January 25, 2022

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There’s no evidence electric vehicles fare worse than gas-powered cars in long traffic jams

A major snowstorm in Virginia this week left hundreds of motorists stranded in freezing conditions on Interstate 95, some of them for more than 24 hours.

That led a social media user to warn of what would have happened if more of those cars had been electric vehicles.

“Imagine if half the cars in the traffic jam on I-95 in Virginia last night were electric vehicles. And half of those were to run out of battery power,” A Facebook post on Jan. 4 said. “All those people would be stuck in freezing temperatures without a heated vehicle. And all the cars would be stuck unable to move because you can’t bring a charging station to them. In effect all those electric cars would become roadblocks to the gasoline powered vehicles. Just something to think about when you hear politicians pushing electric vehicles over gasoline and diesel.”

This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The post suggests electric vehicles would have been more prone to failure in such conditions than gasoline-powered cars and trucks. Others raised similar concerns, including a Washington Post columnist, who shared a tweet from a trucker who recounted his experience with a Tesla driver who was worried about running out of power.

But are such worries grounded in reality?

Many variables affect how a given electric vehicle would fare in such a situation, including the type of battery it has, the heating system it uses and whether the vehicle was fully charged before the trip. But there’s no evidence that EVs generally would be more prone to failure in a traffic jam like the one that happened in Virginia.

The range of an electric vehicle varies widely by model, from 110 miles in the Mini Cooper Electric to up to 373 miles in the Tesla Model S. And cold weather can diminish the range of an EV, according to automakers and tests by Consumer Reports. 

But when idling, as in a standstill traffic jam, an EV behaves differently from a gas-powered vehicle. An electric vehicle’s motor doesn’t run when the car is stationary, so the only draw on the battery is for the heating system and other electrical accessories. Drivers idling in a gas-powered vehicle would need to keep the engine running, and gasoline burning, to keep the heat on.

In December, PolitiFact looked into a similar claim that said electric vehicles are more likely to fail in traffic jams in cold weather. We found that to be false because the vehicles don’t use much power while at a standstill or in their climate settings.

To understand the energy capacity of an EV’s battery, Peter Wells, director of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Business School in Wales, told PolitiFact that the average U.S. house uses 30 kilowatt-hours of power per day, so a fully charged 62 kilowatt-hour battery in an electric car could power a house for two days.

Even half-charged, a 62 kWh battery could yield 10 to 15 hours of heating in a car that’s stationary during a traffic jam, Wells said. A gasoline car’s heating or air conditioning, on the other hand, wouldn’t be able to operate without the engine running and consuming fuel to power the compressor and other parts.

Jeremy Michalek, co-founder of the Vehicle Electrification Group and an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said cold weather can cut an electric vehicle’s range, in miles, by as much as half, citing a study he co-authored. But range is a function of a moving car.

While idling, a gas-powered vehicle, assuming a full tank of 15 to 18 gallons, could take anywhere from about a day to up to a week to burn through that gas, Michalek said. A stationary Tesla Model 3, he said, could exhaust its battery in as little as eight hours or as much as a few days, depending on the wattage of the heater.

So which would fare better stuck in a daylong traffic jam like the one in Virginia? It depends, Michalek said, on how comfortable someone needs to be, whether the car has a heat pump and other factors.

“Bottom line: A gasoline vehicle can keep the cabin warm while idling for a longer period, on average, but in practice it will depend on how much energy is left in each vehicle at the time it is stranded and how efficiently the heating options are used,” Michalek said. “For example, electric seats in EVs can be more efficient at keeping an adult body warm than heating the whole cabin in an emergency situation.”

It is easier to refuel a car that runs out of gas in a traffic jam than to recharge an electric vehicle, which can take hours, but no car is really built to outlast a 24-hour traffic jam. Dozens of vehicles were left abandoned or ran out of gas in the Virginia jam and had to be towed, the Washington Post reported.

An electric vehicle that runs out of battery power on the road would typically need to be towed to  a location where it could be recharged. But some new options are becoming available. Blink Charging Co. in Miami sells a portable charger for use by roadside assistance services to supply EVs with enough battery power to get to a charging station, and Lightning Mobile is developing a mobile electric charging station that it hopes to sell to operators of commercial electric vehicle fleets, according to Automotive News. 

Our ruling

A Facebook post implied that a massive traffic pileup during a Virginia snowstorm would have been far worse with more electric vehicles on the road.

Cold weather can diminish the range of an electric vehicle that’s moving. But there is no evidence to suggest electric vehicles idling in standstill traffic would have fared any worse than gas-powered vehicles, which need a running engine to provide heat and can run out of gas while idling. 

Electric vehicles don’t use much energy while idling, and drivers can use even less by using the seat warmers instead of the heating system.

We rate this claim False.

Monique Curet contributed to this fact-check.

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