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2011 Nissan Leaf is the only all-electric car on the market. (Nissan)
2011 Nissan Leaf is the only all-electric car on the market. (Nissan)

The Green Highway

Only gas pain will jolt electric sales Add to ...

According to a huge opinion survey conducted by Deloitte, electric vehicles (EVs) are going nowhere in Canada - unless.

The big unknown is gas prices. Unless gas prices go to $2.10 a litre, Canadians are perfectly content running their internal combustion engines (ICEs).

Let's go to the basics: approximately two-thirds of respondents said they would not pay any more for an EV than a gas-powered car. Fat chance they'd get one for the same price!

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And then when you get into the details of the survey, 75 per cent of Canadians don't want an electric car unless it recharges in less than four hours and goes at least 480 kilometres on a single charge. It doesn't matter that more than 80 per cent of Canadians drive less than 80 kilometres a day and it doesn't matter that both the charge and the required range are technically impossible today.

And on top of that, most don't believe there is any economic reason to consider an EV until gas reaches $2.10/litre. It's safe to say that Canadians are going to be a hard sell.

In other words it's only high gas prices - do I hear carbon tax anyone? - that will push significant numbers of people toward electric cars unless gigantic technical improvements are achieved. That means, unless gas prices go through the roof, only government incentives are going to put significant numbers of zero-emission EVs on the road in the foreseeable future.

That's why I shake my head when I hear U.S. President Barack Obama, in a push for clean energy, calling for one million electric cars to be on American roads by 2015. Again I say: Fat chance.

The Nissan Leaf is the only market-ready all-electric car and Nissan has delivered a mere 106 cars in the United States as of two weeks ago, although they're supposedly ramping up production this month.

"For the one million figure to be reached, it would require either a faster reduction in the price of the batteries than has been forecast, or sustained federal incentives that offset their higher cost," John Gartner, Pike Research analyst was reported saying. Batteries now account for about half of an EV's cost.

The Chevrolet Volt rollout is going faster with GM saying 15,000 Volts will be available this year and 120,000 more Volts to be produced every year from 2012 to 2015. But the Volt is not an all-electric car. It has an ICE and a big gas tank for when the juice runs out - which I expect from driving one would be quite often.

Where I think all this is heading is toward much greater adoption of "mild hybrids."

General Motors, for example, is coming out with something called eAssist in some Buicks that will improve fuel efficiency by about 25 per cent. GM calls it "light electrification" - meaning that there's a lithium ion battery which will help propel the car with up to 11 kilowatts of power. The juice is generated from braking. The battery also runs the electrical systems so that the gas engine shuts off when the car stops (known as the stop-start system).

This is the low-cost option in vehicle electrification and if Obama counts "mild hybrids" as electric cars he might get his million on the road. In fact, even hard to please Canadians might reconsider.

BYD tanks

I've expressed my doubts about Chinese auto maker BYD achieving its goal of rushing mass-market all-electric cars into the North American market. Its showing at January's Detroit auto show was totally unconvincing. BYD has attracted a lot of attention ever since Warren Buffet purchased 10 per cent of the company in 2008 and more recently toured its Chinese manufacturing facilities while declaring BYD would be a world leader in electric cars.

BYD had planned to sell 800,000 vehicles in China last year, but sold only 510,000. The company announced last week that it is slashing vehicle prices about 20 per cent. The stock, already off nearly 60 per cent in two years, promptly hit a new low.

The bulk of BYD's production are small gasoline-powered Toyota knock-offs. It has produced some hybrids and battery electrics but its big electric car breakthrough has never occurred. Even the combination of the world's largest car market and the world's richest man can't seem to make the EV revolution advance much.

In the know

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