Recent popularity among electric cars has cooled down along with the weather. According to CNBC, the recent polar vortex has shined a new light on Tesla, Jaguar, and Nissan electric vehicles: they lose range in freezing temperatures.
Typically, charging an electric vehicle is roughly the same as fueling a normal vehicle with gas at $1 a gallon. But that’s when the lithium-ion batteries used in most of today’s electric vehicles are running at 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Several factors have been known to impact an electric vehicle’s performance including driving style and terrain. But during the polar vortex, electric vehicle owners and experts alike learned that subzero temperatures can cut an electric vehicle’s range by half.
“I can get 270 miles no problem [on a mild day],” said Timothy Grewe, the chief engineer at the General Motors electric propulsion lab. “[But when Detroit was in the negatives], I got around 170.”
The weather’s effect on electric vehicles is the same across the board. The Tesla Model 3, Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Bolt, and Jaguar I-Pace each suffered a major cut to their range during the polar vortex.
Salim Morsy, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance, says the issue is with the batteries, not the manufacturing of the electric vehicles themselves.
“It’s Panasonic that manufactures Tesla batteries,” said Morsy. “It’s not something specific to Tesla. It happens to Chevy with the Bolt and Nissan with the Leaf.”
The lithium-ion batteries lose range during freezing temperatures for many reasons. The battery isn’t just powering the car but also providing heat to the cabin.
The battery is also powering the headlights during winter’s shorter days; the sun sets by 4:30 PM with rays strongest between 10 AM and 2 PM.
Electric vehicle batteries are also powering seat heaters and window defrosters. According to its EPA rating the Chevrolet Bolt uses 28 kilowatt-hours of energy to travel 100 miles under the best circumstances, but just using the heater can draw 5 kWh of power.
However, it isn’t just the cold and winter’s power-draining factors that are an issue. Heat can also be a problem.
Grewe says electric vehicles run best at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures colder than that can cause the internal components of the battery to become resistant to passing current. Temperatures that are higher than that can cause the batteries to overheat and damage their chemistry, shortening their overall life.
“In cold weather,” the Tesla Model S owners manual says, “some of the stored energy in the battery may not be available on your drive because the battery is too cold.”
But varying temperatures also have an impact on how quickly the electric vehicle charges. What’s more, the design of the Tesla Model 3 itself had its hiccups during the freezing temperatures.
The vehicle’s door handles are flush with the exterior of the vehicle. To open the door, owners need to push on one side and pull on the other. Many owners of the Model 3 posted photos of their frozen door handles on Twitter and Facebook during the polar vortex.
Boston software engineer Andrea Falcone purchased a Tesla Model 3 just two months ago. She tweeted a picture of her own frozen door handle during the drop in temperatures, saying, “I can’t wait all day for this silly car.”
That said, everyone has their own way of getting around. There were 11,261 private jets registered in the U.S. as of 2011 and up to 14 million cars on the road right now are over 25 years old. But one thing all these modes of transportation have in common is that the people inside them have places to be no matter the weather.
The good news is that electric vehicle automakers are working to solve the issue with the lithium-ion batteries. Next-generation batteries are currently in the works.
The batteries aim to replace the liquid inside the lithium-ion cells with a solid ceramic material. Researchers believe this material will speed up the vehicle’s charging process, improve its range, reduce costs, and better handle freezing temperatures.