Cold facts about electric cars

"Good thing it's not electric, or you'd REALLY be screwed."

It was approximately 10 degrees below zero this morning when our story on efforts to expand electric vehicle adoption in Midwest cities went live on the site. So now’s as good a time as any to address the ever-present hand-wringing about how electric cars will perform in the cold.

Find a news story – any news story – on electric cars, and, if you have the stomach for it, peruse the comment thread. Invariably, someone will bring up the fact that battery performance drops off dramatically in cold weather.

From that, we’re supposed to conclude that electric cars are unsuitable for any climate outside Los Angeles, as though the prospect of the cars operating in cold temperatures simply hadn’t dawned on the world’s top automotive engineers.

Last month, Washington Post columnist Charles Lane became especially worried about this phenomenon after being stuck in traffic for six hours.

It is a basic fact of physical science that batteries run down more quickly in cold weather than they do in warm weather, and the batteries employed by vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf or the Chevy Volt are no exception.

Incidentally, if you follow that link, you’ll notice that Lane’s source on the subject is Brooke Lorren, a “freelance content producer” for Yahoo, whose other works include “What the Bible Says About TSA Enhanced Security Procedures” and “Is Glenn Beck Suffering from Aspartame Poisoning?”

And they say journalism is dying.

But Lane actually raises a reasonable issue. If you’re stuck in traffic for six hours, surely you’d drain the battery running the heater and the radio, and would be left out there all alone on the freeway to die of exposure.

Tom Moloughney, a New Jersey man who actually owns and drives an electric car, says that’s hogwash.

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.

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.

Moloughney also makes the point that regular cars stuck in traffic face a similar peril – running out of gas. That happened to a number of drivers who were stuck on Lakeshore Drive during the big Chicago blizzard last month.

Here in the Twin Cities, TV station WCCO dealt with the same subject on its “Good Question” feature.

Reporter Jason DeRusha interviewed Garrett Ferderber, whose company converts Toyota Priuses (Prii?) to run on battery power only. The answer?

Ferderber’s company redirects some of the electrical energy gained while the car is plugged in, back into the battery cells to keep them warm.

This is something that hobbyist electric car builders have known for years – to have a car that functions in cold weather, you need to insulate and heat the battery box (similar to a plug-in block heater that you might use on a gasoline or diesel car). That doesn’t exactly seem like rocket science.

You’ll be reassured to know that the prospect of cold weather had indeed occurred to GM engineers as they were designing the Chevy Volt. GM acknowledges that battery range will drop, to below 30 miles in sub-freezing temperatures.

And for the Leaf, the range drops to around 60 miles. The Leaf will offer a cold-weather package that includes heated seats and steering wheel, which use less energy than a conventional heater.

As a matter of fact, GM engineers are more concerned about hot weather, which can be just as bad for battery life.

As I’ve noted before, cold weather is an equal-opportunity machinery-killer. Every winter, thousands of gasoline-powered cars fall victim to the elements – batteries die, fuel lines freeze up, or they simply get stuck in the snow. In Minnesota, drivers – yes, even those in gasoline-powered cars – are advised to carry “survival kits” in their cars if they’re traveling long distances in winter.

Yes, prospective EV buyers should be aware that cold weather will affect their car’s range. But I imagine most drivers will wind up, like the rest of us, being more worried about keeping the road salt washed off.

Photo by Jean Yunjean via Creative Commons

One thought on “Cold facts about electric cars

  1. I sent a letter to the Pioneer Press in response to Lane’s op/ed, which they reprinted. They choose not to print my LTE, so I’ll share it with you:

    Electric vehicles: a step in the right direction

    A recent opinion piece in this paper questioned the value of electric vehicles in cold weather, and called the President’s call for one million plug-in hybrids or all-electric vehicles by 2015 “meaningless,” because it would represent only a small portion of the total number of vehicles on the road.

    The piece ignored the obvious clean air benefits of vehicles that operate without directly emitting any pollutants, powered by an energy source considerably cheaper than petroleum fuels. Recently, the City of St. Paul unveiled its first electric vehicle, a Ford Transit Connect van that will make short run deliveries –a perfect niche for an electric vehicle.

    Every journey must begin with the single step, and we should not let the size of the challenges ahead dampen our will to move forward. Any step we take toward cleaner air, more sustainable transportation choices in America sounds like a movement in the right direction.

    Robert Moffitt
    St. Paul

    (Moffitt is the communications director of the American Lung Association in Minnesota)