Electric Car Owner Challenges Washington Post EV Critic to Reality Test

By · February 02, 2011

Tom in Snowy Driveway with MINI-E

The Washington Post's Charles Lane wrote an article on Friday called “Cold truths about electric cars' cold-weather shortcomings.” I feel compelled to write a rebuttal article for PluginCars.com, based on real life experience, not quotes from obscure websites and “what if” conjecture.

I’ve been driving a MINI-E in Northern New Jersey for the past 20 months now. Last year's winter was much harsher than usual and this winter has been one for the record books. In January, the Tri-State area set all-time records for snowfall and temperatures have been averaging in the 20s for most of the month, even dipping below zero a few times. I’m only a few hundred miles short of 50,000 now, which means my little electric car has been averaging 2,500 miles per month, rain or shine, hot or cold. After reading Mr. Lane's article, I’m starting to wonder how that could be.

The article begins with Mr. Lane explaining how he was stuck in traffic in Washington during a snowstorm and how thankful he was that he wasn’t in an electric car. Well, I was actually in an electric car on the same Wednesday night, driving 30-plus miles home from work in the same snowstorm. Guess what? I made it just fine.

I wasn’t stuck in traffic for six hours like he was, but if that were the case, I still would have made it without a problem. Yes, I probably would have turned the heat down a bit to conserve energy, but I wouldn’t have to turn off the radio or windshield wipers. They use such little energy using them really makes no difference in how far you can go. The heater does use a fair amount of electricity, so I would set it at the lowest setting that would still keep me comfortable.

Charging MINI-E in snow

What Mr Lane, and many others that have never owned an EV, fail to realize is that unlike gasoline powered cars, electric cars use very little energy in slow moving, stop-and-go traffic. You can actually drive further in bumper-to-bumper traffic than you can driving 65 mph on a highway. Now, six hours in traffic is a lot, and running the heater full blast for that time would use a good amount of power. If you didn’t begin your trip with a full charge or if you had to drive close to the car's range limit to begin with, you could have a problem. However, so could gasoline powered cars that simply run out of gas, which happens to hundreds of thousands of people every year.

Another thing to consider is that the specific EV I’m driving, the MINI-E, isn’t even a production vehicle. It’s a prototype test vehicle that doesn’t even have the cold weather features found in current production electric cars. The MINI-E has a primitive passive thermal conditioning system, and no ability to precondition the battery and cabin while plugged into the grid. Adding a more sophisticated thermal management system and preconditioning would certainly extend the cold weather range. Even driving a prototype, I have never ran out of charge; I have never needed to be rescued roadside; and I have never suffered frostbite while stuck in a blizzard. Sorry to let you down, Charles.

One of the most egregious quotes used in the article taken from a little known website says, “A change of ten degrees can sap 50% of a batteries output.” I’m not an engineer, so I can’t comment on the physical characteristics of lithium Ion batteries in varying temperatures, but I can tell you with 100% certainty that I have found no amount of temperature drop that reduces my range by 50%. I have kept detailed logs of every trip I have made in the car for the entire 49,500 miles, so I know how temperature effects range. I’m not guessing or relying what someone else wrote about it. I’ve lived it. A 10 degree drop will affect my range by about 5% at most, and that’s once you get under 30 degrees.

MINI-E in snow

Current electric cars aren’t best suited for cold climates, but they can be used just fine in these markets as long as the owner understands the limits and acts responsibly. The thing to remember is that these cars are just the first wave of mass-produced EVs for most manufacturers. They will get better. Ranges will increase, they will become more efficient and they will perform better in weather extremes because just about all the manufacturers are pouring a lot of R&D money into them. Today’s EV’s aren’t for everyone. However, in order to get to the point where electric cars are better, cheaper and more versatile than their ICE counterparts, we need to start somewhere and the current crop of EV offerings are an excellent beginning.

Back to Mr. Lane. He obviously has no real life experience with electric cars. That fact is evident in his article. I’d like to give him the real life experience he needs, so he can write future articles based on fact, not conjecture. I’ll let him ride with me in my MINI-E for a few days in the dead of winter if he would like. Heck, I’ll even put him up in a spare bedroom at my house if he wants to take me up on the offer. Live with me and my electric car for a few days in February, the coldest month of the year. At least then, when he writes about electric cars, he can do so with a little experience. The offer is real. Mr. Lane, I'm waiting for your call or email.

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