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Why EV Winter Range Loss is Both Fact and Fiction

In late 2014, as the last days of fall were giving way to the earliest days of winter, my family and I were walking back into the parking lot of a local Nissan dealership here in Colorado. We’d parked our LEAF there to charge while we visited a nearby shopping center to run a few quick errands. As we returned to our car, another family was standing next to another LEAF parked adjacent to ours, a dealership salesperson at their side.

As my wife and I buckled our kids into the back seat, the woman spoke up, a look of mild concern on her face. “Does it really only get 50 miles of range in the winter?” she asked. Clearly she was looking for an honest answer from a real-world LEAF driver. Did the LEAF’s EPA-rated 85 miles of range really take a severe hit when the mercury dipped?

“No, not at all,” I told her honestly and confidently. Even in very cold weather, I was consistently getting 70+ miles out of a charge, and frequently closer to 80.

Yet her concern was entirely reasonable. Fair-weather driving in an EV is one thing, but over the past two or three winters there’s also been no shortage of coverage about winter EV range in the likes of The Charging Point, the Kicking Tires blog at Cars.com, AutoBlog, Inside EVs, and Plugin Cars, to name but a few. Perhaps the most widely distributed piece I’ve seen is a piece by Green Car Reports with graphs based on Fleet Carma data that conveniently plot average and best-case range estimates for the Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt across a 100-degree temperature range.

""The long and short of it all is that you can maintain range or curtail it severely, with your range ultimately less dependent on outside temperature and more dependent on how you use the car. That includes how you choose to maintain your own personal thermal comfort while driving in cold weather. Let me put that more bluntly: if you use the cabin heater, kiss a significant percent of your range goodbye. If, on the other hand, you choose other strategies to stay comfortable, you’ll make only a tiny dent in your estimated range.

This simple strategy has proven true even when I’ve driven my LEAF to Rocky Mountain Institute’s offices on multiple consecutive days when my morning drive takes place in literally zero degree Fahrenheit temps and the daytime high never climbs out of the single digits. Wearing a light jacket and using both the heated steering wheel and heated seats keeps me more than comfortable for the duration of the drive.

Some might read that and thus accuse me of making a substantial compromise, of making a hefty sacrifice in the name of maintaining my EV’s range. I’d argue, though, that this is instead about a paradigm shift in both expectations and how we maintain our own comfort while driving our cars.

""For decades internal combustion engine (ICE) cars have tricked us into thinking our vehicle cabins should be the equivalent of sweltering saunas on wheels, even in the depths of winter. I have a right to comfortably drive in a short-sleeved shirt even when snow is falling!

ICE’s comparatively inefficient powertrains have more than enough heat to spare, which is useful for cabin heat in winter but which risks overheating our cars in summer, hence the need for liquid coolants, engine fans, front grills that permit open airflow over the engine block, etc. Factories have combined heat and power—industrial heat processes that can put their heat to dual use and generate power. The internal combustion engines in our cars are the flip side. They’re combined power and heat—they generate horsepower and torque for vehicle propulsion, with a side effect of generating waste heat that can be harnessed for cabin heat.

Yet there are other equally valid—and frankly, more energy-efficient—ways of maintaining personal thermal comfort, from my aforementioned light jacket, heated steering wheel, and heated seats, to wearable technologies like Wristify, to even turning down my home’s thermostat at night and sleeping snugly beneath warm covers. It largely comes down to conditioning the person for comfort, rather than the space that person occupies … including the cabin of my EV.

Trust me: I’m no masochist. Banish any visions you might have of me shivering in the driver’s seat as I drive to work in the morning. I truly am comfortable, and you need not take my word for it. I have three young children, ages six, four, and one. They’re all in either rear-facing child seats or full-back booster seats. As such, they don’t benefit from our LEAF’s rear heated seats. When I drive them to school on certain weekday mornings, I always ask: “Are you comfortable? Are you too cold? Too warm?” They almost always say they’re comfortable, and if they’re cold, I run the cabin heat enough so everyone’s warm. But a rolling, electrified version of the Caribbean climate we are not.

Any EV driver has already made an automotive paradigm shift from internal combustion engine to electrified powertrains. Why then cling to the old way of staying warm in a car during winter? It’s time for a paradigm shift there as well. If you can make that leap, as others and I have, then you can have your winter range and heat it too. EV winter range loss can be fact, but it can also be fiction. The choice is yours.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock.