Why you may be driving an electric car sooner than you think


On his computer, Hugo Jeanson has a growing list of more than 175 important deliveries he hopes to start making in early 2017, if not sooner.

Rather than elfin-wrapped gifts from the North Pole, the recipients have their fingers crossed for a special made-in-Michigan delivery. All of them, registered with Jeanson’s car dealership in Rawdon, Que., are clamouring to own the newest automotive game changer: a new Chevrolet Bolt.

Unveiled for the first time in January, 2015, the all-electric Bolt is one of the most highly anticipated cars in recent history.

Not because it drives itself and does your laundry while you sleep or has a slushie maker in the back to keep the kids quiet (for the record, it does neither), but because it is 100 per cent battery-powered. It goes far – 320 kilometres on a single charge. And it will be relatively inexpensive. This trifecta of achievements means that in the Venn diagram of factors influencing the mass market’s embrace of electric vehicles (EVs), the Bolt is expected to ride into a sweet spot.

“It’s going to be the car that changes the marketplace,” said Jeanson, owner of Bourgeois Chevrolet, about 80 kilometres north of Montreal. The pileup of demand at his dealership alone bears that out. Despite the fact that GM doesn’t accept early deposits on pre-released vehicles (only upstart Tesla does), customers have been asking Jeanson if they can “preorder” the Bolt for more than a year.

Meantime, Nissan, which put out a new electric Leaf last year with a range upgrade to 170 kilometres on a single charge, is grappling with a new twist on demand: a Quebec-based EV enthusiast managed to get nearly 4,000 people to sign up for a “group buy” of the new Leaf. The organizer, Bruno Marcoux, hoped Nissan would offer new Leafs to his group at a discounted rate, allowing them to bypass the dealership and associated fees, if he signed enough people. For now, the auto maker has declined to go through with the sale and Marcoux has gone back to the drawing board, vowing to find another way to set a record for the most EVs sold at one time.

As National Electric Drive Week (Sept. 10-18) is to be marked with events in cities stretching from Victoria to Donnacona, Que., these signs indicate that the appetite for green vehicles in Canada is beginning to shift. Recently, the country logged its 22,000th electric car on the road.

In the first quarter of 2016, sales were up 75 per cent over the same time period last year, according to statistics compiled by Fleetcarma, a Waterloo-based telematics company that specializes in EV data. In June, more than 1,000 EVs were sold to Canadians. It was the first time one-month EV sales surpassed the three-figure mark for a month.

Stacked against sales of gas-powered cars, those numbers appear unremarkable. Total hybrid sales still make up less than 2 per cent of the overall market in Canada. But observers say change is coming – and likely at a much faster pace than most people think.

“People believe electric vehicles are the future,” said Cara Clairman, chief executive of Plug’n Drive, a national non-profit EV advocacy organization. “We tell people the technology is available right now. And it’s not some big sacrifice,” she said, adding: “There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about what EVs are all about.”

At the top of the list are that vehicles are both expensive and only good for short treks. The arrival of the Bolt, with its affordable sticker and long range, will provide a short term answer for budget-conscious drivers who are plagued by range anxiety.

While not all provinces offer rebates for buying electric (which typically carry a higher price tag than their gas counterparts), the Ontario government recently beefed up the rebates it offers buyers of EVs, which range from $3,000 for Cadillac’s plug-in hybrid ELR, for example, to $13,000 back on BMW’s compact i3. In addition, the province plans to enable free, overnight charging starting in 2017. Ontario also promised earlier this year to spend $20-million to add 500 fast charging stations to provincial roads by March, 2017. The province hopes its ambitious effort, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, will lead to annual sales of about 14,000 EVs in Ontario alone. Now, there are only about 7,000 EVs on provincial roads.

“Historically, it has been very challenging to own a fully electric, shorter-range vehicle in Ontario,” said Matt Stevens, CEO of Fleetcarma, adding: “But everyone is seeing that tide change.”

Car makers, which currently offer about 20 different electric and hybrid-electric models for sale in Ontario, are working to boost their offerings. While the majority will come in the form of hybrid or plug-in hybrid vehicles, they will address some of the limitations of the current market, which is thin on both big haulers and people-moving options.

Chrysler hopes to fill that gap with the coming release of its new plug-in hybrid Pacifica, a minivan with nearly 50 kilometres of battery-powered range.

Over at Ford, engineers are hard at work on both an electric truck and a large SUV; the German-made Audi and Mercedes brands have both teased the arrival of fully electric SUVs in the coming model years. All three brands have pledged that a minimum of a quarter of their fleet will be fully electric, hybrid or hydrogen fuel-cell-powered in the next decade.

Mercedes, which has said its coming e-SUV will be capable of driving up to 500 kilometres on a single charge, recently announced plans to electrify its entire fleet, meaning that sooner than later, Mercedes drivers will be EV drivers whether they planned to be or not.

Driving all of this innovation is the fact that electric technology is improving at a rapid fire pace. Batteries, which not so long ago provoked a level of skepticism just short of the amount reserved for cooking oil-fuelled engines, now mostly come with warranties of eight years or more. That alone waters down the old fears about expensive battery replacements with EVs. In the lab, engineers are learning how to shrink the size and weight of the devices while doubling their range about every two years.

“While all cars are getting better, plug-ins are getting better faster,” said the Chevrolet Volt-driving Stevens, of Fleetcarma. “I love my Volt because it’s simply a better car,” he said, adding that until EVs roll out in large numbers, most people will still see them as “limited cars.”

When the Bolt makes its debut on roads, expect those goalposts to shift.