This post, part of a series we're running all about electric cars, was written by Akweli Parker from HowStuffWorks.com.
When any new technology hits the scene, there's a predictable lag time in how quickly people embrace it. With the exception of a few intrepid innovators and early adopters, most people have big concerns about any new item in the marketplace. Is it safe? Will it last long enough and work well enough to be a good investment? Will it bring me happiness, or just a bunch of headaches?
These types of questions surround electric cars, and have played a major role in their delayed entry into our mainstream transportation system. One of the biggest questions of all: Does extreme weather affect electric cars?
It's an admirable notion to want to reduce your carbon footprint by giving up fossil fuel-powered transportation. But none of us wants to contemplate getting stranded in sub-freezing temperatures after our electric eco-chariot runs out of juice halfway to our destination. (There's even a name for this fear of a dead battery when least convenient -- range anxiety.) And yet, for many reasons, electric cars are prone to lose their battery charge more rapidly when used in extreme temperatures.
The electric Mini E, a battery-powered version of BMW's Mini Cooper, threw New York and New Jersey-area lessees for a loop in the winter of 2009 and 2010. The Mini E drivers discovered that extreme cold reduced the cars' 100- to 120-mile (161- to 193-kilometer) range by as much as 30 percent. According to a New York Times article on the subject, and commenters who said they drove the car, running a heater accounts for a large portion of the energy loss.
There are ways around the extreme temperature problem, namely, keeping the battery heated or cooled so that it runs in its operating temperature sweet spot. So-called active thermal management systems for batteries, like that on the Coda Sedan, Nissan LEAF and Tesla Roadster, work to minimize the effects of efficiency-sapping temperature extremes. GigaOm, a technology news and trends blog, reported on one of the great debates within the electric vehicle battery world -- whether it's best for manufacturers to use air or liquid systems to keep temperatures in check.
One case of extreme weather you probably won't have to worry much about is rain. From childhood, we've all been warned that water and electricity don't mix. It's sage advice, but given all the failsafe measures built into electric cars, water is a hazard that doesn't present much of a problem.
So there you have it: Extreme weather can affect electric cars, because it makes them work harder to produce an amount of electricity equal to their output in normal temperatures. How bad a performance hit any particular car takes will depend on lots of variables, like ambient outdoor temperature, battery type, whether the car has a proper system to manage the battery's temperature and how hard the car is driven. Car makers say they're working hard to increase range, reliability and suitability for real world driving -- for them, making a worry-free product is just good business.