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A Chevrolet Spark charges outside the Bourgeois Chevrolet car dealership in Rawdon, Que., on Feb. 8, 2018.

Dario Ayala

I have read, with bemusement and disappointment, reports from electric-vehicle neophytes about the travails of winter EV driving. Bemusement, as there are almost 100,000 Canadian owners who could provide counterpoints to reports about cold-weather “range anxiety” and similar tropes. Disappointment, as such reportage impedes public understanding and our collective response to a technology with significant strategic implications for Canada.

The rapidly falling battery costs, greater efficiency, lower operating costs, better performance and compelling environmental benefits provided by EVs make the transition from gas to electric vehicles inevitable. Industry commitments to spend US$300-billion to accelerate the transition means the change will be rapid, and may be expected to profoundly affect Canada’s top export industries, namely oil and autos, in ways that will surprise most Canadians.

This is to provide a long-term – since 2012 – perspective on the day-to-day use of an EV in Canada, including through the past seven Canadian winters.

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The trouble with electric vehicles – winter

Out in the cold with a Hyundai Kona Electric

My experience is consistent with those of other EV owners in Canada, and in other northern countries, such as Norway, where more than 49 per cent of cars sold in 2018 had a plug. Our EVs – we have two in the family – simply work, each and every day and always get us to our destination, whether on the 100-kilometre round trip to work and back, to cottage country, Ottawa, Montreal, New York or Florida, with a minimum of delays and no drama.

So why are they much better than gas cars in the winter?

Savings: Our divorce from gas stations is a top benefit. In addition to saving around 90 per cent of the money previously spent on gas, more than $5,000 a year, I don’t miss shivering in the slush at the gas pump, or trying to wash off the smell of gas or diesel. While in 2012, the only long-range EV was a high-end [Tesla], as a result of falling battery prices there are now a half dozen EVs in Canada with an MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) under $50,000 that provide a similar range, and more in the pipeline.

Convenience: Five seconds to plug in each evening and to unplug in the morning means I start each day with a full “tank” of electricity. Our EVs have ranges of around 400 km, and rarely fall below 200 km of range during day-to-day use. Range anxiety is simply not a factor when your daily routine includes charging with low-priced power while you sleep.

Comfort: Preheating the car from my iPhone, without burning any gasoline, or turning the garage into a carbon monoxide death trap, is another big plus. Getting into a cold ICE (internal combustion engine) car and driving for minutes before obtaining any warmth is not an attractive alternative.

Reliability: Our EV never gets stuck with ice in its fuel system, or an ICE motor that won’t turn over – a fate suffered by record numbers during cold spells this past winter. As long as the EV’s battery is charged, it will run. The simple EV drive train (around 20 moving parts compared with 2,000 in a typical ICE car) means there is much less to go wrong, and to maintain or replace, making EVs inherently more reliable and less costly to maintain.

Performance: With 100-per-cent torque from the start, and smooth, continuous power, EVs are quicker and more responsive than comparable ICE cars. The battery pack and separate motors for the front and rear wheels lower the centre of gravity and provide greater stability and unstoppable traction in the snow, without the mechanical complexity or inefficiency of an all-wheel drive ICE vehicle.

Safety: EVs tend to be safer as they can use the battery pack to reinforce the passenger compartment and the absence of an ICE drivetrain provides for more effective crumple zones. The ability to stay warm without fear of carbon monoxide poisoning if stuck in the winter is a further safety benefit of EVs.

Health: ICE-powered vehicles currently account for around 35 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Ontario, and 28 per cent of national greenhouse gas emissions. Switching to EVs can go a long way toward meeting our commitments under the Paris Agreement and EVs also help to reduce or eliminate many of the other harmful pollutants emitted by ICE vehicles.

Top questions

We are regularly asked about the feasibility of long trips and the life of the EV battery pack.

Travel: Long trips are feasible today, and are becoming easier. The six-year-old Tesla charging standard (120 kilowatts) enables 12 hours of driving with four charging stops of half an hour each during the day (plus a full charge overnight). This enables us to drive from Toronto to Southern Florida (more than 2,400 km) in two long days, a trip we have made five times. Tesla has recently announced increases to its charging standard (to 250 kW) that can cut charging times in half, and Porsche is promising charging at 350 kW or more. With more than 57,000 public charging locations in the United States, and a proportionate number in Canada, long distance EV travel is getting easier all the time.

Battery life: Our 2012 EV has maintained around 95 per cent of its battery capacity and range, after seven winters and more than 125,000 km, consistent with statistical surveys of the long-term reliability and durability of EV batteries.

While winter driving in Canada poses challenges to all vehicles, and inevitably consumes more energy than in the summer. The large batteries (60 kilowatt hours or more) available in many current EVs, the rapidly expanding networks of charging stations, energy savings, and federal and provincial [in B.C. and Quebec] rebates, make EVs the better automotive choice for most car drivers in Canada regardless of the weather, especially if your parking spot can be equipped for overnight EV charging.

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The writer commutes to Toronto for work from a GTA suburb.

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