EVs do need some special considerations to operate when thermometers go south of the freezing mark, but nothing you can't overcome with a little EVs-in-wintertime education.
“Oh, I could never have an EV. We need all-wheel drive and we go up to the snow a lot in the winter, so I don’t think one would have the range. I hear the range gets cut in half or more in the cold.”
This is something EV aficionados hear a lot, and, well, like a lot of objections to EVs, it’s based on some cold, hard, nuggets of fact. Cars—all cars, gasoline or electricity-powered—need more energy to operate in the cold, and EVs do need some special considerations to operate when thermometers go south of the freezing mark. But how much? Is it a deal killer? (Spoiler alert: EVs are resilient and can handle way more than you might think!)
In Norway, which is about as cold a place as you can imagine, EVs are taking over the country, thanks to cheap electricity as well as government incentives and subsidies. EVs account for two-thirds of all new passenger vehicles sold (that number will likely be closer to 85 percent by the end of 2022) and around a half-million Norwegians drive one, which is significant in a country with less than three million registered passenger vehicles. Snow, ice and bitter cold are daily reality for much of the year in Scandinavia, yet EVs are more popular than lutefisk at Christmas dinner. So let’s look at some common concerns about driving in the cold in an EV.
Yes, it does. According to the US Department of Energy (DOE), gas-burning cars can lose up to 24 percent of range in cold (below 20 degrees Fahrenheit), and hybrids lose even more—up to 34 percent. The DOE found that battery-electric cars lose around 40 percent of their range, but the data comes from a 2019 AAA study that used older, first-generation EVs, mostly with air-cooled batteries. Much of that inefficiency, the DOE tells us, is due to running climate-control systems.
A more recent study of 20 second-generation EVs, conducted by the Norwegian (who else?) Auto Federation discovered a loss of only about 20 percent—much the same as gas-powered cars, and some models, like the Kia Niro, did even better.
Why? The reason is EV technology, which is advancing at an extremely fast rate. Almost all the EVs sold now have heat pumps, devices that recycle waste heat from the motor and battery and use it to heat or cool the car’s interior or its mechanical and electrical components. What that means is the battery and motor are kept at an optimal temperature (those of you with a heat-pump HVAC in your home or workplace know about this), which greatly increases range and efficiency.
To maximize range in cold weather, put on a sweater, lower your cabin temperature to as low as you can stand it, and turn on the heated seats if you have them. You should also drive more gently—accelerate slower, brake sooner and reduce both your cruising speed and following distance (which you should do in icy conditions anyway!). Also, when you’re using your route-planning app or software keep in mind your range will be lessened. Don’t be that EV on a flatbed! The eyes of the world are on you.
Just like cold saps range, it also makes charging a little slower, but not as much as it affects range. That same Norwegian study found that while range was slowed some, most cars were able to charge as quickly as in warmer temperatures.
To speed up charge times, wait until you’ve been driving a while—an hour or two—to charge the battery, if possible. That will give the battery and ancillary systems time to warm up, which will get everything working faster (chemical reactions happen more slowly the cooler the temperature). If your vehicle has a heat pump, there’s probably a “preconditioning” mode that heats things up, and in fact later-model Teslas do it for you when you make a charging station your next stop.
If you’re traveling in snowy, cold conditions, be sure to pack your portable charger! If you have to park your car outdoors or in an unheated garage, you should plug it in, if possible, even if all you get is just a few miles of charge per hour. Keeping the car plugged in protects the battery from getting too cold, which can reduce range, as the car will likely run the heat pump or heater to keep the battery at a stable temperature.
You should also think about traction. If you don’t have tire chains or socks (or don’t know how to put them on), many EV owners who live in places with real winter keep an extra set of wheels with snow tires mounted for their winter sojourns. Otherwise, if you’re driving on all-season or summer tires, you need to be prepared for an almost complete lack of traction (again, also true of gas-powered cars). Drive like you’re on an ice-skating rink, because you kind of are.
You may plan your trip for clear weather, but don’t trust the weatherperson! Getting stuck in a blizzard or ice storm is no fun, especially for the unprepared. Having an emergency blanket, a small shovel, flares, and food and water with you are good, but don’t forget tire chains or tire socks that are approved for your car (and practice putting them on!).
Oh, and if you’ve heard the rumor about people possibly being trapped in a storm and freezing to death in EVs because the batteries die, it’s never happened. A full charge in an EV will keep your cabin at 60 degrees for a couple of days, at least. In contrast,a gas-powered car will conk out and turn you into a frozen turkey after about 12 hours of idling, and there are other concerns like carbon monoxide poisoning as well (sadly, these vehicles don’t have as clean of a track record as EVs do)..
Hopefully you feel a little better about cold-weather driving and EVs. If you need more info please contact or check out some resources on the web, but though EVs have limitations in cold weather—just like any other vehicle—we don’t think they’re enough to keep you away from winter fun and travel.
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