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How does winter weather affect electric cars?

January 15, 2016
Driving your electric vehicle when temperatures are low can pose some unique challenges.

Electric and hybrid car sales are climbing in the U.S. Models from Tesla, Ford, Toyota, Nissan and more are more frequently spotted on the roads than ever before.

There are tremendous ecological benefits to these vehicles. As the U.S. Department of Energy noted, electric vehicles contribute to reduced emissions and lower petroleum usage for the U.S. thanks to fuel economies that outpace those of similar conventional vehicles.

However, when it comes to winter driving, electric cars present some unique challenges. Several factors can affect the mileage and fuel economy of your electronic or hybrid vehicles, from hard accelerating to cold temperatures. In fact, as the DOE noted, hybrid cars can lose 31 to 34 percent of their fuel economy when temperatures drop below 20 degrees.

The challenges for electric vehicles

For electric vehicles, the distance the car can travel on a single charge can also be affected by ambient temperatures. In a test of three different electric vehicles conducted by AAA, the average electric vehicle battery range was 105 miles at 75 degrees, but fell to 43 miles once the temperature dropped to 20 degrees.

As Forbes contributor Jim Gorzelany noted, 43 miles on a single charge would still enable most Americans to make their daily commute. However, a bigger issue is that a low battery warning can happen pretty quickly and might not give the driver time to reach a charging station.

"There are several tips drivers can follow to squeeze a bit more life out of their charge.”

Luckily, there are several tips drivers can follow to squeeze a bit more life out of their charge. As Gorzelany reported, parking the vehicle in a heated garage will help to keep the battery warm. Heating systems are also a huge battery drain, so drivers could consider using either the seat warmers or the cabin heater, instead of both. Drivers should also keep the car plugged in and charging while preheating the engine and cabin before embarking.

As Extreme Tech magazine reported, drivers also need to realize that charging the battery back up will likely take longer in cold temperatures. While several models of electric cars use heaters to keep the battery warm and speed up charging, the energy to run those heaters is pulled from the battery.

For drivers who can withstand a dip in temperatures, putting on a few extra layers and turning the heat down or off can add help extend your battery life, Extreme Tech noted. If you're up for the investment, you can also opt for an extended range battery pack, though this could potentially add several thousand dollars to the cost of your vehicle. Car companies are also constantly making advances that prolong the life of electric vehicle batteries, but in the meantime, drivers should be cautious and monitor their car's display panels for indications of a draining battery.