The federal government has stepped up the timeline this week for phasing out gasoline-powered cars and light trucks, from its previous target of 2040 to five years sooner, by 2035. This will be a big task, but it’s not an outrageous goal. Not at all. It just puts us back into step with most of the rest of the world.
Many countries have already made a similar commitment, or even sooner: Japan has a target of 2035, but nations as diverse as Germany, India, Israel, and the United Kingdom have agreed to prohibit sales of traditional gasoline-powered vehicles by 2030, just nine years from now. California has a target of 2035, and if President Joe Biden has his way, it will spread to the rest of the United States. The largest market of them all, China, has said that at least 40 per cent of its new auto sales must be fully-electric by 2030.
When governments first began to do this just a few years ago, critics – including myself – roundly scorned the pie-in-the-sky statements. Back then, the target dates were all at least 20 years away, and we dismissed them as politicians making easy promises they’d fob off onto their successors to keep. But the auto makers took them seriously and began making assurances of their own, and the pace of progress sped up from a walk to a run.
Now, many auto makers have taken it upon themselves commit to only electric vehicle (EV) production within the foreseeable future. It was Tesla that first proved there was a market, even if only among affluent buyers. Jaguar and Volvo, both comparatively small manufacturers of premium cars, have already promised to sell only pure-electric vehicles by 2030, but massive General Motors stated earlier this year that it has “an aspiration” to sell only electric light-duty vehicles by 2035. Government rebates make nice with this. Government legislation wields the club and forces the issue.
Almost every other automaker already has a commitment to become carbon-neutral by 2050, and that includes the potentially messy process of actually making and assembling its vehicles, including heavy-duty trucks. The last holdouts for selling purely-electric cars in North America – Mazda, Subaru, Honda, Toyota, and Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) – have all recently announced their new battery-powered vehicles. They have to sell these, because environmentally concerned governments are starting to charge them costly penalties if they don’t. Already, Quebec and British Columbia penalize automakers who don’t sell specific proportions of their fleets as EVs; if Doug Ford’s Conservatives lose power then Ontario will surely follow.
So the selling of only EVs by 2035 isn’t that big a deal, relatively speaking, because the auto makers are already changing their development and production lines around the world to achieve this. The potentially huge volume of Chinese EVs means the price of batteries and resources will reduce even more swiftly than it’s doing already. Electric cars are more expensive than their internal-combustion counterparts but the price difference comes down every year, and most industry watchers expect the two to hit parity by 2025, making rebates unnecessary.
No, the challenge will not be for the sales of these vehicles – but in keeping them running.
Electric cars are cheaper to drive, faster, quieter and better for the environment, provided their electricity comes from a clean source like hydro and not from coal or oil sands, but we need to be able to plug them in somewhere. It’s all very well for existing EV owners to sing their praises while charging them overnight in their garages or driveways, but it’s not so straightforward for apartment or condo dwellers, or for downtown drivers who must park on the street.
The commercial charging infrastructure is still in its youth in North America. Natural Resources Canada said in 2018 that there were 13,625 public charging outlets across Canada today and that number may well have doubled, but it will need to increase far more to accommodate two million new EVs entering the market each year. Those cars and trucks will need time-consuming top-ups when their owners cannot charge at home, or when they misjudge their battery capacities.
Even more to the point will be the challenge of supplying the electricity to keep those vehicles charged. We have plenty right now with EV sales at 2.5 per cent of the market. But when that number is increased 40 times over and you’re looking at plugging into a hydro network that is currently severely taxed during heatwaves, what will happen if a brownout means you can’t drive to work, or the store, or the doctor?
I look forward to the day when we can buy only electric cars, and when our infrastructure runs smoothly enough that it’s as simple and reliable as gassing up today. I’ll enjoy driving my EV then, but I’ll enjoy driving my 2034 Corvette or riding my motorcycle even more. I’d better put down my deposits now – they’ll be my kids’ inheritance.