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Can an electric vehicle conquer Canada’s ‘Highway Thru Hell’?

The 239-kilometre stretch from Kelowna to Hope, B.C., includes two fast-charging stations – although one is for Teslas only.

If I have a pure electric car, what would the everyday range need to be to enable me to drive from Kelowna to Hope in British Columbia over two mountain passes along the Coquihalla Highway in winter? I'd want some range to spare in case I'm held up by a traffic accident for two hours. Will the batteries be charged up on any of the descents? I know this is a rather technical question but the answer is key for anyone considering an electric car as their primary car – and not just for work commuting. – Ian

When you're taking on the "Highway Thru Hell" in an electric car, size matters.

"It comes down to the size of the battery," said Bruce Sharpe, president of the Vancouver Electrical Vehicle Association, an owners and enthusiasts group. "If you've got an electric car with a battery capacity of 60 killowatt hours [kwh] or better – that would be a Chevy Bolt, the Tesla Model S or even a Tesla Model 3 – everything is probably going to be fine under those circumstances."

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It's 239 kilometres from Kelowna to Hope along Highway 97C and Highway 5, better known as the Coquihalla.

For now, the only battery-electric cars with a maximum range to cover that on a single charge are the $43,000 Chevy Bolt (383 km), the $132,000 Tesla Model X (420 km) and the $95,000 Tesla Model S (435 km).

The coming Tesla Model 3, which is expected to be delivered this year, is US$35,000 with a 354-km range or US$45,000 with a 498 km-range. And the coming Hyundai Kona will have an optional high-capacity battery pack that pushes the range to 299 km to 469 km.

If you've got a car with less range – for instance, the $36,000 2018 Nissan Leaf will have a 243-km range, up from 172 km now – you'll need to figure out where you can stop and charge.

Homework required

"Anybody who gets an electric car, one of the first things they learn is that there are websites – PlugShare is one of the most popular – which show all the chargers around the world," said Sharpe, who has a 2015 Tesla S with an 85 kwh battery.

Websites will show the different kinds of chargers available – and you need to pay attention.

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Level 1 just means plugging your car into a normal 120-volt wall outlet. It's slow. Getting a full charge can take a day or more – you typically get about seven km of range for every hour you're plugged in. Some sites show publicly available Level 1 outlets in parking garages (where you'll usually have to pay for parking).

Level 2 chargers supply 240 volts – like what your dryer uses – and cut the charging time by up to four-fifths. If you're charging from a fully depleted battery, a 2017 Leaf would take 4.5 hours to get a full charge. A Bolt takes 9.5 hours.

Then, there are DC fast-charging stations. They can get a battery up to 80 per cent of its full charge in about 30 minutes. At 80 per cent, the charging speed slows down and it can take up to another half hour for the rest.

Along that route, there are two fast-charging stations in Merritt, 127 km from Kelowna. But one is a Tesla Supercharger that won't work with other brands.

"There's an alternative route which does take a little longer, but it's better populated with high-speed fast chargers," Sharpe said. "I counted six."

That route, along Highway 3A through Penticton and Princeton, adds about 60 km – but there are fast chargers spread out along the way. But even if there are enough, there's a chance they may not be working or somebody else may be using them.

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Actual mileage may vary

The ranges are estimates based on government tests – just like gas mileage. Your actual range will vary depending on things such as wind speed, how much you're carrying, the way you drive and outdoor temperature.

"Batteries do get charged via their generative braking during descents," said Charlotte Argue, program manager with Plugin BC.

Any time your foot is off the accelerator and the car is slowing, you're putting energy back into the battery. But there's debate online about how much battery life you'll actually gain by going downhill.

And what if you're stuck on the road for hours because of an accident? On Feb. 25, a six-vehicle crash closed down the Coquihalla between Hope and Merritt for six hours in one direction and nearly 12 hours in the other direction.

"I'd be much more concerned about being stuck in a [gasoline-powered] car than in an electric car," Sharpe said. "Your gas will run out – and idling with all those fumes around is not very pleasant."

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But what if it's winter and you have to run the heater?

"While the heater does take some of the battery charge, you'd still have hours and hours of heating capacity," Sharpe said. "A couple of our owners have done experiments where they've left the heater on overnight in freezing weather and the battery survived."

So how long could you run a heater non-stop in an electric car?

"It all depends on the size of your battery and the outside temperature," said Kelly Carmichael, an IT analyst with the British Columbia Institute of Technology. "In the worst case, you are looking at using about five kw to keep the car warm, and if you had a 60 kwh battery, you could keep the car warm for 12 hours."

B.C.'s Transportation Ministry is looking at adding EV charging stations at rest stops along the Coquihalla, said Carmichael, who designed a program for infrastructure planners that calculates EV range on B.C. highways.

Heated debate?

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And if you are taking that drive in the winter, you'll lose range.

"There's no getting around it: Electric cars in winter have shorter range," wrote Chris Neff, a New Jersey electric-car advocate. "On really cold days, the loss can be up to 40 per cent, especially when running the heater. A cold battery, using the heater, plowing through snow and slush, all of that contributes to less range."

Batteries aren't as efficient in the cold. To a lesser degree, gasoline cars get worse mileage in cold weather, too.

"It all depends on the weather – on the worst possible day, when it's minus 30, you might lose 40 or 45 [per cent of charge]," said Cara Clairman, president of Plug'n Drive, a non-profit that advocates for increased use electric vehicles. "Maybe that's a day to rent, but at minus 15 or 10 or zero, maybe you'll lose 25 or 30 per cent."

To maximize range on long winter trips, some electric-car owners run the heated seats instead of the climate-control system to conserve battery power.

The end of range anxiety?

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If you're taking a longer trip, some car companies – including Tesla and Nissan – offer calculators, either online or in apps, that can estimate what your range may be on a particular route at a particular temperature.

"If you're new to electric cars, it can be a lot more planning than you're used to," Argue said. "Depending on where you are in the province, there are still some obvious gaps with DC fast charging. So looking at doing a trip across the province or up north to Prince George or beyond isn't really feasible."

Some EV owners do take trips through fast-charger deserts, but they're usually "keeners who will plan carefully and stay overnight in places with Level 2 chargers," Argue said.

But Clairman thinks people are fixated on long road trips – which for most people might be once a year, if that.

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada is a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

There’s a lot to consider when deciding whether an electric vehicle is right for you. Let Viktorija, a car enthusiast, show you how the benefits of her plug-in hybrid have made it her first, and favourite, choice when it comes to daily driving and commuting.
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