Four years ago, just as the hype about electric cars was revving up, Dalton McGuinty was one of the first Canadian politicians to jump on board. The then-Ontario premier stood next to charismatic Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi, who envisioned making battery charging and switching stations as ubiquitous as gas pumps. Mr. McGuinty called it an “idea with the power to reshape our province” and put up $1-million for a demonstration project in Ontario.
A year later, Mr. McGuinty was still a believer. On a trip to Israel, he test drove one of Mr. Agassi’s prototype Renaults as the entrepreneur proclaimed that “the majority” of new cars hitting the road in 2020 would be electric vehicles. Mr. McGuinty called it “an exciting concept that’s going to prove to be a benefit to the economy and the enviroment.”
Last fall, after charming politicians on several continents, Mr. Agassi was ousted from the company he founded, Tel Aviv-based Better Place. After losing almost $500-million (U.S.), the firm just announced that it’s pulling out of every global market except Israel and Denmark, leaving a trail of unused charging stations to gather dust from Australia to Hawaii.
The road to our supposedly electric-car future is strewn with potholes like this. Still, politicians press on. Some truly believe in this technology. Others are skeptical about its viability but still promote it in an effort to look green, unaware they may be doing more harm than good.
Enviro-skeptic Bjorn Lomborg says the carbon produced to build an electric car, which involves lithium mining and battery manufacturing, is double the amount generated in making a conventional car. Over 80,000 kilometres, both cars spew the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere. And if the electric vehicle is charged with coal-based power (hello China), its carbon profile is even worse.
Yet, Ontario still offers a rebate of as much as $8,500 on the purchase of electric vehicles, subsidizing Teslas for well-heeled aficionados. The province has introduced a $1,000 rebate on the installation of a home or business charging station. Eager to seem green, restaurants are installing chargers in their parking lots. Tim Hortons just put one up at an outlet in Oakville, Ont.
The Ontario government still wants 5 per cent of the province’s cars to be electrically powered by the end of the decade, although it’s not sounding as categorical as when Mr. McGuinty was running the show. “One in 20 remains an aspirational vision for the province,” a spokesman said.
How’s that going? Electric vehicles accounted for about 0.1 per cent of Canadian car sales in 2012, according to Green Car Reports. The proportion is even lower in Ontario, since more than half of electric vehicle sales occurred in Quebec, which also offers an $8,500 rebate. In total, there are fewer than 3,000 such vehicles now on Canadian roads.
Proponents cite all kinds of reasons for the slow consumer uptake. A lack of charging infrastructure tops their list. Bad press and high prices have also hurt sales. But the real reason buyers are scarce is that electric cars just aren’t up to speed.
“Because of its shortcomings – driving range, cost and recharging times – the electric vehicle is not a viable replacement for most conventional cars,” Toyota vice-chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada acknowledged last month. “We need something entirely new.”
What could that be? There’s renewed interest in hydrogen fuel cells and compressed natural gas. But the same innovation gap that plagues the field of alternative energy is also evident in the alternative car business.
Companies only “seek to be almost as good as the default product, rather than so much better than the default that customers will rush to switch,” U.S. venture capitalist Bruce Gibney recently lamented. What’s needed, he said, is an “alternative to alternatives.”
Why we’ve failed to come up with a better car or source of electricity – wind and solar power are as deficient as the Volt – is the subject of a hot debate among scientists and entrepreneurs. Some, like Mr. Gibney, wonder whether we’ve reached a kind of “technological end of history.”
More likely, the pressure to find an alternative to alternatives is alleviated by abundant oil and cheap natural gas. Slapping a price on carbon might change that. But better fuel efficiency and smaller cars still offer a more promising route to a “better place” than electric vehicles probably ever will.