Which Car Will Better Survive Total Infrastructure Collapse: Gas or Electric?

Last week, hundreds of motorists were stranded on a frozen 48-mile stretch of I-95 in Virginia for more than 24 hours. Horror stories abounded: People attempting to survive on Diet Dr. Pepper and kids going hungry for more than a day, to name just a few. It was a terrible situation reeking of bureaucratic incompetence by Virginia transportation officials that failed to adequately prepare for the storm or respond to the emergency once it took shape. 

But for some people, the lesson to be learned from this catastrophe is not what went wrong with emergency preparedness. Instead, the Virginia highway emergency was apparently yet another example of why electric vehicles are bad.

Writing in the Washington Post Opinion section, columnist Charles Lane highlighted one tweet sent by a trucker about a Tesla driver who was worried about running out of power. From this anecdote, Lane concludes “If everyone had been driving electric vehicles, this mess could well have been worse.” 

To support this assertion, Lane points to several facts about electric vehicles. Cold weather affects battery performance. The range of gas cars is typically further than that of electric vehicles. It is easier to add a gallon or two of gas to an internal combustion engine vehicle than it is to power an EV. Norway is cold and sells a lot of electric cars but still mostly uses gas cars. Therefore, he concludes, “Mass adoption of EVs, and the hoped-for cut in greenhouse gas emissions, thus hinges on the availability of EVs that can do everything existing ICE models can, all the time, for the same price and total cost of ownership, with no extra ‘hassle factor’— in all kinds of weather.” And “we’re not there yet.”

Overblown preparedness chic rhetoric aside—the entire point of the horror traffic jam was that ICE models cannot do everything all the time in all kinds of weather—this has all the trappings of a perfectly reasonable argument. Except that Lane does no actual math on precisely how cold weather affects EV performance, what features EVs may have to cope with situations like the Virginia highway freezing, and fails to compare any of this to actual gas car performance. Had he done those things, Lane may have come to a very different conclusion. In fact, it is not at all clear being stuck in an EV would be worse than a gas car, and in certain situations, it may even be better.

Before we get into the specifics, let’s get one thing out of the way. While I have never experienced this personally, getting stuck on a highway for 24 straight hours sure does seem like it profoundly sucks no matter what kind of propulsion system your vehicle uses. To use Lane’s phrase, the “hassle factor” here, including the 99.9 percent of drivers in gas cars, was about as high as could be. The most important thing you can do is put emergency items like thermal blankets, food, and water in that vehicle so if it does happen you won’t starve or freeze.

As for the matter at hand, Lane’s argument centers on vehicle range, or how far a car can go on a full tank of gas or charge. The RAV4, he says, can go 440 miles between fueling, whereas a Tesla Model X can travel 351 miles. This, he feels, is proof that gas cars are better equipped for days on a frozen highway. But how long a car can idle and produce heat is a totally different question than how far a car can travel, especially since gas and electric cars produce heat in different ways. 

When running, gas engines produce a lot of heat, which is re-used to heat the cabin. This is why you need to idle your car with the engine running in order to heat the cabin. (As an aside, this produces another hazard EVs do not have: Cars stranded in blizzards can poison their occupants if the tailpipes are blocked, as recently happened in Pakistan.) Depending on the size and specifications of the engine, a car will probably use around a third to two-thirds of a gallon an hour to idle. A 2019 Autotrader post breaks down the math, but the upshot is a RAV4 with a completely full 14.5-gallon tank could idle for about 30 hours. Of course, most people do not keep their tanks full at all times, so real-life conditions would result in less idle time.

On the other hand, many electric car owners do keep their cars closer to full at all times since they plug them in each night. Electric cars also heat their cabins entirely differently. To drive, heat the cabin, or do pretty much anything else, the car draws power from its giant battery. To do this more efficiently, most EVs, including Teslas, have electric heat pumps to heat and cool the cabin. 

EV enthusiasts, including those in Norway, have long been interested in the idea of how EVs handle cold weather. (Anecdotally, about once a week someone will post in most electric vehicle subreddits or forums asking about cold weather performance, and most people will reply something to the effect of it’s marginally worse but fine.) In 2020, Youtuber Bjørn Nyland slept in a Tesla Model 3 near the Arctic Circle when it was 17 degrees Fahrenheit. The car consumed an average of 1.3 kW per hour. Even the smallest Model 3 battery of 50 kWh fully charged could heat a Tesla in freezing temperatures for 38 hours. That’s about the same, and even a little bit longer, than the RAV4.

And there are other measures EV owners could take to stretch that out even longer, options not available to gas cars. For example, most EVs come with heated seats which use a trivial amount of energy, usually around 500 Watts. In a pinch, EV owners could turn off the ambient air heating but keep the heated seats on, prolonging some semblance of body warming for days. Gas car owners can’t do this, as heated seats will rapidly drain the car’s 12-volt battery needed to start the car.

Speaking of dead batteries, there were plenty of those on the Virginia highway when all was said and done. Not on electric vehicles, but on gas cars. Cold weather has long been tough on those lead-acid batteries needed to start gas cars.

So, too, were there plenty of cars that had run out of gas. And this hits on Lane’s most valid point. It is still more convenient to bring a gallon of gas to a stranded vehicle than it is to tow an EV to a charge point. But it is still early days for EVs and it won’t be long before emergency services offer mobile charging solutions that replicate the Jerry can experience.

The upshot of all this is not to convince you to buy an EV in case of your very own frozen highway nightmare. When considering a purchase of a new vehicle, “which car is better for a catastrophic collapse of vital infrastructure because of a weather event” is probably not the best question. In such a situation, what matters far more is how much fuel or charge that vehicle has at the time, what supplies you’ve stored inside that car, and how quickly the authorities get you moving again. And the far more important question is how we prevent such catastrophic failures of our vital infrastructure in the first place.

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