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Cold Climate Cars

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Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

Cold Climate Cars

Bill Crittenden
March 12, 2015


With climate change dropping a polar vortex over the northeastern United States last year, and similarly frigid temperatures in the winter just past, the limitations of cars in cold temperatures has become obvious.

While I understand the need for modern automakers to make "world cars" that can be adapted to any market in any climate, those cars are still engineered to take adaptations to make them left or right hand drive, to conform to differing safety standards, and various local preferences for fuels and transmissions.

So it shouldn't be too difficult to engineer in a little more cold-weather hardiness into the next generation of cars. They've already gotten a good head start with remote start systems and heated seats and heated mirrors, but there's still a lot of room for improvement.

After all, an automobile is usually the second or third largest investment a person will make in their lives. If we're spending as much as we are, and trusting this little bubble of metal and glass to keep us warm and alive on subzero nights when crossing the open plains from Illinois to Alberta, I think it's not unreasonable to ask a little more of our automakers in this department.

Here's a list of shortcomings I've experienced and what might be able to be done about them...

Instant Electric Heat. The heated seats are nice, but we need real all-over warmth, especially for backseat passengers who almost always lack the heated seats of the driver and front passenger. It's not like the technology of an electrically-heated coil or wire doesn't exist, such things are what make toasters and space heaters work. Automakers tried to put them between carburetors and intake manifolds in the dark ages at the beginnings of emissions regulations. Why hasn't anyone figured out that drivers might appreciate such a heater installed in the air vents? Such an energy-intensive system doesn't have to replace the traditional radiator-coolant heating system, just to bridge the gap between start-up and engine warm-up.

Better Rear Seat Heat. This is so very important because so many of us with families end up having to put our more cold-weather susceptible children in the back seats. Without the heated seats and without direct heated air vents on many car models, it's not a comfortable or safe place for a five year old. Heated rear seats wouldn't require any radical interior redesign to accommodate new venting, just some wiring.

Multitasking Heat. I've found that lately I have to constantly switch between defrost and full heat in both vehicles I drive on a regular basis. The defrost function that brings in clean cold air from the outside clears the windshield, but then it's not really warm. So I switch to recirculate the air, and the windshield quickly fogs up. A more powerful heater would allow one to pull in clean outside air that would keep the windshield clear and have it still be warm enough to be comfortable. The same electric heater that was used to hear from the moment of start-up could also be a heat booster for these annoyingly very cold days.

Driver-Friendly Block Heaters. All the cars I've driven that have had block heaters have had their plugs in odd places. Sticking out of the grille is ugly, under the hood is inconvenient as all hell, and in a hole at the bottom of the bumper is still a pain in the ass for the average mom just trying to get her kids to school. Relocating the plugs to high on the fender, where electric vehicle charging ports are located now, would go a long way towards making this inexpensive little option far more useful.

Electric Blanket Floor Mats. A lot of the heat lost can be through the feet, especially if your shoes end up snowy or wet. Most heater vents for footwells aren't awesome and the cold metal floor pan just sucks heat out of the car since the carpet doesn't extend up the firewall very far. A cheap and easy solution would be floor mats with electric blanket-style heating wires built in. This could even be an aftermarket item that plugs in to the cigarette lighter.

Variable Grille. This goes by various names at various companies, but the principles are basically the same: the front grille is fitted with shutters that close to redirect unneeded air over the car to decrease drag on hybrid models. This sort of thing could be nicely adapted to close off the front grille when the car is having trouble keeping warm when moving. If it's cold enough, the air moving through my car's radiator cools down the antifreeze so quickly that the car's engine can't generate enough heat to keep up. The once fully warmed up car (when stationary) actually cools down to below the computer's threshold for "warmed up" when moving and I lose overdrive, which the car won't activate unless it's warmed up above a certain point. The traditional northerner's "fix" for this is a piece of cardboard jammed in front of the radiator or zip-tied to the front of the car, but adapting this bit of hybrid tech to traditional cars would be a great option for those living even further north than my own commute.

I know it's asking way too much, but since I'm on the topic, you know what would be cool? For all the people who pop their wipers in the air so that they don't stick to the windshield, it would be awesome if someone would make windshield wipers that lift themselves up off the windshield when the car is turned off in temperatures below freezing and lower themselves back down when you start it back up. I'm sure it can be done, but at what cost and who would be willing to pay it?

But that last item would require some serious engineering resulting in some fragile moving parts that would likely end up costing the automakers major money in warranty repairs. That's why I know it's cool but asking too much.

The rest of this list, however, is a matter of extra wiring and electrical systems, which are fairly easy to engineer and manufacture. The only trouble I anticipate is that all of the new heaters I mentioned running at full might require a more robust alternator and a bigger fuse box. That's not exactly a radical redesign, and that's why I feel it's not asking too much to see some of this show up on optional "Winter Packages" on future models.



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