A Cautionary Note: Electric cars and Hybrids in BC’s Backcountry Winter Conditions

Starting in 2025, the BC Government will phase in targets that will relatively soon (by 2040) leave electric cars and hybrids as the only options for vehicle purchase in BC. However, while plug-in electric cars and hybrids are clearly a good choice for the planet, and may work fine in Arizona and California, there are still some awkward questions around operating them in sub-zero weather conditions, and these apply particularly to backcountry trips that could involve remote trailheads or other remote locations.

For example, the 2019 Toyota Camry LE Hybrid comes with a printed disclaimer on a plain white card in the trunk, warning the new owner that if the vehicle is parked for more than 48 hours at -30c or below, it most probably will not start. Somehow they forgot to put that information on the Toyota website, so you don’t get the message until after you make your purchase. And it may be that it was the Toyota legal department that decided to make it a last minute addition.

But clearly, even if it looks like an afterthought, this ‘Disclaimer’ card indicates that Toyota regards it as important for people who just bought one (and who might end up stranded in a remote location in sub-zero temperature). The research also shows that current plug-in electric cars lose 42% of their range at a temperature of -10’c, which really isn’t that cold. Ironically, this is because these traction batteries overheat in very cold conditions.

This means that they may be okay for trips around the Lower Mainland or Victoria, where people grow banana trees in their front yards to show how mild the winters are (for the benefit of their relatives in Ontario, perhaps), but what about the majority of BC that actually does get really cold? It would be hazardous to go backcountry skiing or camping in January and come back after a three or four day trip to find that your car is dead and simply can’t be started. It might then be a long way to walk out and get cell reception to call for a Busters tow truck, if you haven’t packed a satellite phone. (Although, yes, you could program a “Send a Tow Truck to this Location” custom message into your Spot Messenger…)

Similarly, what if you estimate the charge you have left in your plug-in electric car as adequate for a trip to the backcountry or to the Interior, and find that due to cold or deteriorating weather conditions you end up stuck beside a snowbank, or on a bridge in a blizzard, some way short of your destination.

There are innovations on the horizon for many aspects of battery technology (in fact my next-door neighbour works on this) but we are not there yet, and most people are unaware of these limits to current automotive ‘traction’ battery capacity in cold weather.

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