The Truth About Electric Vehicles and Cold Weather

Many (unhappy) electric vehicle drivers got caught with reduced range and slow charging due to the cold weather, but these few tips will keep you sailing fully charged.

These All-Electric Mustang Mach-E'S Cruised Through Icy Streets For A Winter Meetup! Photo: Liv Leigh
These All-Electric Mustang Mach-E's cruised through icy streets for a Winter meetup! Photo: Liv Leigh

What You Need to Know if You Own an EV  — or Are Thinking of Buying One

The pictures are scary… long lines of nearly dead Teslas and other electric cars waiting for a charge station to open up. News stories that tell the tale of stranded owners whose  electric vehicles suddenly get half the range they should because of freezing temperatures and  charge stations that are slow or don’t work.

And yet, plenty of electric car owners are sailing along just fine without these issues. What gives?

We had to find out, so I sat with Steve Kosowski, manager of long range planning and electric car expert at Kia. Like all car companies, Kia has tested its EVs in sub-freezing temperatures, sweltering summer weather and more to understand the best way to ensure every battery performs the way it should. Here’s what I learned — and some of this is eye-opening.

Electric Cars and Winter Driving: What You Should Know

Audi Q8 E-Tron Electric Vehicle Driver Display

The driver display on the Audi Q8 e-tron shows the range and the temperature. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Battery Range Doesn’t Dissipate in Cold Temps

It’s merely slow. That’s because the exchange of positive and negative ions, which is what creates electricity, takes place in a liquid gel. In cold temperatures, Steve said, liquid is sluggish and just as it would be more difficult to swim through jelly than through water, the ions are slow to move, reducing the amount of energy they can produce. Once they warm up though, the range is restored too. Not what you’ve heard? That’s why I asked the next question: Why is range reduced then?

These All-Electric Mustang Mach-E'S Cruised Through Icy Streets For A Winter Meetup! Photo: Liv Leigh

These All-Electric Mustang Mach-E’s cruised through icy streets for a Winter meetup! Photo: Liv Leigh

What Impacts Range of Electric Vehicles? Using the Heat

You go out to your car and start it, but it’s cold. There’s frost on the windshield so you turn on the defroster and the heater to get it warmed up. Starting the car also begins to warm the battery.

Within a few minutes the windshield is clear, your fingers are unfrozen and you can drive, so you do. Turn off the defroster and your range creeps up. Turn off the heater (but leave on the heated seats) and it improves more, but not completely. So yes, your range is reduced. That’s because the internal system that warms the battery will keep going until the battery is warm. It can take 30 minutes to several hours for the battery to warm up — preconditioning, as it’s called in the industry — so it may not be fully warmed by the time you reach your destination, even though the cabin is toasty warm.

Clearly, heating the car is what uses up all that energy. But there’s a solid workaround.
Rugged yet Futuristic Kia EV9 Electric 3-row SUV Makes Its Debut

Hyundai Kona Electric

The 2018 Kona Electric’s charge port is in the front grille, easy to reach in a garage or a charge station. Photo: Hyundai

Keep Your Baby Warm

Just as experts tell us to start our car and warm it up before we drive it on cold days, electric cars need to be warmed, too. Using your owner’s app or settings in the multimedia system, you should be able to set a time to pre-condition the battery before you start the car. Ideally this should be an hour or two before you plan to drive. As you program your home thermostat for comfort and efficiency, you can also set the heat and defroster so the car is toasty warm and the windshield is clear when you’re ready to go.

If you can park in a garage, all the better since this should reduce the ambient temperature at least a bit, and reduce the likelihood of frozen door handles or charge doors, which can freeze over in snowy, icy weather.

However, even if your door handles and charge door are frozen, preconditioning the car and cabin should help with that.

Warm the Car While It’s Plugged In

If you can precondition the car while the car is plugged, all the better. That should result in a net zero depletion of battery power, Steve said. Again, using the app or multimedia screen settings, you can program the car to warm up in the morning before you head out. Then unplug it and you’re ready to go.

Warming the car while it’s charging is great at home, or at a public station where others are not waiting to charge. Part of the ire of EV owners is waiting for others to charge while they sit happily in their car with the heat running… which means the car will take longer to charge.

Charge at Home When Possible

And install a level 2 charger; this is basically a 240V outlet, which is what is used for a household clothes dryer. I installed one in my garage and it cost about $150. To buy a level 2 adapter is about $300-$500, though many car makers include one with purchase (a level 1 standard household charger is typically included too).

Charging at home will typically have a very low cost, a dollar or two a day, less if you’re only replenishing the 30 or 40 miles you drove that day. Use your app or multimedia charge screen to program the time you want the car to charge (when rates are cheapest, of course) and for the health of your battery, only charge to 80%; this will make your battery last longer (which we have learned by overcharging our phones and laptops).

Charging at home will also save you the heartache of chargers that don’t work or long lines to charge. And again if you can’t charge at home, find the chargers that are most reliable and the time of day they are most available and build that into your schedule. Perhaps its a great time to answer email, buy groceries or meditate in a quiet cabin.

Cadillac Elr Sfoairport Charge Station

Conveniently for my Cadillac ELR, the San Francisco International Airport features electric car charging stations like this one. Photo: A Girls Guide to Cars

Can’t Plug In At Home? How to Best Use Public Charging

Not everyone can plug in an electric car in at home, but they can still pre-condition before turning on the heat. The good news is that this should only take about 2% of the battery’s power as long as the cabin temperature and defroster are not on as well. Turn those on just before getting into the car, 5-10 minutes or so, and once in the car, use seat heaters and the heated steering wheel instead of cabin heat. This will leave you with a nice solid range, a minimal decline in charge and a comfy cabin.

Before finding a public charger, you should also pre-condition the battery. While you’re shopping, at work or on a flight heading home, set  your car to precondition. This will not only help your efficiency driving to the charger, but it’ll help your car to charge more quickly once you’re there.

Use the chargers your manufacturer recommends or has a relationship with. The software in a charge station station has to communicate with your car’s software, which is why sometimes they don’t work or there are false starts.

Then, charge at a time of day when it’s not as cold or as busy as it might be during rush hour or first thing in the morning.

Is Aaa Worth It Roadside Assistance

AAA roadside assistance can help with an emergency charge if you get stuck with a dead battery. Photo: AAA

Other Energy-Saving Strategies

Use eco mode. Use your car’s regenerative braking paddles or set the system to maximum regenerative mode. Use one-pedal driving and auto hold braking, especially in heavy traffic; you’re likely to regain some miles in a bumper-to-bumper crawl, believe it or not. Heated and vented seats will reduce draw on the motor, which requires more battery power. Use your car’s built in navigation for more efficient routes.

Reduce weight in the car when possible; if you don’t need really need your summer beach gear right now or your softball bag, leave them at home.

And, follow your manufacturer’s advice. Not all EVs are the same; they have different technology, different software and different charging infrastructure.

Want to Drive Electric, But Not Sure You’re Ready? Go PHEV

This is a great option, Steve told us: A plug-in electric hybrid is the perfect answer to days when charging or range are a challenge. A PHEV uses both a gas-powered engine and a battery-electric motor to power the car. Typically you can drive 30-50 miles on electric, enough range for most daily driving, errands and more. From there, the hybrid motor kicks in, giving you gas-powered miles, heat and more.

For optimal electric range you should also precondition the battery, as you would with the full electric system, and minimize the use of cabin heat. For buyers in cold climates, be sure to opt for heated seats if they are not included in the PHEV equipment package. They’ll pay for themselves — in saved electric range as well as comfort.

Planning Is Your Best Defense

Either way, pay attention to the weather and plan accordingly. Long lines at gas stations just before or after a storm are not uncommon, nor are stations that can’t function when the power is out or that run out of gas due to high demand and short supply.

And if you have a car with bi-directional charging and lose power at home, you can use your fully-powered electric car as a home generator – and sail through cold temperatures or power outages in toasty warmth.

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Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss