There has been a lot of misinformed commentary, being passed off as fact, appearing in mainstream newspapers lately about the supposed “disaster” that is the electric vehicle. Much of it is appearing in the Ontario press, presumably to attack the current Liberal government’s supportive policies in this area in the lead-up to October’s provincial election. My Clean Break column this week in the Toronto Star offers a reality check:
There is a certain curmudgeonly segment of the population that seems to despise new, attention-grabbing technologies, particularly those that hold the potential to make the world a better place.
Electric vehicles fit all three categories, and this is probably why they have been criticized so much over the past two years – or past two weeks, for that matter.
The following points are almost always emphasized, and confidently passed off as “unwelcome facts” in attempts to prove electric vehicles are just a passing fad:
They’re too expensive and always will be;
They don’t drive far enough on a single charge and this will always be a problem;
They’re not really green if the electricity you charge them with is dirty;
Electric cars have come and gone in the past, and this time is no different.
Let’s start with cost. They do come at a premium and will for the next few years. But how is “premium” defined?
The roughly $42,000 (before rebate) price tag for the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid or $39,000 for the all-electric Nissan Leaf is high when you compare it to a Honda Civic or Mazda 3, but not for folks who opt to purchase an Acura TL.
Why would consumers purchase an Acura TL when they could get a Honda Civic instead? I’m not sure, but they do. Maybe it’s faster, or has extra features that appeal to certain individuals.
Similarly, electric vehicles such as the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf will appeal to those who want the latest technology, better performance, place a higher value on clean transportation, and are tired of being gouged at the gas pumps.
The words “premium” and “expensive” are subjective, so to generally dismiss electric vehicles as too rich is disingenuous, particularly coming from folks who opt for marble countertops, high-end furniture and luxury SUVs.
Now, regarding the range of electric vehicles, there’s no question that all-electric cars aren’t ideal if you want to drive across Canada or to the cottage. Not yet, at least. They currently take too long to re-charge and there aren’t enough charging stations in existence today to support such a journey.
But automakers haven’t marketed them that way, so it boggles my mind when I read reviews that criticize the poor range of these vehicles. All-electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf are being promoted for urban driving, and will likely appeal to families with two cars or more.
The vast majority of people travel less than 50 kilometres a day to and from work, and millions of Canadian households have two or more vehicles in the driveway. This means that for a significant per cent of Canadian drivers an electric vehicle, even with current range limitations, makes sense.
They should be tested and reviewed in this context.
It should also be recognized that not all electric cars are created equally. The Chevy Volt, and other models likely to follow, comes with a gas-powered generator as backup. Range is not an issue, something critics of electric vehicles conveniently overlook.
Meanwhile, energy-storage technologies are improving – ask the engineers at Magna e-Car—charging speeds are getting faster, and costs are coming down. The vehicles will become more affordable to more consumers, but it won’t happen overnight. Nobody said it would.
It’s true, however, that electric cars are only as green as the electricity that goes into them. But even in jurisdictions still heavily dependent on fossil fuels, studies suggest the high efficiency of electric motors makes plug-in vehicles the slightly cleaner option.
Fortunately, the majority of electricity in Ontario comes from zero- or low-carbon sources. Without question, an electric vehicle charged in this province is dramatically cleaner than any gas-powered vehicle, particularly if it’s charged at night, which will be the case most of the time.
Let me make this final point: This is not a passing fad, nor can it be compared to past attempts at introducing electric vehicles or hydrogen fuel cell cars.
There has never been a time in history where most of the world’s major automakers have introduced, or have committed to introducing, a commercial model of a plug-in electric vehicle.
Never have there been more companies in the world working to develop and drive down the cost of supporting technologies, such as battery storage, charging infrastructure and electric drive trains.
Maybe electric vehicles won’t ever come to dominate the roads, or maybe they will. In the short term, even if they capture a few per cent of global vehicle sales over this decade it would be a major achievement – and this is entirely possible.
But to declare electric vehicles stillborn on the first year of their commercial introduction, as some observers have recently said, amounts to a stunning display of ignorance.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.