2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011Enlarge Photo
As anyone who has lived in the Pacific Northwest will tell you, cities like Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon are known for their damp, dreary winter months.
This winter, as with many other parts of the U.S., heavy snowfall is taking the place of rain, turning the usually temperate Northwest into a winter wonderland.
But what do you do if you’re an electric car owner facing heavy snowfall and low temperatures for the first time? What should you know about driving your electric car in the cold?
Keeping Warm Is Key
As we’ve said before, electric car battery packs do not like to be cold. Instead, most lithium-ion battery packs operate at peak efficiency when they are at the same temperature as the human body.
Take a lithium-ion battery pack well below freezing point, and the chemical reactions inside the battery responsible for producing an electrical current happen more slowly, meaning the battery cannot perform as well.
As a consequence, most electric cars on the market today include some form of heating system designed to prevent their battery packs from getting too cold.
However, some cars -- like the 2011 Nissan Leaf -- do not include battery heating systems (although battery heating became standard on the 2012 Nissan Leaf). Without a dedicated battery heater, these cars may perform less well in cold weather.
But the real problem in cold weather comes when extra power is drained from the battery to keep the inside of the car warm. In extreme cold, using heating on full-power could drop your electric car range by as much as 30 percent or more.
Winter drving in the Mini EEnlarge Photo
To counteract the range-sapping effects of cold weather, try and keep your car in a sheltered or heated garage overnight; make sure you use any pre-heating available; and wrap-up warmly to avoid using excess cabin heating on long trips.
If you do all of the above, it will still be technically possible to make long-distance trips in your electric car. However, if you chose to sacrifice heating for range, your trip may be a rather unpleasant affair.
Recharging May Take Longer
Not only does cold weather adversely affect the amount of power your car’s battery pack can provide, but it also affects the time it takes to charge your car.
As a consequence, expect recharging to take much longer than it would in warmer weather, especially if your car doesn’t have battery pack heating.
ECOtality DC fast charger - Portland, OREnlarge Photo
In our own experience, recharging a car like a 2011 Nissan Leaf in cold weather can take an additional two hours or more from a level 2, 16-amp charging station, while a rapid-charge to 80 percent using a direct current charging station could increase from under 30 minutes to nearly an hour.
Learn To Manage Pulling Away
Because of the way electric motors work, electric cars are capable of producing large amounts of torque when the motor is at or near standstill.
That particular property of electric motors makes for great acceleration on clean, dry roads, but in low-traction environments -- just like you find on snowy, icy roads -- it can lead to wheel spin and loss of traction when moving from standstill.
In a traditional gasoline-engined car, selecting a higher gear to move away in can reduce wheel spin. But in an electric car with no conventional gearbox, that isn’t possible.
Instead, we advise putting your electric car into its eco- or low-power-mode, which often restricts the amount of power you can send to the wheels to promote smoother, more energy efficient driving.
Everything Else Is The Same
Other than these key differences, we think driving modern electric cars in cold weather is just like driving any other car. Make sure you check out this excellent guide for more winter driving tips and remember to pay attention to your local news and weather services to find out if it really is safe to make that trip or not.