Tesla owners in deep freeze discover the cold, hard truth about EVs

Not all batteries like subzero temperatures

This week's frigid winter conditions in North America exposed the shortcomings of certain electric vehicles, particularly Teslas.

In the Oak Brook suburb of Chicago, Illinois, where temperatures have routinely dipped way below freezing, local media reported public charging stations turning into "car graveyards" because motorists were unable to power their vehicles.

"Nothing. No juice. Still on zero percent, and this is like three hours being out here after being out here three hours yesterday," Tesla owner Tyler Beard told Fox 32.

He wasn't alone. Dozens of cars were reportedly lined up and abandoned at the Tesla supercharging station in Oak Brook along with multiple charging stations around Chicago.

"This is crazy. It's a disaster. Seriously," said another Tesla driver, Chalis Mizelle, who had to ditch her ride and get picked up by a friend because the car wouldn't charge.

"We got a bunch of dead robots out here," quipped another, while Kevin Sumrak landed at Chicago O'Hare International Airport on Sunday night to find his Tesla unresponsive. He had to hire a tow truck and drove around looking for a charging station that worked in the freezing cold.

"I want Elon Musk to do something about this, it'd probably help us out," said another hopelessly optimistic Tesla owner.

However, Mark Bilek of the Chicago Auto Trade Association said that drivers were missing a trick. "Like any new technology, there's a learning curve for people," he told Fox 32. "It's not plug and go. You have to precondition the battery, meaning that you have to get the battery up to the optimal temperature to accept a fast charge."

But it's really not that simple. Preconditioning also drains the battery. Even looking at Tesla's own "Cold Weather Best Practices" is like playing 4D chess if you need to take a trip in the dead of winter.

"Tesla recommends activating climate settings at least 30-45 minutes before departure," it reads. "Preconditioning times depend on outside temperature and other factors. The mobile app will notify you once your vehicle has reached the desired preconditioning temperature."

"Tesla recommends using Trip Planner to navigate to a charging location for at least 30-45 minutes before arrival to ensure optimal Battery temperature and charging conditions," the document continues. "If the drive to the charging location is less than 30-45 minutes, consider preconditioning the Battery before driving."

In Canada, Mark Bohaichuk made a widely read observation on hellsite X after meeting a Tesla driver stranded in -45°C (-49°F):

Saw a fellow sitting in his EV at a charging station. The businesses were still closed for him to stay warm and dawdle while his car charged. I briefly spoke with him as he went into the store. He said he's been sitting in the car running the heaters and it was taking about twice as long to charge. The car's range was about 280km in the cold he said. The fellow said his trip to Saskatoon from Kelowna takes about 3 times longer for charging time (sitting time). His charges today were about $100 and two hours of sitting with heaters on and the battery was only 2/3 charged. He said he liked his EV, but only in summer. But he said only if it's not too hot, AC drains batteries very fast. So, if you live in Canada, and are considering buying an EV, make sure your pockets are deep and you're NEVER on a schedule. I wished him luck. His name was Jack (John) from Kelowna.

So why is this happening? The problem is that battery basics simply do not work well in freezing conditions. Ions inside EV batteries travel between the positive and negative electrodes through a liquid electrolyte. As it gets colder, that liquid, at least in most lithium-ion batteries, thickens, meaning the ions move more slowly. The slower the ions move, the greater the resistance. The greater the resistance, the faster an electric vehicle loses power.

The solution is to keep the battery warm, but the heat comes from the battery itself, so these stricken Tesla drivers are draining the battery just to be able to charge the battery, and we don't need to explain why that might be inefficient.

Scientists are working to tackle the issue. South 8 Technologies, for instance, propose a "Liquefied Gas Electrolyte" that "liquefies under pressure, enabling several safety and performance benefits," including a wider operational temperature range of -60°C to 60°C. Meanwhile, Korean company LG Chem is developing new electrode chemistry and architectures with a view to improve charging times and temperature performance. Tesla is also trying to develop battery technology, though its next-gen 4680 cells are proving difficult to mass produce.

Tales like these remind us that it's still early days for EV battery tech. It may take years for the necessary improvements to come online but until then, the answer is simply not to drive during a deep freeze. ®

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