Heating up the EV debate

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There may not have been any raised voices, but there were sharply worded disagreements on the best way to encourage consumers to buy more electric and alternate powertrain vehicles at the EV Tipping Point panel at the 5th annual CADA Summit.

Moderated ably by Huw Williams, CADA’s Director of Public Affairs, the panelists advocated their positions, leaving the audience — consisting mostly of auto dealers — with a sense that there are really no easy answers.

On one side of the debate, was Glen Murray, Ontario’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change. Murray presented a picture of a near doomed planet that would be unlivable for future generations if more efforts weren’t made to dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions, including replacing gasoline powered vehicles with more environmentally friendly ones.

On the other side, were representatives of the OEMs and manufacturers, represented by David Adams, President of the Global Automakers of Canada, and Mark Nantais, President of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers of Canada, who said they have increasing numbers of vehicle options available for consumers, but they remain largely uninterested in buying them — even with generous government incentives.

Murray expressed his frustration that despite getting a lot of money from the government of Ontario if you buy an electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid, not enough people are doing it. “We just need your help promoting the heck out of it,” says Murray, directing his comments to the dealers in the room. “We have had subsidies for almost a decade in Ontario and they haven’t moved the market very much.”

Murray relayed anecdotal stories of experiences he and others have had when they approach dealerships to inquire about buying electric vehicles. He says they often encounter untrained dealership staff who aren’t well versed in electric vehicle technologies, don’t seem to promote or understand the available government incentives, and who are only presented with few choices of models and colours.

In some cases, people are encouraged instead to purchasing conventional gasoline powered vehicles.

Murray appealed to dealers to let the government know what else they could do to help boost electric vehicle sales, calling the current incentive programs, “the sweetest deal in the country.”

“If you can’t sell an electric vehicle in Ontario – I don’t know what the barriers are – please tell me,” says Murray.

David Adams said that while OEMs are investing heavily in new technologies and models, the consumer interest isn’t keeping pace. Dealers are also struggling with many other issues affecting their business interests, and that EV and plug-in hybrids represent only a tiny portion of their vehicle sales.

Adams also cautioned that when governments try to force supply, it doesn’t work without consumer demand.

A GM dealer in the room backed this up, and advised Murray that despite selling about 600 cars a year at this dealership — only about six were electric vehicles.

But Adams says he doesn’t think any of the automakers disagree with the goal of transitioning to these new technologies. “They agree the future is decarbonized,” said Adams.

Mark Nantais, President of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers Association, says partnerships with governments are the best way to go. “That’s what we are concentrating on with governments,” says Nantais. “How do we work together?”

Nantais says dealers have a key role in training their teams, and to work with their manufacturers to get these new technologies into the marketplace, without detracting from consumer choice. “Technology got us where we got to today. Technology will get us to where we will need to be in the future,” says Nantais.

Adding a different voice to the debate, was Simon Ouellette, a Partner with Mogile Technologies Inc. who said everyone in the room has a role to play within the electric vehicle ecosystem.

Ouellette says his company runs a number of programs with dealerships and OEMs to try to gain a better understanding of the best practices of selling electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.

He says the best salespeople aren’t at dealerships — they are EV owners who then become advocates with their friends, and families. They live in the same cold environment, have access to the same charging infrastructure, and have similar commutes as their neighbours and friends. “To make demand greater, we need to make sure that every person who walks into a dealership looking for an EV, walks out with an EV,” says Ouellette.

Chicken or the egg

As the panel ensued, the chicken and egg debate over whether the infrastructure was adequate to support widespread EV adoption arose. Without infrastructure, consumers won’t buy the cars. If consumers don’t buy the cars, then there’s no need for infrastructure.

The infrastructure to support that investment isn’t yet there in Canada, says Nantais. “I think we are a long way from a tipping point,” he says. Things will evolve, he says, but “there are a lot of things that have to fall in place.”

For his part, Murray reiterated his earlier concerns about how serious the environmental costs will be for not acting more quickly to boost sales of these vehicles.

“Public opinion is going to change very quickly,” says Murray, adding that the government is trying to be practical and find ways to work with OEMs and dealers. “Dealers are important. Dealers are entrepreneurs,” says Murray, adding that the industry needs to find a way that makes it more lucrative for dealerships to sell these types of vehicles and provide a better customer experience.

“We have to up our game, and we have to support you in upping your game,” says Murray. “I think we have a lot of work to do.”

For his part, Adams says dealers have to carry all the risk if they have to carry electric vehicle inventory on their lots that they can’t sell. He suggested the government might consider different financing options to ensure more of these vehicles were readily available across the province.

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