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Winter brings its own challenges to driving with any car. Electric cars, like cars with internal combustion engines, function less efficiently in the cold. But while we accept and ignore the limitations of traditional vehicles, there are a lot of cold weather concerns about electric vehicles.
The reality is: Electric vehicles are great winter cars!
Do electric cars work in the winter?
Electric vehicle range in winter and extreme cold is becoming less of an issue with the rapid advancement of battery technologies. Every year, electric vehicle ranges get longer.
Take my family’s experience in Minnesota as an example. Eleven years ago, when we started driving an electric vehicle, our first 2012 Nissan Leaf had only 73 miles of driving range. Since then, battery technology has changed rapidly: the average new EV range is now above 250 miles. So, range is becoming less of an issue in warm or cold weather, and truthfully, we have never had any issues with it. My wife has a 35-mile round trip commute, so she could manage it even with the 2012 Leaf, but nowadays with longer-range electric vehicles, things are even easier.
Electric vehicles available in Minnesota this year have ranges between 151 to 520 miles, which provides plenty of range even in our cold winters. People who want even more flexibility in their daily driving range should choose one of the plug-in hybrids that can take you up to 640 miles. Check out all plug-in EV models available in the U.S.
How does the heating system in electric vehicles work in winter?
The best part of electric vehicles for me in the wintertime is the fast heating system. Most electric cars have a heat pump heating system that works like the traditional air conditioning, but in reverse. This system is incredibly fast in heating up the car. I tried it for the first time with our 2016 Nissan Leaf. It was a typical 16-degree Minnesota winter day. I went into our cold garage and reversed the car outside to the alley. While I waited for the garage door to close, I wondered why the automatic fan was already running, and to my surprise, it was already pushing lukewarm air from the heating ducts. I drove less than a block, and the air coming out was already hot. I had never experienced this kind of heating performance from any car before.
Another stellar feature of electric vehicles is the preheating. These cars have a preheating function that we have set up so that when my wife walks to our cold garage at 7:20 in the morning, her car is waiting with a warm interior, hot seat, and even a hot steering wheel. It is a nice way to start the commute to work.
Naturally I don’t recommend trying this inside a garage with an internal combustion vehicle, because the exhaust gas emissions could be lethal. This feature also mitigates the effects of cold on the range, since the bulk of the heating was done using grid power. Another perk is that you can do this anywhere you want with your phone app. Whether you are ready to leave work or a restaurant, the only thing you must do is to take your phone and tell your car to heat up.
How do electric vehicles drive in the winter?
Electric vehicles are also fun to drive in the winter. Batteries make them a bit heavier than traditional cars, and this improves the traction on icy or snowy roads. The electric drivetrain is very smooth, and although it produces full torque from a standstill, controlling the power in slippery conditions is very easy—just a fine touch on the accelerator pedal, and the car crawls slowly forward. If one side is on a more slippery surface, electronic traction control will move more power to the wheel that has more traction, allowing the car better control in low-traction driving conditions. Electric motors also make the all-wheel drivetrains more simple, affordable, and efficient so we can expect to see more all-wheel drive cars in the future. Right now, 87% of the 75 plug-in models sold in the U.S. are available in all-wheel drive.
Are electric vehicles cheaper to drive?
Electric vehicles are also much more affordable to drive. Even in colder months when driving consumes more energy than in summer, driving an electric car for 1,000 miles will cost you less than $40. Driving a traditional 25 MPG car for the same 1,000 miles, even with present day lower gas prices, will cost you well over $120.
You also finally have an opportunity to choose how your driving energy is produced. With an internal combustion engine, we are pretty much stuck with oil, and that is not getting any cleaner. But the energy for charging our electric vehicle can be produced in a myriad of ways. Our grid is getting cleaner every day, and you can already power your drive with renewables by installing a solar PV system on your roof or by signing up for community solar garden or utility renewable energy program. The key here is that you now have the freedom to choose.
For our family, an electric vehicle is by far the best winter car choice. Maybe that might be true for you too. Go for a test drive and talk with other owners to learn more about your choices. Stay warm and drive safely.
Jukka Kukkonen contracts with Fresh Energy to provide expertise on the electric vehicle market and technologies, charging infrastructure, and electric vehicle-related products and business strategies. He is the founder of EV market and technology consulting company, Shift2Electric. He works with utility companies, auto dealers and other stakeholders to advance transportation electrification in the US and Europe.