In winter's chill, cold batteries mean trouble for plug-in cars

February 1, 2010 By Jim Motavalli

Nobody worried about cold-weather performance of electric vehicle battery packs when it was warm outside, but now that Old Man Winter has descended, the problem is beginning to surface. When cars have a range of no more than 100 miles, the loss of 20 to 30 percent of that is a very big issue indeed.

Carmakers have long known to expect reduced performance from lithium-ion batteries in cold weather, but the early adopters now driving around in Mini E and electric Smart cars (in Europe) are guinea pigs for what they do in the real world. There is teething pain here; some people are having issues.

Timothy Gill, a New Jersey computer consultant describes the 65 to 70 miles he gets from his Mini E as "pathetic." His experiences include needing a tow truck when the car was a mile from home -- and he thought he had plenty of juice left. But he still loves his Mini E, as do most of the people testing it in New York, New Jersey and California.

On a much-visited Facebook page for Mini E owners, there is considerable speculation about the best way to charge the car in cold weather, with no clear consensus emerging.

As Consumer Reports points out, Mitsubishi warns drivers of its i-MiEV electric not to use the heater because it will cut the range in half. And the heater is a likely factor in the BMW Mini E's range-loss, too. The Mini E uses ducting to direct warmed air at the batteries, but it's an experimental program (with just 450 cars in the U.S. and 150 in Germany) so BMW is not likely to engineer a costly thermal management system for it.

A Mini E driver commenting on my New York Times story on the car's cold issues posted, "The reduced range in cold weather is mostly from the use of the heater, and not the fact that it is cold outside. I've done some experimenting with dressing very warmly and not using the heater (yeah, I know I'm crazy) and the range was almost as good as it was when it was warm outside. That being said, you do need to use a heater so the range is 20 to 25 percent less than it was in the summer."

But it's not just the heater. Automakers are discovering that lithium-ion packs need sophisticated management systems with both heating and cooling. Christi Landy, product manager at Chevrolet, told me the Volt (due later this year) will have both liquid heating and cooling and a well-insulated battery. "We tell people that, before they leave on a trip, they should remote start the car while it's still plugged into the wall," she said.

Donna DeRosa of Edmunds Inside Line ( drives a Mini E in California (where cold weather isn't always an issue), but she reports it does get chilly there, and offers this harrowing tale. "This morning, I had 50 miles on the range gauge. It's a 20-mile commute to the office, so I thought I would have no problem. But it was cold and pouring rain, so I had the wipers on, the heat on low, the rear-window defogger, the CD player. You should have seen how I was busting through the estimated miles. I was down to 40 before I had gone five miles. The Mini was using them up double. So, I switched off the heat and the rear-window defogger. I needed the wipers and, well, I wanted the music.

"By the time I was halfway to the office, the power warning light came on, saying I only had 27 miles of range left. Luckily, I met up with some slow traffic and some downhill streets. I was able to build some power back up by driving slowly and taking advantage of the regenerative braking."

She made it to the office, but got worried about the "poor soul" in a Mini E she saw getting loaded onto a flatbed.

Reporting in Wired, Darryl Siry (ex-Tesla) said the Nissan Leaf (also due late this year) lacks an active battery management system, which could affect battery life in hot climates. "Thermal management in packs is critical to the long-term performance and quality of the battery," Siry said.

Mark Perry of Nissan responds that the Leaf won't need in the U.S., but might get it for users, if any, in ultra-hot Dubai.

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5 / 5 (2) Feb 01, 2010
There's no free lunch. Compare the energy in a kilo of hydrocarbon vs. the a kilo of the best Li battery technology and one can see why electric cars will be specialty items for a long time to come.
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 02, 2010
"Mark Perry of Nissan responds that the Leaf won't need thermal management in the U.S., but might get it for users, if any, in ultra-hot Dubai." I don't know what ultra-hot means, but here in Orlando, it gets 'damn hot'. You will break a sweat if you stop to check your mail going from your AC'd car to your AC'd house. Need those batteries toasted? We can do that. re cold: even in winter there should be some leftover heat from the batteries discharging if they are insulated right. I think they should all have thermal management and strive for high energy recovery in all systems. Thas't not necessarily always the point of ecars, but it's pretty much dictated by the current state of batteries. To ignore that doesn't make sense to me.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 02, 2010
@VOR, Florida has high humidity, so what you perceive as "heat" (i.e. what makes you sweat) isn't necessarily the actual heat, but more like the heat index: how effectively can your sweat evaporate from your skin, to cool you (in high humidity, sweating doesn't help much...)

I do agree with you regarding the rest of your post. On a related note, there are coolers out claiming they can hold ice for 7 days in 90 F heat. For example:


Why not wrap the battery pack in the same sort of insulation? It's light-weight; it's fairly compact. Yet with this sort of a setup, in winter you'd only need to warm up the battery once a week. And driving at least every other day, the battery's own charging/discharging should keep it warm perpetually.

Then you'd only need to worry about cooling the battery in the summer...
1 / 5 (1) Feb 02, 2010
Act as Maxwell's Deamon macroscopic and remove the box above some temperature and restore the box as the battery cools.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 02, 2010
Treating your car as an overcoat doesn't make sense, even when driving an ICE. I see it all the time.
not rated yet Feb 02, 2010
GM designed the EV-1 A/C to also run as a heat pump. Requires much less energy than a resistance heater. In PHEVs a small amount of fuel can burned for heating. Battery thermal management is a simple engineering task. Why is this presented as a major issue for EVs?
1 / 5 (1) Feb 03, 2010
"In PHEVs a small amount of fuel can burned for heating."

Maybe they can check out the old VW Bugs that burnt gasoline for heating. What a joke that was.

If people are having trouble in California and New York City, how in hell are these ECARS ever going to work in the mid-west, Canada, Russia etc.
not rated yet Feb 03, 2010
Questions for Solutions:

1) Since Obamma is pushing next-gen nuclear power, could the nuclear battery make a comeback?

3) With no backup booster, if people can call a tow truck, why not call someone to bring a backup booster, or 12v lead-acid car battery for the 12v cigarette plug to get further down the road?

4) Can OEM engineered & built-in solar panels, horz.-wind turbines, and/or retractable-bicycle peddles help these cheesy batteries go any further?

5) Since, sodium batteries operate a higher temperatures can a modular battery compartment allow swapping battery packs for colder climates.
1 / 5 (2) Feb 06, 2010
Clearly, automakers are going to have to do far, far better than this. Also, I would like to see the figures on actual carbon reduction realised by these hybrid autos. In the meantime, it's pretty unlikely that I'll be paying 30-40k on an auto that is really no more than a prototype, with a guinea-pig driver, who pays for the privelege of test driving.

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