The Drive for Better Electric Vehicle Range in Chilly Climates
In many ways, electric vehicles can go head-to-head with conventional vehicles on everything from reliability to maintenance costs. In others, like emissions, EVs are by far the better option. But as many advantages as EVs have, there are also a few drawbacks to them, the biggest of which is that when the temperature drops, so does the battery capacity.
Electric vehicles are being adopted in all kinds of climates. But if you live or drive in a chillier region, you could see the battery capacity cut short by over a third, depending on the model in question. That’s obviously a problem, both for current EV drivers and those considering making the switch.
The good news? Manufacturers and automotive engineers are working on a range of solutions. Here’s what you need to know about how cold weather affects electric vehicle range and some of the fascinating innovations that could solve the problem in the near future.
Why Cold Weather and EVs Don’t Mix
Most of the all-electric or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on the road today are powered by lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. That’s because they come with a high energy per unit mass — or they produce a lot of power relative to their size — great energy efficiency, a high power-to-weight ratio, and they can be recharged many times while preserving overall capacity.
The drawback for drivers in colder climes is that when the liquid electrolyte inside an EV’s battery pack is cooler, lithium ions flow through it more slowly, thus producing less electricity. What’s more, that same issue means batteries take longer to charge in cold weather.
With internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, that’s a problem because it can mean drivers have less power to start the engine and need to drive longer to recharge. But if it’s an issue for conventional cars, it should come as no surprise that it’s even more serious for EVs.
Case in point: in a recent test conducted by the Norwegian Automobile Federation, four EVs — the Mercedes EQE 300, Skoda’s Enyaq Coupe RS, the Toyota bZ4x 2WD, and the Hongqi e-HS9 — all demonstrated more than a 32% deviation from the advertised range. Even the EV with the longest range, the Maxus Euniq6, fell short of its advertised range by over 10%.
So, what’s being done about it?
Solutions to the EV Battery-Winter Problem
EV batteries also tend to wear down in cold weather due to heating. In colder regions like the northern United States and Canada, for instance, where temperatures can drop to -40 °F in the worst cases, staying warm while traveling is a matter of safety as much as comfort.
The problem is that, currently, many EVs use resistance heating, in which a metal element is heated, and air is blown over it. This is a highly energy-intensive form of heating, accounting for about 75% of wintertime EV range loss.
One promising — and increasingly available — solution to the problem is using heat pumps to keep drivers and passengers warm instead. Heat pumps draw in air and compress it, raising the temperature of the air. Compared to conventional heating technology, heat pumps are about three times more efficient, meaning they can go a long way toward preserving an EV’s range.
Heat pumps are still a relatively new feature for cars, but their capacity to extend wintertime range has seen them adopted by such leading EV manufacturers for certain models, as Volkswagen, Nissan, and Tesla.
The other solution is to develop newer, less cold-sensitive batteries. One option is fluorinated electrolyte. Essentially, this means the liquid electrolyte is dissolved into a solvent with a lower melting point, and fluorine is added to protect the graphene elements, which accelerates the energy-production process.
Alternatively, you might start seeing EVs featuring solid-state batteries in the near future. These use solid electrodes and electrolytes, thus eliminating the issue with viscous-in-cold-weather liquid electrolytes. They also offer higher energy density than liquid electrolytes, meaning they could well be what’s under the hood in all next-generation EVs, not just those sold in colder regions.
How You Can Preserve Your Range in Winter
For now, new and more cold-resistant batteries are still a long way off from your nearest EV dealership. But if you own, or are thinking of buying, an EV that doesn’t feature a heat pump, there are still a few things you can do to preserve your range when the air gets crisp, such as:
Park Under Cover
Parking indoors will shield your car from cold air and keep it slightly warmer. That means the liquid electrolyte in your EV’s battery won’t thicken quite as much and will be able to produce a little more power.
Keep it Charging
Cold temperatures also lead to slower charging times, so it’s a good idea to keep your vehicle plugged in whenever it’s not in use during the winter.
Avoid the Heating
If your car comes equipped with heated seats and a heated steering wheel, consider using these to stay warm and wear heavy clothing, especially for short trips. This will cut down on power consumption from the heating system.
Adjust Your Speed
Driving at moderate speeds will reduce the amount of power your car consumes. Aim to drive no faster than 50 to 60 mph for the best results.
Wintertime battery performance is likely to be a minor issue for EV drivers until alternatives better suited for the cold are more widely available. Until then, you can get the most out of your drive by switching to a vehicle with a heat pump and adopting a few winter driving habits to save power.
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