With a cold snap causing below-zero temperatures across Chicago, electric vehicle drivers there have been struggling with charging issues, reduced battery life, and plummeting range. It’s part of the learning curve of adapting to EVs, but drivers could look to Norway, the Scandinavian country that’s a leader in electric vehicle adoption, for reassurance that their battery-powered cars can handle freezing weather.
That cold temperatures affect an electric vehicle’s range isn’t new information; experts have been studying this effect for years. Cold temperatures actually make gas combustion cars less efficient, too, reducing the amount of mileage they get out of a gallon. But EVs are especially affected thanks to their reliance on the battery for both mileage and features like heating and defrosting.
In lower temperatures, the chemical and physical reactions in the vehicle’s battery slow down. This reduces both the amount of charge the batteries can hold and their range. (Batteries are also affected when parked in the cold, just like they’re affected by extreme heat even while still.)
The use of cabin heating to keep a car’s passengers warm can affect an EV’s performance in the cold, too. While gas-powered cars can use the waste heat from their engines to warm the car’s cabin, electric engines don’t generate the same amount of heat. That means turning the heat on inside an electric vehicle takes away energy from the same battery powering the car’s range.
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According to the Norwegian Automobile Federation, cold temps can reduce an EV’s range by about 20%, though this can vary a lot by model. Some EV makers are adding heat pumps, which help heat the EV while reducing how much its range drops, as well as pre-heating abilities, which let drivers warm up their car while it’s still plugged into a home charger. Still, winter weather affects an EV’s battery in other ways; recharging, for example, takes longer in cold temperatures.
Norway, which tested how the cold impacts EV range, is a leader in terms of global EV adoption; in 2022, all-electric vehicles made up 80% of passenger vehicle sales there, and in October 2023, EVs hit a 91.3% share of auto registrations (84% of which were full electric vehicles). The country’s winter temperatures—which average around -6.8 degrees Celsius, or around 19 degrees Fahrenheit, but can reach as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit—have also been a test for the technology. So far, EVs have largely passed—as long as drivers are prepared. Ståle Frydenlund, test manager for the Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association, told the Globe and Mail in 2023 that EVs are “quite able to cope with winter if you know what you’re doing.”
How can EV drivers protect their car’s batteries from the cold?
Drivers of gas cars have likely heard that they shouldn’t let their gas tank get dangerously low in freezing temperatures—more air in your tank, experts say, means more moisture that could condense and freeze, blocking fuel from flowing. Similarly, EV drivers are having to learn how to protect their vehicles against winter weather.
In a blog post on an Audi dealership site, one Norwegian family shared tips for using their Audi EV in the winter, like pre-heating the car while it’s still plugged into their home charging (this is also called preconditioning), or using just the steering wheel or seat heating as a way to stay warm, and save range, on short trips. (These types of heating use less energy than warming up the entire car’s cabin.)
Experts say that drivers should park EVs inside a garage to protect it from the cold, and keep an eye on the battery temperature (lithium ion batteries perform best between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit). If your battery is too cold and can’t be stored indoors, you could use a battery blanket to warm it up. Just like with internal combustion cars, you should also check the tire pressure, which may drop in the cold.
EV drivers should also keep an eye on their battery level and ensure it doesn’t get too low, as bringing it back to a full charge will take longer in the cold (many EVs actually limit charging speeds when the battery is cold, in order to protect it from extreme temperature fluctuations). Home chargers are helpful for this as drivers keep their EV plugged in overnight (with a maximum charge setting around 70%), which will keep the battery at a warm temperature.