The hottest electric cars leave winter drivers out in the cold

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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Engineering breakthroughs like the Tesla Model S may be burning up the electric car market (figuratively and literally), but they’re leaving drivers cold and under-powered in the face of Old Man Winter.

Cold temperatures have adverse effects on batteries, slowing down the incoming and outgoing flow of energy and inevitably losing some in the process. The 250-mile average range of an electric car in normal climate conditions can see its performance reduced by 70-miles on a single charge in average winter conditions. The colder it gets, the shorter than range.

Not only that, the average winter driver tends to turn up the heat — a function that also puts a draw on the battery uncommon during other seasons.

The combined effect is a significant reduction in the time between charges, and the miles you can drive comfortably warm before you get there. Drivers also feel a reduction in power, even in the formidable 400-horsepower Model S. As energy flow slows down or is diverted to heating functions, so does your acceleration, and so do you.

But solutions are in the works and some have already been implemented, though they’re imperfect at best. Nissan has taken to installing heaters to warm the battery, while Tesla uses heat runoff from the electric motor to warm the battery along with a regenerative braking system, which transfers energy momentum from stopping into the battery.

Unfortunately battery heaters still need power, and still need to draw it from said battery. Tesla has the best working solution yet, aside from the fact that the electric motor doesn’t generate very much heat, and the large amount of power taken in all at once from regenerative braking can damage the battery if it isn’t warm.

Proper solutions are still years away according to most engineers, and rely on improving battery technology through better conducting materials — materials that, as of now, have a short life expectancy and are slightly unstable.

If drivers can carefully plan their charge times and stops, the problem can largely be avoided. But many may be waiting awhile before charge stations become mainstream, possibly as long as it takes for battery technology to evolve.

For now, Tesla customers have taken to new December forums listed on an MIT Technology Review report with titles like “Winter driving warning” and “Another way to stay toasty on long trips without running heat,” where owners recommend winter motorcycle wear and snowmobile suits.

On the plus side, the winter weather traction is pretty unbeatable.

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