Are electric cars at a tipping point? A lot of people think so. Sales of EVs are far stronger than anyone expected in Europe. They’re growing fast in China. And on a percentage basis, they’re growing faster than any other segment in the American market.
The barriers to EV ownership are coming down. Battery costs are dropping and will reach parity with ICE powertrains in just a few years. Range anxiety is becoming less of an issue as more public charging stations get built. And consumers soon will have a rich choice of models to choose from in almost every showroom.
But the auto industry faces a major development challenge with EVs: They don’t like winter weather. Or, more properly stated, EV batteries don’t like cold temperatures.
I’ve test driven a number of electric cars and plug-in hybrids in cold weather and the drop-off in driving range is significant. My observations are not carefully calibrated engineering tests but do represent what a typical owner would encounter.
As a rule of thumb, I would say EVs lose about 30% of their range around 33º F (0º C) and close to 40% of their range at 24º F (-4º C). I can only imagine it drops off much more at colder temperatures, but I have not personally tested EVs at those temps. EV advocates don’t talk about this, but automakers clearly face a challenge marketing EVs to people who live in winter climates.
Having said that, Norway has the highest EV ownership rate in the world. But that market is heavily skewed by tax policies that make it far cheaper to buy an EV than an ICE car. And Norway is a small country with much shorter driving distances. For example, while Norway has nearly 94,000 km of roads (58,000 miles) the state of Michigan where I live has 193,000 km (120,000 miles).
My rule of thumb represents a worst-case scenario. Owners can mitigate cold weather problems by pre-heating the battery and the interior of their car while it’s still plugged in. That way the battery is ready to go as soon as you unplug it, and you’ll use less stored battery power keeping the cabin warm.
But that only works if you can keep your EV plugged in for all situations. If your car sits unplugged in a parking lot at work, or in the parking lot of a hotel when you’re on a road trip, that cold battery will lose a lot of range. And it’s these worst-case scenarios that will feed range anxiety.
Automakers have to step up and provide honest range numbers to consumers. Everyone knows the NEDC (New European Driving Cycle) is a misleading test. It’s an easy-breezy procedure that generates great driving ranges for electric cars and wonderful fuel economy numbers for ICE cars.
But it’s inaccurate. That’s why Europe moved on and adopted the WLTP (Worldwide Light Vehicle Test Procedure), which provides numbers much closer to the real world. The U.S. EPA test is even more accurate.
Yet Mercedes-Benz chose to use NEDC numbers when it unveiled its EQA electric CUV in early January, and Nio did the same when it unveiled the ET7. It’s easy to see why. Both companies reported amazing range numbers, and that got all the headlines. But it was deceptive, and they should know better.
Here’s another caveat for EV owners to be aware of in the U.S.: The EPA gives two ratings for an EV. One is how many kilowatt hours per 100 miles (kWh/100 m) your car will consume. The other is the total range the car will deliver. But there is a discrepancy between the two, which I discovered while test driving a Mustang Mach-E.
The model I drove, an AWD Extended, is rated at 37 kWh/100 miles. It has an 88-kWh battery, so that would imply a range of 237 miles (382 km). But the EPA says the range is 270 miles (435 km).
How did it gain an extra 33 miles (53 km)? Because in the EPA’s FTP-75 test procedure there is a good amount of deceleration in city driving. And that puts regenerative energy back into the battery, which increases the range. But it also means EVs will be less efficient in highway driving – the complete opposite of ICE vehicles. Consumers should be aware of this.
BTW, I fully charged the battery in the Mach-E at 33º F and it only indicated 175 miles (282 km) of range (below) – a 35% drop.
The auto industry is investing a fortune to manufacture EVs. It has a lot riding on this bet. The sooner it addresses cold weather issues, uses honest numbers and educates consumers, the faster people will adopt them.
John McElroy (pictured above, left) is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit.