Electric Future

Canadian auto show panel takes on issues surrounding electric vehicles

May 31, 2018
by Michael Power

From the April 2018 print edition

The automotive industry is a field undergoing a significant transformation, with the rise of electric vehicles one of the main trends of that change. To highlight this, the Automotive Intelligence panel series at the Canadian International Automotive Show in Toronto last February featured a discussion on vehicle electrification. The session, called The Electric Revolution, featured an array of speakers and focused on issues including charging infrastructure, city planning, the current rebate model, as well as the pros and cons of the electrified technology as it exists today.

For its part, Toyota Canada has been working towards electrification for a long time, noted the company’s vice-president, corporate, Stephen Beatty, who sat on the panel. At the same time, the company is just starting its electrification journey. The consumer perception of electrification is now beginning to take hold of the consumer’s attention, he added, with about one percent of the buying public is starting to move toward EVs. And while the technology already exists the market needs to catch up, as does the infrastructure needed to support it. “We’re asking people not just to think about new technologies and how they’ll stand up but also to think about the infrastructure requirements and really the changes in driving behaviours,” he said.

Fellow panelist Brett Smith, co-director of the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Michigan, noted the unprecedented change—or at least its potential—that electrification is putting the industry through. It’s a very exciting time for the industry, he said, while also noting that the hype surrounding those changes has also grown. “There’s some really interesting technology,” he told the audience. “I’m not sure if it’s ready for mass market prime time but it’s getting a lot closer. Smith also described a “Trump bump” that had seen not only many Americans saying they would refuse to buy electric vehicles, but also some saying they’d buy one simply to spite the current US president.

Current drivers of electric vehicles are largely those who are already enthusiastic about the technology, said Smith. For most consumers, purchasing an EV represents a big lifestyle change and it’s up to the industry to find the product that goes from the passionate user to the mass market. “We do things because it works for us,” he said. “We don’t do it because it’s cost effective and I can go out and talk about how wonderful it is.”
David Paterson, VP, corporate and environmental affairs, General Motors of Canada, agreed that it had been an exciting year in the industry due to advances in electric vehicle technology. From the company’s perspective, electric vehicles are part of a broader change that includes autonomous vehicles and other alternative ways to look at mobility in Canadian cities.

The company has been addressing the range anxiety associated with EVs and has seen sales increase by 83 percent, he noted. While conceding the growth has come from a low base, Paterson noted that growth would continue in alignment with factors like infrastructure, consumer preferences and so on. “If we don’t take that long-term view we won’t get there,” he said. “We’ve been committed to putting a product on the road that a consumer is going to want.”

The industry still has work to do in lowering the costs of EV technology, Paterson noted, and the company is developing a hydrogen fuel cell pick up truck. And what technology suits drivers best is based in part on where they live, he said. In the future, we could see electric pickups with hydrogen fuel cells in rural settings and battery driven cars in cities. Currently, both the government and manufacturers subsidize such technology, Paterson noted. “Overall we have got to bring the cost down and that will produce less burden on the state to be able to be the subsidizer of these vehicles and they will be able to move forward to the mainstream,” he said.

The Scandinavian view
For its part, Norway has pulled ahead with regards to EVs for a number of reasons, said Morten Edvardsen, senior political advisor to the Norwegian EV Association (NEVA). Last year, a total of 21 percent of the new cars were pure battery electric cars, Edvardsen said. The country boasts a “huge package” of incentives for consumers to buy EVs over gas cars. The infrastructure, such as charging stations, is also widely available there. As well, around 90 percent of Norwegian EV owners can charge their vehicles at home. At the same time, having a car in the Scandinavian country isn’t as easy as it is in Canada, he noted. Vehicle ownership is expensive, toll roads and ferries abound and many people who live in apartments in cities like Oslo lack parking spaces.

The Nissan LEAF is 100-percent electric and gives consumers plenty of options, said the company’s chief marketing manager, Nissan LEAF, and manager of executive planning Francois Lefevre, who also sat on the panel. The company claims zero emissions as its goal, and is now focused on the launch of the second-generation LEAF with a fourth-generation battery. The car has an average range of 242km without needing to be recharged and customers tend to drive about 41km per day, Lefevre said. Home charging is key with over 80 percent of customers charging their cars where they live. Currently, two provinces offer funding for home chargers, said Lefevre.
The company’s focus is electric, Lefevre noted, and timing is everything. Every manufacturer is now launching EVs, and the infrastructure is less expensive than it’s ever been. And while there’s a place for hydrogen vehicles, the emphasis for the company will remain on the electric.

“There are multiple options, but diversifying now creates confusion in the market,” he said. “So the focus definitely needs to be on something where it’s tangible.”
Fellow panelist Brookes Shean, who is regional general manager, Central Canada for FLO/AddEnergie, stressed that the range anxiety that many consumers now feel about electric vehicles will diminish as the infrastructure supporting them improves. EV drivers now worry about whether the charger will work when they arrive at work, for example. His company focuses on the customer experience, and he mentioned not waiting until there’s a quarter tank to fill up. FLO/AddEnergie is a private company and there’s lots that goes into ensuring the network is done well.

Electric future
Volkswagen Canada was also committed to an electric future, said the company’s product planner, Scott Hollinshead. And while the process towards electrification is like pushing a boulder up a hill, the industry can now see that hill’s crest. Once that hill is crested—most likely around 2020 or slightly after—the industry will be unable to turn back to the combustion engine, Hollinshead stated. “Some companies will be well situated to take advantage and others will not,” he said. “Of course we want to be in the category of the former.”

Jack Simpson, GM, business development and innovation at Toronto Hydro, said the organization is running scenarios and engaged in pilot projects in an effort to help understand charging behaviors better. There is capacity in the system, which is available overnight. The organization therefore is looking to encourage after the supper hour, as well as midnight to 6am. Fair pricing is crucial, Simpson noted, and the organization is regulated so those prices are regularly reviewed. The grid can handle the gradual shift to EVs for at least the next 10 years, Simpson said, provided that EV drivers charge their vehicles overnight. “Today it’s about a two-to-one, three-to-one advantage for people to charge at night versus the day time,” he said. “So the pricing incentive is there and we can keep working on the awareness.”

Overall, the panel of industry experts offered a diverse look at what might be in Canada’s electric vehicle future. As several of the panelists agreed, due to electrification, it’s certainly an interesting time for the automotive industry.