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Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

As the UK and much of northern Europe is hit by heavy snowfalls, electric vehicle (EV) owners might be concerned about the amount of power their in-car heaters, lights and windscreen wipers are draining from the batteries.

But while winter weather could more than halve the range of some electric cars, manufacturers are working to find ways of keeping their vehicles going through the snow.

Conventional cars use heat from the engine to warm up the inside of the car but EVs have to transfer energy that would otherwise be used to power the motor, which can have a big impact on the distance the car can travel on a single battery charge.

‘Things like wipers, headlights, the radio, they use a minimal amount of juice but if you leave the heater on for your whole journey you will reduce [the battery life],’ says Alex Prince, mobile engineer for G-Wiz distributor GoinGreen.

‘If you get up to 40 miles in the summer, the combination of cold batteries and having the heater on can knock 10 miles off the range.’

For other models the effect can be even worse. According to Nissan’s simulations for the Leaf, ideal conditions can give a range of 138 miles while driving at 14°F (-10°C) through stop-start traffic with the heating on reduces the range to 62 miles.

Although the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) lists the Leaf’s real world range at 73 miles, the proportional drop in Nissan’s own simulations suggests a range drop of over 50 per cent with the heating on. And similar figures have been quoted for other makes of car.

Batteries also discharge faster in cold weather because the chemical reactions inside them occur more slowly and less current is produced, so they more quickly reach a point where the current doesn’t meet the energy demands.

However, manufacturers are taking steps to limit the difficulties EVs have in cold weather, both through general improvement of battery life and energy-efficiency and more specific ways of tackling the issue of cold weather driving.

One of the Leaf’s solutions lies with its connectivity, which allows the driver to send a signal to the car via PC or mobile phone to begin heating the car before it is started.

‘This means that some power-hungry operations can be programmed to be carried out prior to removing the car from charge to maintain full charge for the journey,’ says Nissan’s design and technology spokesman, Matthew Loader.

In the G-Wiz, heated seats can reduce the energy used for climate control by as much as 75 per cent compared to a blower heater.

The car also has heater pads to warm the battery to the optimum operating temperature. Older models only do this when the car is charging but the new version allows the lithium ion batteries to warm themselves without being plugged in.

The limited performance of EVs in cold weather is certainly seized upon by their critics. But proponents will always argue that as most commuter journeys are well within the cars’ maximum range, a dent in the distance they can go often won’t matter.

Initial research suggests EV drivers are certainly aware of the problem. A study of the Mitsubishi iMiEV begun at the start of 2010 by the CABLED consortium of companies found that drivers made longer and more frequent journeys in the summer.

‘We’re not sure yet if that’s because they’re becoming used to the vehicles so range anxiety becomes less or if it’s a weather-related issue and the range is higher in the summer,’ says Neil Butcher of ARUP, who is leading the trial.

‘There was a noticeable drop in range in the cold weather we had in January and we’re waiting for the data to come back for this winter.’

As is almost always the case with EVs, there is still a long way to go before these issues are suitably addressed to convince the majority of the public that buying one is a good idea.

A common theme running through the manufacturers’ measures is to ask drivers to make small changes to their routine – getting the car ready slightly before they want to drive it – in order to maximise the time it can stay on the road.

Enthusiasts may embrace this novelty but as people often moan at even the smallest inconvenience when it comes to travel, perhaps automating these systems could help win over those concerned about being stranded in the snow.

But it’s worth remembering that Norway is the second biggest European market for G-Wiz manufacturer Mahindra Reva.

Electric vehicles also have one big advantage in cold weather, says Alex Prince of GoinGreen. ‘They always start first time.’

Readers' comments (20)

  • I think cars are too power hungry they need to go back to basics. My first car never had a heater no heated rear screen & a hand pump (after market) for windscreen washers) People managed quite alright. You can get too wrapped up in so called progress.

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  • Modern advances have not only made vehicles more efficient, but considerably safer than those of yesteryear.

    Managing is one thing, but abolishing many of the systems which make motoring safer is not viable.

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  • I quote...
    "I imagine EVs could be better to control in the snow and are less likely to get stuck"....why? Do lighter cars not get stuck in the mud? The best way to get control in the snow is with snow tyres, plain and simple.

    Never mind the all-electric-vehicle, I'm with micro-turbine solution of Jaguar's. I'd buy one of those tomorrow if they were available.

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  • REEV is a better option than pure electric. Once ultra compact internal combustion engines are widely available - whether they be turbine, reciprocating or rotary - REEV will replace current hybrids, and pure-electric will be consigned to automotive history.

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  • Is it not illegal to start a car and leave unattended?

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  • If an all electric car dies on the Interstate from a drained battery, how would a good samaritan or rescue service be able to help get it back on its way? With a gas powered car, a gallon of gas would do the trick. But with an all electric?

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  • How much heat could be harvested from braking systems? Ok, no use at the start of a journey, but as EV will mainly be used in commuter situations (stop start), I'm sure a useful amount could be gathered.

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  • Just like houses, the easiest and cheapest way to save heat energy would be to insulate the car. All hollow voids in the body and roof could be filled with insulation rather than air - it could improve side impact protection and add to body stiffness overall as well. And - don't laugh - windows could be double glazed!

    Alternatively, rather than keep the whole car warm, driver and passengers could "wear" the insulation instead, you could call it "coat-and-hat". New problems, new solutions!

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  • We are already in a position where modern diesel engines generate insufficient waste heat to warm themselves up on a cold morning. My Jaguar has a small oil central heating boiler (by Eberspächer I think), which heats the car and engine on cold mornings.

    Could a similar system not be used in EV's? This could be powered by LPG, or red diesel, which is free of road tax?

    (Mind you, these heaters are a bit 'niffy' when they first start up.)

    I agree with the idea of insulating the car. This would also reduce noise levels.

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  • "Say 200 mile range drops to 100 in the cold, its not likely to be a problem for most journeys."

    Oh dear, Oh dear, Oh dear! Get in the real world. How many of us can afford to have one car for commuting and another for family holidays?

    I drove 200 miles to Wales at Christmas, and I drove 500 miles a day through France a couple of years ago. I will not accept a forced 8 hour stop every 100-200 miles.

    Until EV cars offer a full day's driving range, rapid recharging and at a competitive cost they will remain playthings for the rich and trophies for those needing to display their green credentials.

    I know fossil fuels will not last for ever, but today, if you need a sensible range, hybrids are the only credible low carbon alternative, and many of those are no better than the best low emission diesels.

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