Electric Road Trip

Snow is falling. How is our EV (and its driver) holding up?

BILLINGS, Mont. — I started yesterday's journey with apprehension. From Miles City, Mont., I had to drive to Billings, into the teeth of a snowstorm.

Driving in falling snow is always stressful, but this was my first such voyage in an electric vehicle. How would it perform? How would I perform?

When I rolled out of the KOA campground at 6:20 a.m. local time, my headlights detected only a gentle flurry. But that was no comfort; the storm was coming from the direction of Billings to meet me and was forecast to drop 6 to 10 inches. The temperature gauge read 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

The first concern, as with any long trip in an EV, was to have enough range to get to Billings. It seemed like a slam-dunk, since my car battery (full) had 249 miles of range. I needed to go 151 miles.

But this first-ever EV drive in freezing temperatures provided two special worries.

One, they say an EV battery's range drops in cold weather. So I couldn't go as far. The other is that turning on the heat puts strain on the already reduced battery and drops range even further. So how much range could I really depend on?

The solution? No heat.

"I hope you have some warm gloves & long johns/thermal underwear so you don't need to run the heater so much," wrote a well-wisher, Bill Gehn, who had saved us back in Red Wing, Minn. I was ready, with gloves on, a big jacket and a down sleeping bag across my lap.

But half an hour in, cruising 60 mph uphill across the range, I discovered a flaw with my zero-tolerance heater policy. I couldn't put a sleeping bag on my windshield wipers, and the blades were freezing. A sheen of ice was creeping from the corners of the windshield toward the center.

So I turned on the heat to the lowest setting, 62 degrees. The ice just laughed. I got out at a rest stop, knocked the ice off and turned the heat up to 75. The windshield thawed, but the wiper ice remained. So I turned the fan up to high, feeling a welcome flush of heat on my face.

That sent the ice into retreat. But a new problem! Snow.

About 30 miles out of Billings, the flurries turned to heavy flakes and the roadway immediately started thickening with white. I hadn't yet seen a snowplow.

I remembered Bill's other piece of advice: "Those low rolling resistance tires are slippery in snow & ice; be careful!"

Dumb efficient tires.

The tractor-trailer I had been following through the snowy haze stopped for no reason, square in the highway. I couldn't wait! I swung around him and zoomed on, all alone, no traffic anywhere in a whited-out world. I had to make Billings; it wasn't going to get any better out here.

Finally, at 9:40 a.m., with 30 miles of range remaining, I veered off the interstate in Billings, pointing my nose toward the local Volvo dealership. It had a charging station and was right across from my hotel.

I coasted into the snowy charging spot and breathed a sigh of relief. I'd never been so glad to see a car dealership in my life.

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
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