Few places on earth are better designed to create automotive agony than the Lapland Proving Ground. Midway between Paris and the North Pole, it is where automakers come to see if their newest creations can endure the most frozen of tortures.
So it seemed the perfect place for The Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association to bring a handful of electric cars, to see how they manage in conditions unimaginable in the more temperate latitudes where automotive designers work in Germany and California.
After all, drivers in far northern climates are as likely to encounter 30 below as 30 above. Cellphones regularly fail in extreme cold. Can an electric car fare much better?
The late January test has considerable relevance for Canada, where the federal government will require all new vehicles sold by 2035 to meet zero-emission standards. That will place a burden on new automotive technology to fill the void, in particular the heat pumps and batteries that are set to be the new sources for warmth and speed on the road.
To work in Canada, those cars will need to perform in the blistering cold of not just Edmonton or Winnipeg or Grise Fiord – but of rural Ontario, where temperatures touched -30 C in the recent polar vortex.
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In Finland, Ståle Frydenlund, test manager for the electric vehicle association, locked five new models into the proving ground’s cold chambers overnight and set the thermometer for -40 degrees. When he returned the next morning, the results were not particularly reassuring. Three of the vehicles – Kia Niro EV, Nissan Ariya and MG4 Electric – could not drive out of the chamber on their own power.
“We had to put the gear levers in neutral and push the cars out,” said Mr. Frydenlund.
A short distance from the Lapland Proving Ground, across the border in Norway’s Finnmark region, lies the frostbitten real world.
Bigger than Denmark, it is a land of mountainous wintertime expanses, where sparse forest emerges through snow that glows pink in the wan light of a February sun that barely clears the horizon. Temperatures here regularly fall to -25 C and below, crusting seawater with ice and layering trees in thick coats of hoar frost.
Norway has embraced electric cars like no other country on earth, with batteries powering 79.3 per cent of all new cars sold in 2022. But adoption rates have been slower in Finnmark, where just over half of cars sold last year were electric. In the darkness of Arctic winter, shoppers leave diesel station wagons idling in the parking lot as they stock up on groceries. Not everyone is convinced electric will be better.
“The effectiveness of the battery is not so good in this cold,” said Pererik Larsen, a paramedic in Hesseng. His coverage area extends to Bugøynes, a drive of nearly 100 kilometres. As technology progresses and electric range extends, he can imagine using an electric ambulance. But not now.
“In this kind of weather, I would be really worried,” he said.
The taxi fleet in nearby Kirkenes is similarly nearly all-diesel, with the exception of one Volkswagen ID.4. But in a recent cold snap, with temperatures below -25 Celsius, the electric taxi remained parked until the return of warmer weather. “In summer time, if you only drive in the city, it’s perfect,” said taxi driver Magne Andreassen. In winter, he’s less convinced.
Many in northern Norway tow snowmobiles, and towing can cut an electric vehicle’s range in half, especially in a region where distances are immense. A sign on the outskirts of Kirkenes points the way to Narvik, 1,079 kilometres away.
The mandate to end sales of combustion engines is “stupid,” said Bjorn Floer, who drove his diesel Toyota HiAce home from his cottage, where he traps marten and hunts grouse. “You can drive this for 30 years,” he says, nodding to the car, a model known to last more than a million kilometres. “How long can you drive an electric? Eight years? Ten? I don’t know,” he said. A new electric vehicle is expensive, too, he said, not to mention the cost of installing a new charging system at home.
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Mr. Floer dislikes the direction his country has taken. “In Norway, we’re living in our own world, a fantasy world,” he said. “We are so rich we want to show how good we are.”
Finn Helge Lunde knows firsthand the skepticism of electric cars in the Artic. When he bought a Tesla Model S in 2013, it prompted no shortage of disparaging remarks. “Some were very against it. A lot of strong opinions that this doesn’t work.”
He also encountered some of the problems that have worried buyers. Local charging infrastructure was, in the early days, effectively non-existent. He found high-voltage electricity in unexpected places: a compactor at a grocery store; a plant making styrofoam boxes for the export of fish.
“That was the beginning,” he said.
But things have changed dramatically. The past 18 months have brought dozens of new charge points to Finnmark.
“You need to have charging stations. And I think that’s the most critical thing in terms of doing it properly,” Mr. Lunde said. He has now driven his Model S 120,000 kilometres, and has added a Model Y.
He has experienced vanishingly few cold-weather problems. The primary concern is range, which can fall dramatically in the cold, especially on trips when energy is being used to bring both the battery and the passenger cabin up to temperature. Snow-packed roads can make driving less efficient, as can denser cold air. But in general, testers have found that in the most bitter of Arctic temperatures, long-distance range remains 60 to 70 per cent of what a car can achieve in warm weather.
That’s less of a concern with the current models in the Yngve Labahå Volkswagen showroom in Kirkenes, which boast an official estimated (warm-weather) range of over 400 kilometres. The dealership is a family business that has been here for decades. As recently as 2020, Mr. Labahå sold virtually no electric cars. In 2022, batteries powered nearly every vehicle that drove off his lot.
“In two years from almost zero to 100 per cent – you can’t get better proof,” he said.
Buyers changed when they felt confident in charging networks and were able to buy models with all-wheel-drive and the ability to tow. The current generation of electrics are “perfect for this area,” Mr. Labahå said, enthusing over the app he uses to ensure the car is warm and ready to drive at a scheduled time.
Cold weather can double or even triple charging times, but most Norwegians charge at home – and some models now allow the driver to preheat the battery to speed its refill time.
Electric cars are “quite able to cope with winter if you know what you’re doing,” said Mr. Frydenlund. “The challenge is teaching newbies how to do this.”
He could plausibly be called the world’s pre-eminent tester of electric cars. He has put 160 models through their paces and has spent a decade expanding the frontiers of electric motoring.
“The cars need to cope with anything,” he said. That includes the northern wilds where signs warn about reindeer on the road.
He is still uncertain exactly what caused the three vehicles to fail the recent cold-weather test in Finland, but believes it relates to the way those cars manage the charge on their smaller 12-volt batteries, which power basic car systems like display screens and window wipers. Their main high-voltage batteries, used to operate the motors, remain functional. But it took time in a heated mechanical shop – and the installation of new 12-volt batteries – to get all three running again.
He is confident modern EVs can handle the cold – and, after all, gas and diesel cars have their own struggles in extreme temperatures. But the failures suggest manufacturers have yet to fully winter-proof their battery-powered products.
“It’s a very nice lesson learned,” Mr. Frydenlund said.