EV Updates

Thriving in the Cold: Navigating Cold Weather with Electric Vehicles

This blog post was written by EV Infrastructure Designer & Analyst Chuck Hayward.

You've probably heard the claims that electric vehicles (EVs) don’t work in the snow, can’t charge when it’s cold, or will leave you stranded and freezing in a snowstorm. Guess what? It’s not true. Many people point to the country of Norway as the leading example of widespread EV use in cold climates or this Nissan EV that recently drove 18,000 miles from pole to pole. Between our fleet of ReVision EVs and our employee-owners' personal EVs, we have plenty of winter experience with different makes and models right here in New England.

Better Stability and Traction 

EV batteries can be heavy, but the weight is lower in the car and more evenly distributed than combustion vehicles. As a result, EVs generally get better traction and stability when driving on snow and ice. For example, I have an EV and a small gas truck, both weighing just over 4,000 lbs. The EV is far more stable and slides less since the weight is distributed more evenly across all four wheels. In gas vehicles, more weight is up front from the engine, and you don’t get as much traction on the rear wheels. It’s especially bad in trucks, which is why many truck drivers carry bags of sand in the bed all winter to improve traction. 

Range Loss Can Be Mitigated 

Chuck_EVpiece.pngI was able to pick up dinner in the middle of a snowstorm in my EV with no problems.Batteries, like people, don’t like to be too cold. Cold weather slows down the chemical reactions in batteries, and their output drops. This occurrence causes EVs to lose range in the cold, meaning they can’t drive as far on a full charge as they can in warm weather. 

However, the most significant winter range loss factor is heating the vehicle's interior. In combustion vehicles, most energy released in combustion is wasted as heat. In cold weather, that heat is redirected to the interior. EVs don’t have excess waste heat, so they have to use some energy from the battery to keep passengers comfortable inside. Thankfully, modern EVs are implementing more efficient heaters that cause less range loss. Many now offer heat pumps, the same super-efficient technology that ReVision installs to heat homes! 

There are also many strategies drivers can use to minimize range loss, such as using heated seats instead of cabin heaters whenever possible. Cabin preconditioning is another strategy where you run the heat to warm up the car while it’s still plugged in to pull energy from the charger instead of the battery. It’s as simple as the remote start feature of combustion vehicles but without the emissions and noise of idling in the driveway for 10 minutes. 

Many studies (like this one) have tried to quantify winter range loss. From my experience, behavior makes a huge difference. My car has a heat pump, which takes a lot of energy to raise the temperature but only a little to maintain a temperature. When first bringing the cabin temperature up to a comfortable level, it consumes power 5x as fast as it does while maintaining that temperature later on. When I do short drives where the power is mostly directed to raising the temperature, I’ve seen my efficiency drop as much as 40% below summer levels. But on long drives where most of the time is spent maintaining that comfortable temperature, my overall efficiency only drops about 10-15% below summer levels. Either way, the reduced range is still far more than I usually need in a day before I recharge at night. 

DC Fast Charging Might Be Impacted 

Chuck_EVpiece2.pngCold weather charging at a ReVision-installed DC Fast ChargerCold batteries also take longer to charge. You’ve probably heard about this from the recent cold snap in Chicago. If you can plug in at home overnight to keep your car charged, you really don’t have to worry about charging it in the cold. Cold is mainly an issue with DC fast charging. And even then, many EVs now offer battery preconditioning that allows them to charge almost as fast as they would in the summer. 

For battery preconditioning, you only need to set a fast charger as your destination in the navigation system. The car will automatically warm the battery so it is at the right temperature when you arrive, and charging speeds will be similar to what you’ll see in warm weather. The battery can take 20-30 minutes to warm up on really cold days. Admittedly, you can’t always program a charge stop that far ahead of time, so some vehicles are starting to add manual preconditioning buttons.

Safe Heat for Days 

Some people claim that if you get caught in a snowstorm, you’ll drain the battery, run out of heat, and freeze. This claim is perhaps the biggest whopper of all the winter EV claims. If you’re caught in a storm and not moving, EVs don’t use that much energy, and the batteries can last for a while. You can view many tests online to see just how long different vehicles will last. In the best cases, some last for multiple days. Our friend, Steve from Plug and Play EVs, did one of the most realistic tests and kept an older, less-efficient Bolt at a balmy 75° for 7 hours using only 20% of his battery. Of course, how long it will last all depends on how much charge you start with, just like it would depend on how full your tank was with a gas car.  

Chuck_EVpiece3.pngWatching the ice skating from our warm EVThe other advantage is that the exhaust of gas cars is toxic and can be dangerous in snowstorms. There are tragic examples of people dying from carbon monoxide poisoning while idling their cars to stay warm in snowstorms. Snow builds up enough to block the exhaust pipe, redirecting the toxic exhaust into the cabin. There is no poisonous exhaust with EVs, so you can keep warm and safe inside for a long time. 

We went ice skating recently. No joke, the guy working there told us the warming hut was open but smelled like it might have a propane leak inside from the heater. Even though it was 19° outside, we stayed toasty warm and safe in the EV while enjoying some hot cocoa from our thermos.