What Happens When an Electric Car Runs Out of Electricity: A Drive-Up a Volcano


what happens if an electric car runs out of electricity charge

The concept of running out of electricity or charge on my electric car freaked me out before I purchased one. Would I be stranded? Now, as an electric car owner, I know what happens as I have experienced running out of charge. 

What happens when an electric car runs out of electricity is the car goes into Turtle Mode, a function where the car slows to 20 MPH. This enables the driver to find a safe place to pull over. Prior to Turtle Mode, the electric car provides ample warnings on the low state of charge.

An electric car’s dashboard shows the state of charge remaining (percentage) and an estimated range. As the battery is depleted towards 0 percent, the EV provides numerous warnings to let the driver know they need to find a charge. But what happens if you can’t find a charge?

A traditional internal combustion engine sputters off and the car rolls to a stop. This does not happen on an electric car as the wheels are always connected to the motor. 

I drove my Nissan Leaf up Haleakala volcano on Maui to run out of electricity. This is what happened.

what happens run out of charge electric vehicle test
Nearing the summit of Haleakala with the observatories in view but the battery gauge no longer reading.

The Fear of Running Out of Charge When Driving an Electric Car

Range anxiety, it took me a couple months to get over it. My 2017 Nissan Leaf has a 100-mile range. That quickly disappears when I run errands to town. Town is 35-miles away but I have a strong headwind, hills, and it is hot on Maui. These environmental factors reduce my range considerably. 

I’m not alone when it comes to range anxiety. AAA survey in 2020 found 91% of electric car owners, prior to purchase, said their biggest concerns were “insufficient range, implications for long-distance travel, and finding a place to charge (source: AAA EV survey).”

It was good to see I was not alone in my range anxiety. Luckily, this fear of running out of electricity while driving my electric car didn’t stop me from purchasing one.

Post-purchase, these concerns went away for the majority of respondents. Previous AAA research has found that the top two reasons why Americans shy away from electric vehicles are not enough places to charge (58%) and the fear that they will run out of charge while driving (57%) (source: AAA EV survey).

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I was in the 57% camp of running out of charge while driving. But now I’m in the solid 96% of owners who report never having run out of a charge while driving. 

Well, except I ran out of charge on purpose to see what happened.

what happens run out of electricity electric car 0 percent battery
At the Haleakala Visitor Center Parking Lot with a dead battery but parked downhill so I could recharge with regenerative braking.

What Really Happens When an Electric Car Runs Out of Electricity

To be prepared, I wanted to know what happened if my electric car ran out of battery while driving. I’d prefer to know for certain than to be stranded on the side of the road, or worse, have a hard stop if the motor locked up at 55 MPH when the battery was drained. 

The process of running out of charge for my electric car was a smooth transition and completely safe. These are the steps my Nissan Leaf and most electric cars go through when running out of electricity. 

I completed my test of running out of power by climbing Maui’s Haleakala volcano. A 28 mile drive from the charging station in Pukalani at 1,526-feet to the summit at 10,023 feet. Well, I almost made it to the summit.  

What Happened When the Electric Car Ran Out of Charge

  1. 20% charge remaining: Warning icons and beep from the dashboard to alert me of low charge.
  2. 5% charge remaining: Dashboard stopped reporting estimated miles remaining and estimated battery remaining. Dashboard read “—%.”
  3. Turtle Mode activated at about 1% battery remaining with a sharp jolt. 
  4. The electric car slowed to less than 20 MPH in this power limitation mode.
  5. Less than a mile later, the car made a rough stop.
  6. Call a flatbed tow truck, portable roadside charging vehicle, or use regenerative braking to recharge going downhill. 

The summary above is what happened when my Nissan Leaf ran out of power. A similar, if not the same experience, will occur with other electric car brands per my research on forums and reading owner manuals. 

electric car run out of power 6 percent battery left
My 2017 Nissan Leaf’s dashboard reading right before it stopped reading. It was pretty accurate even on the steep climb.

My experience was unique as I was driving up a steep grade so it was hard for the car’s battery management system to predict the miles remaining but it did a decent job at it. Therefore, I am reporting the state of charge (percentage) remaining on the battery (measured and estimated).

Safety! Don’t try this experiment on a busy road or highway. The final, inevitable stop when the battery goes dead is a sharp jolt. This is because the wheels are connected to the motor at all times on an electric car. Unlike a traditional internal combustion engine where the engine is disconnected from the wheel via the drive train (true neutral). 

Therefore, when the motor loses power it is hard, but not impossible with sufficient force, for the motor to rotate so the car makes a hard stop. That is why the electric car’s battery management system puts the car into Turtle Mode to prepare the car for a stop. 

what happens run out of electricity electric car 0 percent battery
The dashboard when the battery stopped reading and before Turtle Mode was activated.

Safety was paramount for my test so driving up Haleakala was an easy decision. The road was not busy, there was a shoulder, and ample locations to pull over safely. Also, I would not have to call a tow truck to take me down the volcano. Once I ran out of charge in the parking lot at the Haleakala Visitor Center, I was able to recharge the battery using regenerative braking by descending down the volcano. I got back to 42 percent charge on the way down!

Also, don’t do this experiment frequently. A deep-discharge of the battery is not good for the battery pack. Once or twice is fine but this shouldn’t be a common occurrence to preserve battery longevity. 

What to Know When the Electric Car Runs Out of Electricity

My experience of running out of electricity on top of a volcano taught me a few things. Here are my lessons on running out of electricity in an electric car. 

Warning Lights for Low Power

There are ample warnings that alerted me that the car was running out of electricity. Unlike a gasoline engine with a rough gauge and a light that comes on when the gauge is low, an electric car has numerous sounds, dashboard icons, and a precise countdown to finally running out of charge.

A large amount of warning lights is most likely why few electric car owners run out of electricity. In 2011, AAA invested a fleet of mobile roadside charging vehicles. These were trucks with high-voltage generators capable of recharging an electric car to get them home or to a charging station. 

By 2016, AAA emergency roadside service had the recharging fleet available in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, and Orlando. However, the folks from AAA noted its special service was going mostly unused. 

So unused in fact, that AAA canceled the service altogether in 2019. Very few electric car owners report running out of electricity for the following reasons:

  • Increased awareness of the state of charge remaining with dashboard displays and driving habits
  • Improved trip planning for long trips, they know the charging stations before the set off on the road
  • Warning lights and alerts on the dashboard of low power

All these things have prevented electric car owners from having to use emergency roadside services when they run out of electricity on the road. 

Battery Charge Countdown

As I watched the electricity quickly drain from my battery pack on the steep climb to the top, my anxiety increased. Would the percentage jump from 10% to 0%? How accurate was the computer’s ability to predict the distance and charge left?

I found the computer did a good job at predicting the distance and percentage of charge remaining, even on a steep climb. 

6% charge was the last measurement I received before the dreaded —% came on the dashboard. Right before that, the estimated miles remaining went from 3 miles to — reading.

Following along on Google Maps, I knew how much farther I needed to go and to ensure the car was able to point down when I got into Turtle Mode. 

The accuracy of the state of charge remaining was good. This helped reduce my range anxiety on future trips.

Turtle Mode

You know when you are in Turtle Mode when the turtle icon appears on the dashboard. Officially, Turtle Mode on your electric car means a single cell in the battery pack is at 3 Volts compared to the normal 4 Volts. When the battery pack is balanced, about 1 kWh is remaining.

The Tesla Owner’s Manual says the turtle icon represents the following:

“Vehicle power is currently being limited because the energy remaining in the Battery is low or the vehicle’s systems are being heated or cooled (indicator light is amber).”

Note: If Turtle Mode activates when at a high state of charge, your battery may have a warranty issue. Call your dealership for information.

The turtle icon appears on Teslas and Nissan Leafs. The Chevy Bolt does not offer a Turtle Mode but does slow down and roll to a stop when out of power. Check your owner’s manual for other electric cars but this feature is becoming standard.

turtle mode electric car power limitation indicator
Nissan Leaf Owner’s Manual explaining Turtle Mode or officially called Power Limitation Indicator Light.

During my experience driving up Haleakala, when Turtle Mode was activated I could feel it. Along with the icon being displayed, the car gave a rough jolt as the car went to minimal power. 

Stepping on the accelerator did not make a difference, the car would not go over 20 MPH. It could perhaps go faster but I was on a steep grade. 

Turtle Mode is a safety mechanism to protect the battery from a deep discharge and to allow me to pull-over to a safe spot. In my situation, it bought me time to get the car pointed downhill so I didn’t need a tow truck.

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The Final and Hard Stop

Thankfully for Turtle Mode, one won’t be going fast when the battery finally goes dead. When the battery stops providing power to the motor, the motor stops and the wheels stop. The momentum of the car will keep it moving but the stop will still be hard.

The motor has a hard time revolving with its powerful magnets when their is no electricity coursing through their wires. 

If running out of electricity, try to pull over as soon as possible to avoid a hard stop. Car owners of the Kia Ioniq and Soul report a very hard stop with little warning when the battery drains to nothing. 

Now that you are out of power and safely on the side of the road, what do you do now?

Stranded? What to Do When Your Electric Car Runs Out of Charge

Out of power and sitting in your electric car. This is where fears of owning an electric car become reality. Just kidding. Imagine you are in your old internal combustion engine. What would you do? 

You have a few options when out of electricity and on the side of the road. Or perhaps, you were able to pull into a parking lot or gas station. Here is what you can do.

Electric Vehicle Roadside Assistance

Call emergency roadside assistance. Be it AAA, GEICO, or your local tow company, give them a call for help. They can’t bring you a gas tank but they can tow you. But don’t have your car towed as that will damage the motor. An electric car will need to be transported on a flatbed truck to a charging station. 

FYI, AAA reports over half a million traditional gas engine cars run out of gas a year. Most roadside assistance calls are from drivers who ran out of gas. Electric cars rarely run out of power as mentioned above so don’t feel bad if you do run out of power. It happens.

Extension cords. See if you can get a charge from a standard 120-Volt power outlet. Every electric car comes standard with a power charging cable. If you were able to pull into a gas station or a Mcdonald’s, then find a power outlet to plug into. You can get enough electricity to get home or to a charging station by asking the manager for a few kilowatts. 

Emergency Lights Will Still Work 

An electric car has two batteries. The power train is powered by the multi-kWh lithium-ion battery installed under the floor. For the radio, lights, SAT-NAV, and internal lights an old-fashioned 12-Volt lead-acid battery is under the hood.

The 12-Volt battery will be fully powered for emergency lights while you are stranded on the side of the road. The SAT-NAV and radio will also work so you can get support.

Can Electric Cars be Rolled or Towed?

Electric cars, unlike an internal combustion engine, can’t be towed or rolled. If your electric car runs out of electricity on the side of the road, don’t bother trying to push it to a charging station. 

An electric car doesn’t have a neutral position in the transmission. They can go forwards or backwards, but when they’re not doing either the motor is still connected to the wheels – it just doesn’t have any power driving it. Putting an electric car in neutral means no power is being sent to the electric motor driving the wheels.

The neutral position in a regular car means that should your car need to be towed, it’s fairly simple to do so and the car can be towed freely without rotating transmission or engine components. This is not the case with an electric car. In an electric car, when the wheels turn, they’ll turn the motor with it and this can result in damage to the motor. 

This is more of an issue in electric vehicles with a liquid cooling system, turning the motor at high RPM without this system working can overheat the motor to destruction. 

Check your owner’s manual for guidance on towing your electric car. Most will recommend towing on a flatbed truck. Rolling the car for a small distance, like a few yards, at a slow speed is acceptable but don’t attempt a long distance tow to a charging station.

Final Thoughts on Running out of Electricity in an Electric Car

If you do run out of electricity in your electric car, it’s not because of a lack of warning. 

While the estimated range display can be a bit hit and miss, they tend to get more accurate the nearer to zero you get. There’s also countless warnings to alert you to the state of charge, and virtually every EV has a navigation system that will take you to the nearest charger.

Once you do get to zero charge, your car has built in safety features that will enable a safe stopping point and the ability to get roadside assistance. Don’t overthink an electric car, the most common course of action is to call for emergency roadside assistance. The tow truck drive will know what to do to get your electric car recharged. 

Since I’ve owned my Nissan Leaf on an island with a poor charging network, I’ve never had an issue with running out of charge. There is always a place to get a charge or make it home. Running out of electricity is a real fear, but don’t let this fear stop you from buying or taking an electric car on an extended road trip. 

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Jordan Fromholz

I'm an electric car owner, enthusiast, and founder of the Plugin Report. As a Chemical Engineer with over 14-years in the energy industry, I've made my passions be renewable energy, batteries, and electric cars. My family lives on Maui where we drive our 2017 Nissan Leaf and share everything there is to know about electric cars.

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