Just last week, Virginia was hit with some of the most aggressive winter storms the state has seen in quite some time. Leaving hundreds of cars stranded on I-95 made us and others wonder what would happen if you were stranded in an electric vehicle. As you may know, battery-powered vehicles don’t like the cold all that much.
The good news it that, while the cold still bites battery-powered machinery, EV manufacturers have already thought long and hard about ways to get around the inherent cold-weather deficiencies. The best answer thus far has been a heat pump, which keeps the occupants and powertrain toasty warm after the temperature plummets.
Batteries range and performance suffer in cold weather but do well when it’s warm. Why is this? The key factor is that all batteries supply power through a chemical reaction. Lithium-ion batteries can steal or supply current by simply moving lithium ions between anodes and cathodes. Cold weather slows these reactions down, hampering the amount of power that batteries can supply at any given moment.
Many EV manufacturers get around the issue of cold batteries by using a heat pump. Each of Polestar’s latest cars has a heat pump to simultaneously keep the passengers and battery warm. The system harvests thermal energy from the electric motor, battery, and ambient air before distributing it between the cabin and the propulsion system—therefore extending range. While the energy converter might sound complicated, it’s actually quite simple, functioning using the same principle that your refrigerator uses to keep cold. Below you’ll see a demonstration of where the heat pump is located in the latest Polestar 2.
The heat pump itself uses thermal energy to evaporate a liquid refrigerant into a gas, which is then compressed into a liquid, leading to a rise in temperature. The pump then proceeds to distribute the heat as and when needed. As the process is much more efficient than an electric heater, it’s a great way to add range and keep passengers comfortable. When we mention the battery, it’s important to note that the heat pump isn’t just for extreme conditions. Polestar says that at 40-60 degrees Fahrenheit, the system can save up to 10 percent of the range that would otherwise be lost.
How EVs Fared In The Virginia Storm
After the Washington Post published a story imagining how much worse the situation on I-95 would have been if all the stranded vehicles were EVs, CleanTechnica put the claim to the test. Spoiler alert: Electric vehicles can keep you warm for quite some time.
CleanTechnica noted multiple EV drivers that managed to stay warm during the I-95 standstill and may have even been better off than those in internal combustion vehicles. That’s because electric vehicles consume a very small amount of electricity at idle.
The same article also mentioned a pregnant woman that was involved in the stoppage who put her Tesla into “camp mode” and slept for most of the traffic delay. After nearly 16 hours, the battery in her vehicle dropped only from 74 percent to 61 percent. While the special setting isn’t super new (Tesla introduced it in 2019), even enthusiasts have slept on its usefulness. For those who have never been car camping, the system allows occupants to keep the car on with the doors closed, and manages the interior temperature, lighting, and music to your liking.
Regardless, CleanTechnica featured an experiment conducted by Dirty Tesla, a YouTuber and EV enthusiast who used a 2021 Tesla Model Y and 2020 Tesla Model X to demonstrate how long both vehicles can keep the occupants warm and toasty. With the Model Y using a new and improved heat pump compared to the resistive heater in the Model X, it already had an inherent efficiency advantage. Having said that, both Teslas could keep the cabin warm for the 18 hours that motorists would have been stuck on I-95. Pushing both vehicles to their limits, Dirty Tesla worked out that the Model Y could keep occupants warm for up to 36 hours. It’s important to note that the conditions during the experiment were around 5-7 degrees Fahrenheit lower than what the stranded Virginia motorists experienced.
How to Optimize The Vehicle You Already Have
Contrary to what you might think, there are actually quite a few things that you can do to improve your winter EV experience. Firstly here’s a tried and true method to estimate your winter range: Take the average number of miles you drive in a given day and double it. Thankfully, this isn’t a massive deal for modern EVs, which have the ability to do at least 200 miles on a single charge. Any electric vehicle that’s five or more years old will be hit significantly harder by the cold temperatures.
If you’re lucky enough to have access to a garage, you’ll achieve much better charging performance and range with the vehicle sheltered from harsh winter conditions. According to Consumer Reports, it takes less energy for a battery to maintain a constant temperature than to warm it up. However, if you live in a place that sees exceptionally cold conditions for a large chunk of the year, you might be better off with a plug-in hybrid thanks to the safety net of internal combustion.
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