into the specific details of how of their vehicles function and do want to optimize performance. Drivers of EVs who are software engineers or mechanics may also be aware of how to get the most out of their EV batteries in cold weather. But non-technical people who are driving their first EV and don’t have the same knowledge will see their battery performance is lower and may get confused or even irritated about it. It is an issue EV manufacturers to consider carefully, and yet another reason why electric cars with over 150 miles of rated, normal range on a full charge are important for that step of the transition.
Must all EV drivers be engineers to get the best performance? No, but driving an EV isn’t the same as using a gas-powered car, and if you want to maximize your range, you will probably have to learn more about how to do that. Most drivers won’t get online and search out an article on it. However, if you are one such person, here are some tips:
- Brake as little as possible — let the car’s coasting or regenerative braking take over sooner. Of course, it’s not the braking that uses energy, but the unnecessary energy use to drive fast and then brake or to accelerate more.
- Keep your foot off the accelerator while going down hills.
- Drive the speed limit instead of driving 5 to 10 mph over it. Increasing speed has a dramatic effect (to the third power) on your energy use.
- Make sure your tires stay pumped up. Tires that aren’t inflated enough increase friction on the road and thus decrease your driving efficiency.
Some first-time EV drivers might be operating their EVs using bad habits they picked up while driving gasmobiles, which decreases their battery performance. In cold weather, the effect is even more pronounced. To put it very simply, if you want to get more distance out of the energy stored in your car, try to drive more efficiently.
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