Electric Car Drivers Report Impact from Extreme Cold

By · January 08, 2014

With temperatures dropping well below zero in many parts of the country this week, electric car owners are experiencing the most dramatic real-world cold weather test of EVs since mass-market battery-powered cars were introduced three years ago. PlugInsights, a research firm exclusively focusing on plug-in electric vehicles, received more than 100 responses this week to its short survey of EV owners in U.S. regions hardest hit by freezing weather. Respondents revealed that electric car performance and handling remained strong in sub-zero conditions, although driving range is diminished by approximately 25 percent to 50 percent, depending on the EV model.

Reduced range has pushed some electric car owners to leave their EVs in the garage, and drive gas cars when available, although most drivers are driving less—or not at all—generally due to the harsh conditions or outright driving bans, unrelated to range issues. Many electric car owners spoke about one key benefit of many electric cars: the ability to remotely preheat the car’s cabin, either by a timer of via a smart phone app.

“It's been really quite delightful because the EV starts the heat immediately, unlike our internal combustion engine car,” said Travis Lee, the owner of a Ford Focus Electric in the Chicago area. “It has programmable pre-warming, so we can set it to be a toasty 72 degrees Fahrenheit just in time to leave in the morning. This morning, I was actually too hot in the car on my way to work since I was all bundled up in anticipation of the walk from the parking lot to my office.”

Cold Weather Trade-Offs

Ironically, when Lee’s wife asked to use the family’s gas car instead of the EV, she was the one that ended up with range anxiety. In the frigid weather, the Audi’s fuel gauge became frozen in the empty position, despite having a full tank of gas.

Mark Rotsch, a Nissan LEAF owner in St. Louis, Mo., said, “The LEAF would start when my conventional car wouldn’t.”

Another Nissan LEAF driver, who experienced a loss of power to his local electric grid for more than a day, used his electric car—which became his sole remaining power source—to charge his cell phone. “I wished we had an inverter so we could have used the LEAF battery for some power [to our home].” Other drivers wanted the LEAF to have the ability to specifically warm the batteries, a feature it currently lacks.

Bigger Battery as Buffer

Owners of the Tesla Model S are faring best in the cold weather—considering that the luxury EV sedan has a much bigger battery than most other electric cars.

Ron Glogovsky, of Sycamore, Ill., said that he had “no fears at all” about driving his Model S in freezing weather. “With the Tesla, I feel 100 percent confident to go 150 miles plus,” he said. John Peggau, a Model S driver in Logansport, Ind., agrees. “There’s been no impact. I gotta work, and my commute is not variable at 165 miles daily.”

The confidence of Model S drivers in frigid weather underscored the need for all electric cars to have bigger or more capable battery packs than offered in the most popular affordable EVs. A 25 percent reduction in range on a vehicle with 200 or more miles of range has much less impact on driving patterns than the same reduction in a car with only 60 to 80 miles of range in normal weather conditions.

How Much Loss Is Too Much?

While vehicles with larger batteries, or with active liquid thermal management systems, such as the Ford Focus, suffered less loss of range during this extreme winter, drivers of the Nissan LEAF and Mitsubishi i-MiEV, had bigger complaints about “extreme” loss of range, especially when the cabin heater was in full use. In some cases, this meant not using an EV, needing to charge at work (where that had not previously been necessary), or bundling up with warm clothes due to the need to cycle the heater on and off to retain as much range as possible.

“We recently drove 19 miles one way on the freeway when it was minus 5. When we started out our range indicated 50 miles, but by the time we arrived we had only 12 miles of range and has used 9 of our 12 bars,” said Michael Cameron, a Minneapolis-based LEAF driver. “We had to charge for over two hours on an L2 charger just to get enough range to get back. We still love our LEAF, and wouldn't swap it out for an internal combustion engine car, but it does indicate that EVs need much better range for real-world winter driving experience.”

Kip Hayden, an i-MiEV driver in Bloomington, Ill., said that his electric car takes longer to charge, and uses energy faster in the cold. “The heater has a dramatic effect on the battery going down quicker, so we compensate and turn off the heater and use the seat heater alone if I’m the only driver in car,” he said. Many other EV drivers said they were relying as much as possible on the heater for seats and steering wheel to stay warm, rather than the more energy-draining cabin heater—which, even when utilized, still left many passengers feeling cold.

Owners of plug-in hybrids, like the Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, also said their vehicle's battery capacity was diminished. But in a car that also uses a gas engine, it doesn’t significantly limit overall range. Instead, the extremely cold weather meant a greater reliance on gasoline—and therefore reduced mpg. In essence, in these conditions, the vehicles function more like regular hybrids, rather than plug-in hybrids.

John Hansen, a Volt owner in Cottage Grove, Wisc., said “The battery range is definitely down, but still way better than a normal car. I get about 65 mpg on extremely cold days.

For many EV owners, regardless of the vehicle, a common sense approach is in play. In other words, a lot of drivers in extremely frigid locales avoiding getting in a car altogether or took precautions when they did. Sam Villella, owner of a Tesla Model S and a Chevrolet Volt in Minneapolis, Minn., said that he has not curtailed his 130-mile round-trip to work every day. “But I’m just being smart. I have a sleeping bag, shovel and boots in the car.”

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