The Greatness and Misery of the Electric Car in Winter

At dawn in Murdochville, a mining town suspended more than 500 m above sea level in the Chic-Choc Mountains region, the thermometer in my car reads -29°C. I rub my hands in satisfaction (and also to warm them up). This is the weather I dreamed of for testing the electric car in tough winter conditions. And see if the decrease in autonomy in cold climates, which critics of the electrification of transport underline in broad strokes, makes it unsuitable for the Quebec climate or not.

Except for one day at Percé, mercury never rose above -20°C during the day during my Gaspésie tour, a 2,000km journey that started in Montreal in late January 2022, driving a sport utility vehicle (SUV) electric . I faced storms and blizzards, walked daily on roads covered with snow and ice. I experienced the Gaspé winter to the fullest.

According to the Natural Resources Canada Fuel Consumption Guide, the Volkswagen ID.4 all-wheel drive model (on loan from the manufacturer) with which I made the trip has a range of 394 km, enough to connect Montreal to Baie-Saint- Paul without a break. In the extreme cold, however, I couldn’t drive more than 290 km without having to stop to recharge the battery, which represents approximately 25% less autonomy than advertised.

From the strict point of view of less autonomy in extreme cold, the detractors of electrification are therefore right. However, from year to year, the cold resistance of electric vehicles (EVs) is improving.

Cold increases the battery’s internal resistance and lowers the voltage. The more the mercury drops, the more the battery suffers. (Cold also slows charging speeds, but it’s hard to say by how much as each model responds differently to cold temperatures.) I found that the range displayed on the dashboard, the gauge equivalent, could take me less far than the expected as it depends on road and driving conditions. Of course, cold weather and road conditions also negatively affect the performance of combustion engines, but in these cases it is just stressful, because gasoline cars fill up quickly.

“Driving at 120 km/h on a snow-covered road takes more energy to travel the same distance than driving at 100 km/h on an open road”, illustrates Benoit Charette, co-author of the guide. The Automotive Yearbook 2023. So you travel more miles walking slowly, with the wind at your back, than walking fast with a headwind.

From the strict point of view of less autonomy in extreme cold, the detractors of electrification are therefore right. However, from year to year, the cold resistance of electric vehicles (EVs) is improving. The recent integration in some models of a heat pump, which heats the battery while driving, is progressing.

This device is standard on some models and is sold as an option on others. “We should no longer buy an EV without a heat pump in Quebec,” says Jesse Caron, automotive specialist at CAA-Quebec. The vehicle I was driving was equipped with this pump, an option offered for $1,500.

It is also true that filling up with electrons is not like filling up with gasoline, in just a few minutes. Getting the power reservoir from 10% to 80% takes at least an hour with a fast charging station. The Hydro-Québec Electric Circuit currently has more than 600, compared to 2,821 gas stations in Quebec (2019 data), but the vast majority of charging is done at home. And the number of terminals is rapidly increasing. During the first seven months of 2022, Hydro-Québec commissioned 83 new fast charging stations.

It remains that, even for a travel, a minimum of planning is required. For example, we coordinate charging with a meal break by searching through an app such as Electric Circuit or ChargeHub, a terminal located next to a restaurant – preferably a non-fast food establishment, no rush!

This is what I did on two occasions on the way to Gaspésie, during my 855 km along the picturesque Route 132. On the other hand, once on the peninsula, I recharged very little on the way, because during the night I took advantage of the free terminals offered by the locals. accommodation, a very common practice in the hotel industry. The car regained strength as sleep helped me to do the same.

Also, I felt a lot less cold in the passenger compartment than on my previous visits, in a gasoline car. In this type of vehicle, you have to wait for the engine to warm up to feel the heat, whereas in an EV, the heater is activated instantly, like a hair dryer. Also the defroster.

The heated steering wheel and seats consume little energy, which has a low impact on battery life. Hydro-Québec also suggests preheating the vehicle while it is still connected to its grid, rather than using battery reserves.

In total, thanks in part to free nightly recharges, my 2,000km trip cost me $130.79 in energy. In an SUV equipped with a combustion engine, the adventure would have cost me at least US$322 in gas (10 liters per 100 km, at US$1.61/liter, the price in effect during my trip to Gaspé). Every morning, I went out with a range of 280 km, well above my daily needs, in search of ski slopes or snowshoes. I never had to queue for a restock.

I had some connection issues with the terminals as I didn’t familiarize myself with the Electric Circuit app beforehand. For example, before making a top-up, you must deposit money in the app to pay for the transaction, otherwise it will not work. I was unaware of this detail. I thought you had to pay after loading.

Another problem: during one night in Percé, my vehicle’s charging inexplicably stopped at 2am. So I started my day with 80 km less than expected. “This is the kind of problem that electro drivers sometimes encounter,” says Jesse Caron of CAA-Quebec. I had probably connected my charging pistol incorrectly.

Batteries are both an advantage and a disadvantage in winter. Yes, the cold reduces its autonomy by 20% to 50%, depending on the model and the degree of cold. But distributed under the cabin, the battery weighs on the vehicle and lowers its center of gravity, which improves the EVs’ stability. “Even 2WD EVs excel in the snow compared to gas-powered cars,” says Jesse Caron. In addition to their better grip, most have more efficient rear-wheel drive on slippery surfaces than front-wheel drive. For this reason, you rarely hear stories of electric vehicles stuck in the snow. »

The only time I regretted the gasoline engine was on the way back, when I had to start the car at a terminal in an industrial park in Lévis. The place was a desert, with no sidewalks or commerce except a convenience store. For an hour, I was bored to death. It was a long way from the beauty of Gaspé!

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