How do Electric Vehicles Work in Cold Weather?

  • Brian Leon is a freelance automotive journalist and former Associate Editor of the New York Daily News Autos. He is currently a master student at Uppsala University in Sweden studying marketing and completing a thesis in the area of trust in autonomous vehicles.

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In addition to the myriad hurdles electric vehicles face before widespread adoption – charging infrastructure, range anxiety, affordability – we can officially add cold weather to the list according to a recent AAA study.

The association found in an independent test of five EVs that when temperatures reach 20°F and the car’s air conditioning or heating system is in use, average driving range is decreased by 41 percent. That’s… not good.

As record cold temperatures ravage a majority of the country, concern over cold weather EV operation is at a record high and will continue to be a consideration for the large percentage of Americans that live in areas with fluctuating climates. But is this problem really insurmountable, and what steps can EV owners take to diminish the ravages of cold weather on their vehicles?

While the numbers are discouraging at first glance, it’s not time to throw in the towel on EVs in cold climates just yet.

Range is hurt, but it’s not just a cold weather or an EV problem

Driving range can be diminished by over 40 percent in temperatures at or below 20°F according to AAA (Hyundai)

Beyond the 40 percent diminished range in sub-freezing temperatures more frequent charging is necessary in cold weather, and lithium ion batteries take longer to charge when subjected to frigid conditions. Further, the use of heat in those temperatures adds $25 to the cost of charging per 1,000 miles driven, when compared to 75°F. If you’ve ever tried to use your phone when it’s freezing outside, you’ve got an idea of how this works.

AAA’s study didn’t just focus on cold weather. Testing the effect of outside temperatures above 95°F on driving range found that the use of vehicle’s air conditioning in these conditions drops range by 17 percent.

Clearly, batteries aren’t happy in extreme conditions, but neither are internal combustion engines. The EPA has found in its own testing that gas mileage drops by 12 to 22 percent at the same low temperatures. This is due to increased engine and transmission friction and more time required to reach optimal operating temperature. In addition, heaters, window defrosters, and heated seats all require more energy to operate. Higher-grip winter tires, lower tire pressures, and even denser cold air, which increases drag, all have an effect as well, so it’s not like gas-powered vehicles fare much better.

How to protect your EV from cold temperatures

Some manufacturers of electric vehicles offer app support for smartphones and even watches that can pre-heat both the batteries and the interior while plugged into a charger (BMW)

So, what can you do as an EV owner to help diminish the ravaging effects of cold weather on your vehicle? There are some simple solutions, as AAA points out, including planning ahead to account for extreme cold conditions, making time to pre-heat the vehicle’s interior while still connected to the charger, and parking in a garage or otherwise protected area to help stabilize temperature.

The EPA also recommends checking your tire pressure regularly, removing accessories like roof racks that increase drag, and using seat warmers instead of the cabin heater to save energy and extend range. As Wired points out, always make sure you have about 20 percent charge or more before setting off in cold temperatures, as the car will need more energy than usual just to operate in those conditions.

Manufacturers are coming up with their own high-tech solutions to this issue as well, from Tesla’s “preconditioning” app feature that allows owners to prime the battery and interior for use while charging so that more of the stored electrons can go towards moving the vehicle down the road. BMW even offers smartphone and smartwatch app support for its i-brand vehicles like the i3 and i8, allowing owners to set the temperature of their vehicle right from the wrist.

Deep freezes like Winter Storm Jaden are bound to become a more regular occurrence as our planet faces the ravages of climate change and adopting zero-emission vehicles despite the reduced performance at extreme temperatures is more important than ever. With the right preparation, it’s not so bad after all.


About the Author

  • Brian Leon is a freelance automotive journalist and former Associate Editor of the New York Daily News Autos. He is currently a master student at Uppsala University in Sweden studying marketing and completing a thesis in the area of trust in autonomous vehicles.

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