The Art Of Driving Electric Cars In The Cold

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The news so far this year has been filled with scary stories about people having difficulty driving electric cars in extremely cold weather. The nitwits at Faux News are taking every opportunity to bash electric cars, without ever stopping to think about why it is so unusually cold this winter. Thinking is really not their strong suit. Every CleanTechnica reader knows that, as contrary as it may sound, global heating is ultimately the reason why the atmospheric barriers that normally keep cold air confined to Arctic regions are breaking down and allowing rivers of sub-zero air to leak southward over much of the US and Europe. And driving internal combustion cars and trucks is a major contributor to global heating.

The truth of the matter is that virtually all machines are challenged by extreme cold. People have developed strategies to deal with those challenges. For decades, people who live in cold climates have used engine block heaters so their cars and trucks would start the next morning. Diesel fuel tends to become waxy and won’t flow in extreme cold.

Electric cars operate on batteries (duh!) Batteries depend on chemical reactions in order to store and release electricity. As temperatures drop, those reactions slow down. Jack Brouwer, director of the Clean Energy Institute and a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California, Irvine tells the New York Times, “It ends up being very difficult to make battery electric vehicles work in very cold conditions. You cannot charge a battery as fast or discharge a battery as fast if it’s cold. There’s no physical way of getting around.”

Cold batteries takes longer to charge which causes delays at charging stations. Drivers accustomed to plugging in for 20 minutes or so now need twice as much time. It’s unfortunate but it’s unavoidable, at least until new technologies become available that permit batteries to perform better in cold conditions. Sodium ion batteries promise faster charging in the cold but they are not yet in wide use.

The batteries in electric cars work best within a certain temperature range — not too hot and not too cold. Manufacturers use sophisticated heating and cooling systems to keep battery packs at the proper temperature — systems that draw power from the battery to perform their tasks unless they are plugged in. Tesla provides detailed instructions for how to drive in cold weather. So does Ford.

Most electric cars allow drivers to schedule when they expect to start driving the next day. This allows the battery management system to warm the battery (and the interior of the car) so everything is at the proper temperature at the proper time. If the owner programs the car to warm the battery and the interior when the car is not plugged in, the power to perform those tasks comes from the battery, which will reduce how far the car can drive before needing to be plugged in.

Many owners of electric cars are unaware their cars have a conventional 12 volt battery as well as the high voltage battery that powers the car. The 12 volt battery operated things like door locks and interior lights. It may also be used to power up  the control systems that manage the operation of the car. If the 12 volt battery fails, you may not be able to unlock the doors or drive the car. Newer Teslas provide a warning if the condition of the 12 volt battery deteriorates but it is important that drivers be aware their car has a 12 volt battery that needs to be checked occasionally and replaced when needed.

EVs Are Better In The Cold

Norway has the highest percentage of electric cars on the road of any nation. It also has plenty of cold weather. Viking Assistance Group is to Norway what AAA is to North America. Svein Setrom is the head of operations for Viking in Norway. He tells TV2 the service has had twice as many calls for assistance this year than normal.

“It has been absolutely extreme. There has been a large increase. I have never experienced anything like this, and I have been with Viking for 30 years,” he says. From January 1 to January 11, Viking in Norway has been on 17,400 calls, nearly double the number in 2022. Most of the problems involve starting difficulties and battery failures. are worst in the cold?

“Electric cars are better in the cold,” Setrom says. Electric cars account for 13 percent of starting problems that result in a call to Viking for assistance while the remaining 87 percent of starting problems are attributable to conventional cars. “This means that electric cars are almost twice as good as fossil cars in the cold,” he says. Overall, 21 percent of this year’s assistance cases have involved electric cars while 79 percent involved conventional cars.

Electric Cars And Reality

There are some things we know to be true about driving electric cars in the cold. One, range will be reduced. Two, charging times will increase. Three, charging equipment is more likely to fail, further complicating things. All vehicles, including ones powered by diesel or gas, perform worse in cold weather, James Boley, a spokesman for the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, a trade association that represents more than 800 automotive companies in Britain, told the New York Times. He said the problem is less about the capacity of electric vehicles to run well in cold weather and more about the inability to provide necessary infrastructure, like charging stations.

Lars Godbolt is an adviser of the Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association, which represents more than 120,000 electric car owners in Norway. He says charging stations in Norway see longer lines in the winter than summer because electric cars are slower to charge in colder weather, but that has become less of an issue in recent years since Norway has built more charging points. He added the majority of people in Norway live in houses, not apartments, and nearly 90 percent of electric vehicle owners have their own charging stations at home.

It should be pointed out that the coldest countries in Europe — Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, and Denmark — all have strong sales of electric cars. Cold weather is likely to be less of an issue as companies update electric vehicles models. Even in the last few years, companies have developed capabilities that allow newer models to be more efficient in the cold. “These new challenges rise up, and the industry innovates their way to not completely but at least partly solve many of these issues,” Godbolt said.

Do electric cars have issues in cold weather? Yes, some do. Yet many drivers don’t take the time to educate themselves about the ways electric cars are different from conventional cars. They don’t know about pre-conditioning the battery or how electric cars can defrost themselves and warm the interior — features few cars with combustion engines can do. It’s awfully nice to leave the house in winter and get into a warm car with frost free windows and mirrors while others are busy scraping ice off their cars.

The haters want you to believe electric cars are bad. Don’t fall for their lies. As we say at CleanTechnica, “Keep calm and charge on.”


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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