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Lag in the cold

by Mike Masterson | January 8, 2023 at 2:07 a.m.

The recent Arctic blast across much of America sounded a wake-up call for owners of electric vehicles (EVs) in frigid temperatures, according to an essay initially published by RealClearScience.

I have no plans on shelling out a small fortune to exchange our fuel- efficient Kia K5 for an electric alternative, regardless of the ongoing relentless political push toward embracing electric battery-powered vehicles.

The piece caught my eye because I'd wondered how those expensive batteries used in EVs would fare in icy temperatures. RealClearScience writer Ross Pomeroy answered that question, to my satisfaction, anyway.

He writes there are now an estimated 1.7 million EVs on steets and highways across our nation, compared to roughly 400,000 in spring 2018. "That means that a lot more Americans are experiencing the joys and pitfalls of EV ownership, from silent, swift acceleration and emission-free driving on the positive side to slower fueling times and shorter driving ranges on the negative side."

In the process, EV drivers are also learning frigid temperatures affect their vehicles differently than the internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles most of us have driven all our lives, primarily by cutting into driving range to a larger extent.

Gasoline-powered vehicles might have their range reduced 15 to 25 percent when it's below freezing, but an EV's range, writes Pomeroy, will be cut 20 to 50 percent depending on outdoor temperaure, driving speed, and interior climate preference.

"Combustion reactions occur more inefficiently at colder temperatures, accounting for the range decline in ICE vehicles. But cold slows the physical and chemical reactions in EV batteries to a larger degree, limiting the energy and power the battery can deliver to the motors," Pomeroy writes. "Moreover, while ICE vehicles utilize otherwise wasted heat from the engine to warm car interiors in winter, EVs use electric heaters to perform much of the climate control, further draining the already hamstrung battery."

Pomeroy says the Arctic blast "showcased the EV range hit to more Americans than ever, and also yielded a few more lessons. EV owners sounded off about their cold weather experiences on social media."

Some of the takeaways: EVs are not ready for frigid road trips. "I warned about this in August," Pomeroy writes. "Driving an EV on the highway in extreme cold will produce a range loss of 40 percent or more. EV owners of various brands traveling for the holidays shared numerous stories verifying this annoying (and potentially dangerous) reality.

"Drivers traveling in temperatures at or around zero with a headwind could go only 100 to 150 miles before needing to stop and recharge, depending upon the car, significantly increasing travel time. When they did charge, they had to deal with another disconcerting problem with EVs and winter ... EV fast-chargers operate much more slowly in extreme cold, if they work at all."

In other words, the colder the battery, the slower rate of charge it will accept. "Think a 45- to 60-minute charge instead of a 25- to 35-minute one," Pomeroy writes. "To top it off, users reported fast-charging equipment, particularly from Electrify America, often just didn't work in temperatures below -10 degrees Fahrenheit. Tesla's proprietary superchargers didn't seem to have the same reliability issues."

Pomeroy notes that the "generally sorry state of charging infrastructure" shows that EVs in regions with a cold winter need to be charged at home in a garage if possible. "Owners simply can't rely on public infrastructure in its present state with current battery technology. However, this situation could easily change in five to 10 years with novel batteries that suffer less range loss and more widely available chargers, preferably housed indoor[s]."

Aside from their reliability of range issues, EVs handled the freezing climate relatively well, Pomeroy writes. "Owners reported their cars started without issue, drove well (albeit with slightly reduced power), and heated quickly thanks to their fast-acting electric heaters. For drivers who didn't need to worry about traveling long distances, their EVs were functional, comfortable, and relatively untroubled by the cold."

Pomeroy says he owns stocks related to EV companies as well as a Volkswagen ID.4 electric car.

Americans each still have freedom of choice. So while others can feel free to shell out half again as much to purchase an EV with expensive batteries, I believe I'll stick with five-minute refill stops at gas stations and traveling 450 miles on a tank, especially during the winter.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]

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