Breaking down why Teslas struggle to charge in frigid temperatures and how we can assist.
Icy temperatures and electric vehicles have long been known to clash. While this chilly dynamic is not a recent revelation, it once again ignited controversy this week when a FOX 32 Chicago article highlighted the difficulties faced by multiple Tesla owners trying to charge their cars at a Tesla Supercharger in Oak Brook, Illinois.
As the temperature in this suburban area of Chicago dropped below zero for the first time in a long while, the situation appeared to be bleak. Owners were forced to have their Teslas towed on flatbeds due to non-functioning charging stations, resulting in their electric vehicles running out of power. The local TV station did not hold back, declaring the public charging stations as “graveyards” and referring to the stranded EVs as “lifeless robots.” This led to a wave of similar reports, with numerous prominent publications echoing this sentiment.
However, was the circumstances genuinely appropriate for such words to be used, or was it overly exaggerated? Is Tesla solely responsible, or could there potentially be some fault on the part of the user?
After conducting our own research, InsideEVs has uncovered some interesting findings. According to several members of the Tesla Owners Club forum in the Chicago area, it was reported on Monday that three out of 13 Superchargers were not functioning. This could possibly be attributed to the extreme cold weather, particularly in locations such as Oak Brook, Rosemont, and Country Club Hills.
Unfortunately, this is not a new issue. It has been known for some time that extremely low temperatures can cause charging cables, connectors, and important parts of a Tesla Supercharger (or any fast charger for electric vehicles) to freeze. The build-up of ice, hardening of materials, and higher resistance in electrical paths can all contribute to this problem. Consequently, the functionality and effectiveness of electronic elements may be compromised, resulting in malfunctions or shutdowns similar to what occurred in Oak Brook.
According to the FOX station, a number of stranded individuals were among those who had recently arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, located just 14 miles north of the Oak Brook Supercharger. In its official documentation, Tesla states that their vehicles typically consume approximately 1% of battery power per day while at rest. However, if Sentry Mode is activated—which uses the car’s cameras to remotely monitor exterior conditions—the vehicle can deplete up to 15% of its battery capacity within 24 hours. This could result in a notable reduction in battery life for someone who leaves Sentry Mode enabled while their car is parked at the airport.
Thankfully, there are multiple Supercharging hubs in close proximity to O’Hare Airport. However, an issue arises as at least three of these hubs, including the two nearest ones in Rosemont and Oak Brook, have been reported to be inoperable. These malfunctioning stations account for almost 50 charging spots out of a total of 13 hubs in the area. It should be noted that this number is only a small portion of the numerous locations available for charging in and around Chicago.
According to our colleagues at The Autopian, there have been reports on plugshare about issues with Supercharging at several of these sites. Some even mentioned heated altercations between owners over charging spaces.After researching and gathering information from various sources, including The Autopian, we have discovered that there are ongoing concerns regarding Supercharging at several locations. Reviews on plugshare indicate that fights have occurred between owners vying for charging access.
Battery composition is a critical factor in this matter. Tesla predominantly employs two distinct battery compositions in their vehicles: Lithium-Iron-Phosphate (LFP) and Nickel-Cobalt-Aluminum (NCA). For instance, the standard range Model 3 utilizes LFP batteries. These prismatic cells are less expensive to manufacture but do not possess the same level of energy density as the cylindrical NCA cells utilized in the Long Range and Performance models of the Model 3 and Y.
Despite being affected by cold temperatures, both NCA and LFP batteries face different consequences. However, LFP batteries tend to perform slightly worse compared to NCA cells. The overall range of the vehicles using LFP batteries is significantly reduced, and they also experience difficulties when charging in colder climates. This means that if the battery pack is not conditioned beforehand – a process that raises the temperature to an ideal level for efficient charging – the overall charging speed will be considerably slower when using a DC fast charger. Combining this with the already decreased range in extremely cold weather, it is highly likely to arrive at a Supercharger with single-digit State of Charge (SoC).
One major challenge in the process was likely the lack of understanding surrounding battery preconditioning. Preconditioning demands a certain amount of energy, meaning that leaving your electric vehicle with a low state of charge can hinder this procedure. Owners have highlighted that preconditioning can utilize anywhere from 7.5 to 12 kilowatt-hours, but these numbers may differ depending on the chosen defrost level and cabin temperature settings.
In most cases, Teslas will cease preconditioning at a reduced state of charge (SoC) in order to prevent depleting the battery before reaching a fast charger. This also means that the battery conditioning process will not begin until the car is plugged in, resulting in a longer time for fast charging if the charger is functional. However, if the charger is not functioning properly, it could result in an even lower SoC, making it impossible to reach another Supercharging station and potentially leaving the vehicle stranded.
It is conceivable that those who were directed to the out-of-order Superchargers were motivated by their recollection. It is likely that these people mainly depend on Supercharging as they do not possess a personal charging system at their residence. The harsh climate depleting the range and efficacy, combined with the absence of pre-conditioning, could have resulted in these owners being stuck at the Oak Brook Supercharger.
Furthermore, individuals have pointed out the decrease in charging efficiency during extremely cold temperatures. A user shared on Reddit that despite pre-warming the battery for 20 minutes, along with an extra 10 minutes for “quick charging preconditioning,” the Supercharger failed to immediately increase the actual driving range.
Kyle Conner from Out Of Spec Reviews recently featured a video demonstrating the behavior of batteries in freezing conditions. The video sheds light on the fact that superchargers usually do not increase the range until the batteries are warmed up to their optimal temperature. However, even after being properly heated, charging stations designed to provide 150-250 kilowatts of power only deliver a meager 20-50 kW. This poses a significant challenge for electric vehicle owners who are in dire need of a fast and efficient charging process.
It is about time that we acknowledge the truth about the range of EVs during winter and shift our focus towards finding ways to improve it.
Throughout the winter of 2022-2023, Recurrent, a startup specializing in battery health and data collection, gathered information from 10,000 electric vehicles to study how cold weather affects their range. Following its examination of more than two dozen models across the United States, Recurrent determined that on average, EVs experienced a 70.3% decrease in range during the winter months. This decrease takes into account various real-world factors such as climate, terrain, and driving habits.
Chicago is a bustling metropolis, comparable to gas stations in high demand of fuel as cars with almost empty tanks line up at the pump. Naturally, these occurrences tend to receive extensive media attention. However, our audience has informed us that the frigid temperatures in neighboring Michigan have also taken a toll on electric vehicle chargers. In fact, out of the 56 charging stalls across five Supercharging locations near Detroit, 12 have recently been reported as out of service.
What actions can be taken to safeguard yourself from experiencing this?
Electric car charging station suppliers such as Tesla must ensure proper maintenance protocols are in place. This includes addressing any damages caused by vandalism or mechanical malfunctions, and protecting the units from harsh weather conditions, as we are currently experiencing.
It should be pointed out that gas cars also struggle to start in extreme low temperatures, and a power outage caused by inclement weather can impact gas stations as well. However, this case demonstrates the need for improvement in education, infrastructure, and maintenance to avoid similar situations for future EV drivers.
Motorists must also pay attention to maintaining the necessary equipment. In a post on Reddit, one user pointed out that there may be an issue with negligent owners who neglect proper maintenance of Superchargers after use. It is not unusual for drivers to carelessly discard the plugs onto snowy surfaces, resulting in a buildup of ice within the NACS connector.
As expected, I neglected to connect my personal Tesla Model 3 to its charger last night. As I went to do so (while writing this!), I observed that the L1 and L2 connectors were coated in ice, even though they were securely fastened into my Tesla wall charger. This made me realize how this could potentially become an issue while driving, and a suggestion from another Reddit user could prove useful for frozen chargers, door handles, and charge doors. The advice is to always have a battery-powered heat gun stored in the trunk for travels, which may seem extreme but could be effective.
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