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How well do EVs handle cold weather?

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, HOST:

In my normal job, I cover cars and energy for NPR, especially electric cars. And lately, I've been hearing a lot of questions about how well EVs handle cold weather. In part, that's because of a debacle in Chicago last month.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Nothing. No juice. It's still on 0%. And this is, like, three hours this morning being out here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Dozens of EVs sitting in the cold, waiting for a chance to...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Parking stations - they're not working.

DOMONOSKE: Charging equipment failures and high demand, including from rideshare drivers, created huge lines at fast chargers. Some cars were left stranded. That was unusual. Normally, what happens in the cold is chargers do work, just slower, and EVs drive, but not as far. In fact, EVs might lose a quarter or even half their range in very cold weather, but some cars lose more than others. So which EVs do better? To answer that question, every winter, the Norwegian Auto Federation, NAF, sends a bunch of different EVs up into the mountains, driving over snow-covered roads through miserable winds. This is the sound of the cars setting off a few weeks ago. It was about 14 degrees Fahrenheit, negative 10 Celsius.

NILS SODAL: That's not so cold in Norway, especially not in the mountains.

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DOMONOSKE: Not so cold, says Nils Sodal with NAF. The cars drove north from Oslo to see how far they got before the batteries died and trucks towed them to a charger. The goal is to help drivers in cold places make informed decisions when they're car shopping. Sodal says this annual event is fun, albeit freezing. And this year, it featured a big surprise. The winner, the car that lost the least range, was the Chinese HiPhi Z, a brand-new vehicle that Sodal says could be a character in Pixar's "Cars" franchise.

SODAL: A little bit futuristic bad boy.

DOMONOSKE: That futuristic bad boy almost hit its official range. That's impressive because batteries don't like the cold. They like the same temperatures we do - around 70 degrees, ideally. As it gets colder, they deliver less power. That's why they can't drive as far. So that question, how well do EVs handle the cold? Well, it depends.

SODAL: Through the years, we have tested this in the winter. The best had only 4% loss of range, and the worst is 36 and a lot in between.

DOMONOSKE: From 4% loss to 36 - a big range. In addition to that Chinese bad boy, this year, the BMW i5 and Kia EV9 performed pretty well. Kia and some Chinese automakers also crushed it in NAF's winter charging tests, which looks at how quickly cars fast charge in the cold. In Norway, more than 90% of new cars are electric. Sodal owns two EVs, and he says losing some range in the winter, it's not a big problem - a little irritating, maybe, if you need to make an extra charging stop on a long trip. But what's irritating to an ordinary driver could be a deal breaker for a company.

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KEITH BRANDIS: A commercial vehicle, they're not making money if the wheels are not turning.

DOMONOSKE: Keith Brandis is with Volvo Group, which makes big rigs.

BRANDIS: These trucks are expected to operate for 10 or 11 hours during the workday.

DOMONOSKE: Electrifying heavy trucking is hard because, well, the trucks are heavy. They require huge batteries. But it's also important because big trucks have a very big carbon footprint per vehicle. Volvo Group is producing an electric big rig, the VNR. And to help sell that big rig, the company has tapped academic researchers to figure out exactly how weather affects the vehicle's range.

MATT EAGON: Morning.

MIKE FARICY: Morning.

EAGON: How are you doing?

DOMONOSKE: Matt Eagon is with the University of Minnesota. Before dawn on a recent winter day, he met up with driver Mike Faricy with a microphone running to head out for another test.

EAGON: Are you ready?

FARICY: I'm ready.

DOMONOSKE: He's collecting real-world data on the truck to build models that predict precisely how far it can go at any temperature so trucking companies know which routes the VNR can handle. This time, Faricy was carrying Styrofoam molding. They load the electric 18-wheeler with all kinds of things. This drive was peaceful - no roaring winds on a mountain.

EAGON: There's a sunrise coming up right now, which is kind of nice - pretty clear day.

DOMONOSKE: Equipment measured how the truck was using power as it went. Eagon says the real-world data is really important - different payloads, different routes, different weather.

EAGON: And you can get some of that in a lab setting, but it's difficult to account for everything.

DOMONOSKE: That's why he tests this truck in both Texas heat waves and Minnesota winters. Two hundred thirty miles and one charging stop later, Eagon and driver Faricy were back at Murphy Trucks, plugging the big rig in so it could recharge, ready to drive out again, no matter the weather. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Camila Domonoske
Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.