Cold Weather Affects Electric Vehicle Range. But Does It Matter?

, lead policy analyst, Clean Vehicles | March 8, 2016, 12:12 pm EDT
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Some commenters have lamented how cold weather can affect electric vehicles, citing a 2014 AAA study that found the range of an electric vehicle can be cut by over 50 percent depending on the external temperature. To help set the story straight, my colleague Dave broke down the science of engine efficiency and explained how cold weather affects both gasoline and electric vehicles.

Although cold weather impacts electric vehicles, the real question is whether that impact matters. To find out, I interviewed UCS members who drive electric vehicles in frigid places across the U.S. Here’s what they said.

Having a slightly reduced range doesn’t matter

The most common theme I heard was that although electric vehicles do lose some range when it’s cold outside and the heater is running, the change in available range had little or no impact on whether they could use their electric vehicle. For example, let’s suppose your daily commute is 30 miles round trip, you drive a Nissan LEAF, and it’s a balmy -10 degrees F outside. Data from Fleet Carma shows that the typical range of the LEAF would be over 40 miles, so you could still get to and from work, even though you would have a diminished range. Assuming that the temperature is a more reasonable 30 degrees F (still chilly in my book), the LEAF’s range would be over 60 miles—enough for your daily commute and then some.

Planning ahead and pre-conditioning are key

Everyone who I interviewed mentioned that when it’s cold outside they “pre-condition” their electric vehicle, meaning that they turn on the cabin heat while the vehicle is still plugged in. Doing so allows the vehicle to get toasty without draining battery life since the heater power will come directly from the charging source. After the vehicle is warmed up, most owners shut the cabin heater off and only use the steering wheel and seat heaters during their drive, which allows them to stay warm while not reducing their range from using the cabin heater.

My LEAF has the ability for me to use an app to remotely pre-heat the car while it’s still plugged in. ~Mike B., Denver, CO

Another theme that came through was that electric vehicle drivers are planners. They know how far they would drive on an average day and know whether their electric vehicle has enough range to get them where they needed to go and back home again to charge, especially when it’s cold outside. Of course, some drivers take advantage of the many public charging options—at electric vehicle dealerships, workplaces, or along transit corridors—giving them extended range for when they need it. No one said that they ever ran out of charge and many use helpful apps like Plugshare to find charging stations along their drive.

Dealerships in my area have been offering free fast charging, and it takes only 20 minutes or so to top off my range if I ever need to drive outside my normal range. ~Jeff G., Hartford, CT

The cold can’t cool off electric vehicle owner’s love of their vehicles

Even though cold weather can decrease electric vehicle range, everyone who I talked to remained happy with their electric vehicle. I’m not surprised since after each electric vehicle test drive I’m always amazed at how much of a better driving experience they offer compared to gasoline vehicles. It’s hard for a small decrease in range to diminish the joy people get when driving a vehicle that is cheaper, cleaner, and more fun to drive than a gasoline-powered alternative. I’m sure no electric vehicle drivers miss having to brave stepping outside in freezing temps to pump gas either.

In addition, many commented on their electric vehicle’s ability to tackle snowy and icy conditions due to its low center of gravity and weight distribution—engineering points that make electric vehicles ideal for cold climates and one of the reasons (along with generous policy support) why electric vehicles are crushing it in cold countries like Norway.

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As electric vehicles improve, the effect of the cold will matter less

As my colleague Dave noted, as electric vehicles improve their range—like the upcoming Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3, both of which are estimated to go over 200 miles per charge—the effect of cold weather on battery performance will matter less. That’s because even if an electric vehicle takes a 20 percent range hit, losing 40 miles of range on an electric vehicle that gets 200 miles per charge will leave plenty of range for most drivers. Indeed, 80 percent of respondents to a survey UCS and Consumers Union ran on driving habits in 2012 reported that they drove less than 100 miles each day—well within the range of a 200 mile electric vehicle, even in cold climates.

So if you live in a cold climate and are interested in an electric vehicle, be prepared to plan ahead, understand your driving needs, and pre-condition your ride. These simple tips may help you join the herd of electric vehicle drivers from Maine to Oregon and everywhere in between.

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