Driving the talk

Driving a zero-emission vehicle can be an enjoyable experience—until you are forced to drive around for a charging station.

On May 5, the Globe and Mail published a piece by columnist and car critic, Jason Tchir, that looked at the types of vehicles that our federal and provincial leaders are driving.

The premise of the article is that, what our leaders drive is pertinent in terms of demonstrating their personal commitment and leadership regarding the most pressing issue of our time: climate change.

Given Canada’s renewed commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) to 40 to 45 per cent by 2030 from 2005 levels (up from the previous 36 per cent), and U.S. President Biden’s recent climate summit—not to mention the upcoming COP 26 climate meetings this fall, there have been renewed calls from all levels of government to drive (no pun intended) down carbon emissions from all sectors.

This has been particularly the case for the transportation sector which, at 28 per cent of all GHG emissions, is the second largest source of emissions in Canada, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada’s GHG Inventory Report.

Light duty vehicle emissions represent 12 per cent of overall GHG emissions. And while the industry has done an admirable job improving fuel efficiency (reducing emissions) of individual vehicles, more and more vehicles continue to be put onto our roads undermining these fuel efficiency improvements.

Consequently, the automotive industry globally and here in Canada is going through a major transition to electrification—with some $300 billion being spent around the world on this product migration.

One thing that many policy makers and those in the environmental community forget about when it comes to this transition, is that the introduction of ZEVs does not necessarily equate to overall emissions reduction from transportation — at least not in the short term.t

We have seen each of the Detroit-based vehicle manufacturers announce varying degrees of electric vehicle manufacturing in Canada to the tune of $5.7 billion, supported by both levels of government to the tune of about 30 per cent of the overall investment—which is a 50 per cent increase over the normal rule-of-thumb of 20 per cent of the investment coming from the public sector.

Moreover, even a cursory review of the public announcements made by the vast majority of automakers, with respect to the percentage of their fleets that will be electrified in some way, shape, or form by some time frame in the not-too-distant future, are a testimony to the fact that the automotive world is not only changing, but rather has changed and there is no going back.

While the number of models of zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) currently stands at just over 40 different offerings in Canada—in the very near future (2023-2025) there will be more than 130 models available in the Canadian marketplace for Canadian consumers.

One thing that many policy makers and those in the environmental community forget about when it comes to this transition, is that the introduction of ZEVs does not necessarily equate to overall emissions reduction from transportation—at least not in the short term.

Why? Because there are currently only about 200,000 ZEVs on Canadian roadways out of a total of 23.5 million light duty vehicles. So, while ZEVs in Canada currently make up around 3.5 per cent of sales, they represent only 0.85 per cent of all of the vehicles on the road.

That is not to say that vehicle electrification is not important—it really is! However, you need a much more comprehensive approach than counting on zero emission vehicle technology alone to reduce emissions from the on-road fleet.

Within the ZEV space as well, there are some real challenges that we are only starting to see automakers overcome. In Canada, we currently have a market where more than 80 per cent of the vehicles sold in any given month are classified as light trucks, as opposed to passenger cars. Yet the segments where most of the current ZEV offerings in the market reside are in the passenger car segments.

This is changing with vehicles like the Audi e-tron and the recently announced F-150 Lightning from Ford. But it will still take a while before we are not trying to jam the square pegs of what ZEV offerings are available into the round holes of what consumers are looking to purchase.

Any disruptive transition in any industry takes time. It may not be as fast as some think, and it will happen more quickly than others believe it will, but it will take time.

I would argue that the larger question for widespread adoption of ZEVs is not the number of models available, especially in the light truck wheelhouse of where consumers are purchasing vehicles, but rather the charging infrastructure necessary to support ZEVs. Currently a ZEV probably makes a lot of sense for a person who can have a Level 2 charging station installed in their garage and can charge their vehicle each night.

However, if that is not the case and you are relying on the public infrastructure to charge your vehicle, good luck to you.

I wanted to walk the talk, or rather, drive the talk as the leader of a vehicle manufacturers’ association in Canada, and so I have been driving a very nice ZEV for the last couple of months.

The vehicle is great. It has a range of 400 kilometres, dual port charging options on either side of the car, complete app integration to do everything from setting charging schedules to climate control from your smartphone, and it drives firmly planted on the road in silence.

My challenge is that where I live there is only street parking and no opportunity to charge remotely close to home. It has been an interesting process exploring the various apps and tools designed to assist the EV driver, with respect to where stations are, whether they are in use or not, what the cost is, and more. However, what is more often than not missing from such apps is whether or not a charging station is actually functioning.

It felt like my Mother’s Day was rapidly turning into Father’s Day when it took me more than five hours to get from Toronto to Collingwood (normally about a two hour drive). I went to no less than five DCFC (direct current fast chargers) before finding one that worked, and fortunately it did work because by that point I had about 15 kms of range left on my vehicle.

The search, combined with the hour and twenty minutes of charging time so I could make it to my destination, was pretty discouraging. If my experience is similar to that of others that do not have access to home charging, we have a real problem on our hands that is going to threaten the uptake of ZEVs. Neither our policy makers nor the industry can afford for the electrified transition to be a bust.

It is not good enough just to have a significant number of models of ZEVs available for consumers to choose from. That job is done and we don’t need ZEV mandates to try to force more supply into the market. What we need to be doing, is to ensure that those consumers that do make the transition to purchase a ZEV have not only a similar experience with their electric vehicle—but actually a better ownership experience.

That is not going to happen until we have a robust charging infrastructure that actually works and minimizes downtime for drivers.

It is paradoxical to me that, with increased urban densification where ZEVs tend to be more widely adopted, there are less places to actually charge vehicles at home when home is a condo tower, a multi urban residential building, an older residential community without driveways, or a house with a garage.

Jason Tchir’s article hinted at the reasons why a number of political leaders don’t drive ZEVs, even if they wanted to, but several of them are related to my own experience. While I love the vehicle, if I had spent $100,000 purchasing it, I would be inclined to trade it in because of how highly frustrating and inconvenient it is to utilize public charging infrastructure. I am trying to do the right thing and drive the talk, but it is not easy—or fun.

If we want to have 10 per cent of the vehicles sold by 2025 be ZEVs (30 per cent by 2030, and 100 per cent by 2040), we had better find the money somewhere for a proportionate investment in infrastructure to the tune of $500 billion that U.S. President Biden has committed to that effort in the United States. Anything less than that significantly limits our chances for success in meeting our ZEV targets.

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