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Cold batteries? Here’s how EVs actually fare during a harsh winter

Blizzards, arctic fronts, and ice storms dominated the news cycle this month. How are these stories shaping public perception of electric vehicles?
Vehicles in a city street during a snowstorm

Electric vehicles are a bigger part of public discourse now than in any period in history. Though Thomas Edison vouched for EVs at the turn of the 19th century, it would be another 100 years before they’d see a heyday. Now, the gas-to-electric tipping point is on the horizon. But what’s holding us back?

With great change comes great…anxiety. And changing the way we drive will be no small feat—particularly in North America, where a driving culture predominates. Until the EV shift is set, the detractors will be just as vocal as the proponents. This is exactly what we saw this week, as contrasting stories emerged about the suitability of EVs in cold climates. 

Two stories, one from The Washington Post and another from NBC 5 Chicago, present divergent perspectives on the capabilities of EVs in extreme cold conditions. We hope to relieve that cognitive dissonance by digging into both here. We’ll also share a few insights from the ChargeLab platform illuminating the actual chargers' performance under cold conditions.

The Washington Post: A pole-to-pole expedition

Scottish adventurers Chris and Julie Ramsey embarked on an unprecedented journey from the Arctic Circle to the South Pole in an electric SUV, challenging preconceptions about EVs. Covering approximately 20,000 miles over nine months, the couple faced treacherous conditions, including temperatures below minus 50 degrees Celsius. The electric SUV, a modified Nissan Ariya, proved its resilience, with the Ramseys relying on it even in remote areas with no charging infrastructure.

 Our takeaways

  • Rugged endurance: The Ramseys demonstrated the rugged endurance of EVs in extreme conditions, reinforcing the idea that EVs can perform as reliably as conventional cars. In fact, this EV is the only vehicle of any kind to journey this route in full.

  • Minor modifications: Project partner Arctic Trucks modified the couple’s Nissan Ariya by strengthening the SUV’s body and installing 39-inch snow tires. Aside from these mods and the quirk of adding an espresso machine, the Ramsey’s Ariya is much the same as any you’d see on the street. The engineers left the SUV’s battery and powertrain untouched.

  • Challenges and solutions: Despite facing challenges like range anxiety and unreliable charging stations, the Ramseys remain committed to the EV cause. In many regions, charger reliability was a bigger issue than availability. “It’s just one of those ironic things,” Chris Ramsey said. “The network in the U.S. is good—it’s there, which is brilliant—it’s just the companies operating it need to get a lot better.”

NBC 5 Chicago: Challenges amid cold snap

In Chicago, a city experiencing a prolonged cold snap, EV owners faced significant challenges, highlighting the limitations of EVs in extreme cold. Residents waited for hours in line to charge their cars, and some vehicles had to be towed due to reduced battery life and range. Studies from Norway and AAA revealed substantial range loss in certain models under cold temperatures, emphasizing the impact on EV performance.

Our takeaways

  • Reduced range: Studies showed that EVs can lose 20–40% of their driving range in cold temperatures, especially when heating systems are in use, underscoring the need for strategic planning. “I think EV owners are discovering for the first time, and it’s what gas car owners knew decades ago, that when it gets really cold, you don’t want to get too low on your power supply,” Carfax.com Editor in Chief Patrick Olsen said. He also emphasized the importance of home chargers.

  • Charging queue woes: EV owners in Chicago experienced long wait times at charging stations, revealing the practical challenges associated with EV ownership during extreme cold weather. Greater availability of DC Fast Chargers is crucial for urban areas. Residents will also need to plan ahead to avoid inconveniences in severe weather. 

How is the EV charging hardware holding up?

Now, we’ll briefly put aside the performance of EVs in cold weather to dig into chargers. After all, painting a clear picture of the ecosystem is the best way to understand the stakes drivers face. 

ChargeLab’s EV charger software is deployed throughout North America across 50+ different hardware models. Below is a graph illustrating trends in sessions, charging time, and energy consumption compared to the average temperatures across networked sites.

image2-2

Our takeaways

  • Level 2 chargers are slightly slower than usual: From the data, we glean that Level 2 chargers seem to be experiencing longer charging times and increased consumption. Since Level 2 is a popular choice for residential charging, where many drivers charge overnight, these changes in performance would have a minimal impact. 
  • Level 3 (DCFC) chargers are unaffected: These models stayed at peak performance thanks to their fast charging speeds. We did notice that drivers stuck around for less time—perhaps because of waits at public sites or inclement conditions.
  • Idle vehicles are sitting longer: Vehicles are sitting idle at stations longer than usual, likely to combat the cold and keep batteries conditioned. 

Conclusion

Winter weather introduces extra challenges for electric vehicle drivers—but those challenges are hardly insurmountable.

The Ramsey's successful pole-to-pole expedition inspires confidence in EV capabilities. Meanwhile, the challenges faced by Chicago EV owners underscore the limitations of EVs and charging infrastructure in extreme conditions. Data from our own network suggests charger performance is stable—but not completely unaffected—by freezing temperatures. 

Are you in the market for an EV this Winter? The best path forward is to assess your own risk tolerance and appetite for planning. As the Ramseys showed us, you can achieve almost anything in an EV if you plan it out and keep a cool head. If you find the idea of stalling out in a winter storm stressful, consider opting for a vehicle like a Tesla, which shows just a 4% range decrease in severe temperatures. You may also choose to install a Level 2 charger at home, which will prove even more convenient than a trip to the gas station. 

However you spin it, we prefer to afford the story its full nuance. EVs are technological marvels full of potential. But today’s infrastructure gaps are real, and reliability is a real headache for those on the roads. At ChargeLab, we find the challenges and solutions equally inspiring and welcome discourse. 

Want to dive even deeper into the state of the EV industry? You can check out our latest market summary below.

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