Range excitement

Foreground | What happens when an established practice meets an emerging trend?

All roads lead from the Arctic (Photo: BMW)

Kevin McGwin

You may not know it, but your car – or at least a test version of it – has probably been put through its paces in the Arctic, or close to it. Carmakers (as well as airplane makers) subject their creations to cold-weather testing at various sites in the region. Volkswagen at one time operated a facility in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Finland has several test tracks. Arvidsjaur, Arjeplog (pictured above) and Älvsbyn, a triangle of villages in Swedish Lapland, considers itself to be the world’s largest automotive winter-testing area.

If carmakers are focused on how their petrol-powered cars handle, or, indeed, even start in the first place, when temperatures fall to -30°C or lower, then they are doubly concerned about how cold weather will affect the increasing number of battery-powered models they are turning out.

The reason why will be obvious to anyone who has ever used a smartphone in winter. The lithium-ion batteries of the sort that power most modern electronic devices and cold weather don’t mix. In cars, cold weather can reduce range by 12%, according to AAA, an American car-owners’ organisation. Turn on the heat, and it falls 40%. Other accessories, like wipers and defrosters, are an additional drain.

But, if being off the grid between home and work is an inconvenience, not being able to start your car can have more serious consequences. The good news is that, unlike phone producers, carmakers can add extra kit to reduce the strain on batteries, and drivers can be told how to operate their cars more efficiently, but both require a certain amount of data gained under the controlled conditions of the test track as well as in the real world.

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The former is something that carmakers have been working to obtain ever since the re-emergence of electric cars as a viable alternative to petrol-powered cars. Tesla, a maker of electric cars, put its initial models to the test in Arvidsjaur in 2007. Today, it has a cold-weather testing facility of its own in Alaska.

The latter is growing slowly, but steadily, as well. As with much when it comes to electric cars, Norway plays an outsized role; nationally, ownership rates are high thanks to policies to encourage people to convert. The penetration rate is somewhat lower in the North, due to concerns about range. Some of this may be justified, though not necessarily due to the effect of cold temperatures: a smaller population spread over a larger area means longer driving distances and fewer charging points. Even if range is good, it still might not be enough to get you where you are going, let alone back again.

Other places, like Nuuk, Greenland, were quick to see the benefit of electric cars, and in 2015, the municipal authority began phasing them in when purchasing new fleet vehicles. Here, though, range is not an issue: because there are no roads connecting Greenlandic towns, all traffic is local; even in winter, a daily charge is more than adequate for standard use.

At some point in the coming month (the date has not been made public) Tesla, in Tesla style, will combine both types of testing when it holds its annual winter driving event in Kemi, Finland. The event is mostly a chance to generate publicity by inviting a select group of owners of some of its models on an all-expense paid trip: this year’s event also coincides with the release of two new models in Europe. But, according to the company, it will be the first time they are subject to ice-driving in Europe. Information about their performance will help improve how Tesla programs the on-board computers that assist drivers.

The more things get disrupted, the more some things stay the same.


When: TBA
Where: Kemi, Finland
WWW: Tesla Winter Experience

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Foreground articles offer a preview of events related to the Arctic that will be taking place in coming week.

If you have a topic you think ought to be profiled in a coming week, please e-mail kevin@rasmussen.is.

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