I had the chance to drive the BMW 330e a few weeks back. It had all the qualities you’d expect from a spiffy compact sedan. The BMW 330e is a plug-hybrid that uses an 8-speed automatic transmission. It has a beautiful interior, a silent ride on electric and instant torque. I found the experience driving this classy hybrid, however, combined two of my many embarrassing flaws: My total ignorance of how electricity works and my chronic fear of running out of gas.
Despite what I saw on the dashboard (that I had over 400 kilometres of range remaining) and the fact I was driving a hybrid, I was still haunted by a creeping suspicion that I would, at any moment, simultaneously run out of both electricity and fuel. I was suffering from a case of “range anxiety” – an irrational fear of running low of electric charge and no idea of the location of the nearest EV charging station.
This fear is common and it is dampening demand for EV vehicles. A study released in April by KPMG found seven of 10 Canadians planning to buy a new car are tempted to purchase an EV but troubled by worries over battery life and range. Can automakers and government make them see that, when it comes to range anxiety, all they have to fear is fear itself?
The popular perception among those suffering from “range anxiety” is that EV charging stations, while not as rare as unicorns, are difficult to locate. The challenge for automakers putting billions into EVs and governments trying to make a climate change goal, is finding the best way to assuage it.
Visibility is a key issue. In cities such as Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, there are more charging stations than gas stations. You just don’t notice them because they’re smaller and spread out in parking garages and other locations. Mobile apps such as ChargeHub, Chargeway, ChargePoint and (bucking the “put-the-word-charge-in-your-name” trend) EVgo, help EV drivers locate the nearest charging station.
“People are used to looking up for gas stations,” says Daniel Breton, president and CEO of Electric Mobility Canada, a Montreal-based non-profit. “They need to start looking at the navigation systems and the charging apps on their smart phones connected to their cars and they will realize that there are a lot more EV chargers than they think.”
Some want the federal government to compel gas stations, retail stores and homebuilders to offer fast-charging EV stations. They point to Germany as an example of this tactic. Hyundai Canada CEO Don Romano told the Automotive News that, until range anxiety is quelled, there won’t be enough demand to meet current supply. “The industry is headed toward a brick wall.”
While it’s certain that getting more EV stations at gas stations will help with visibility, it might not solve the entire problem. There are fewer and fewer gas stations in Canadian cities, particularly in our downtown cores, and speed is also an issue. It takes a few minutes to gas up, but at a DC-fast station it can take between 30 and 45 minutes to fully charge. Do you really want to spend 30 minutes at a gas station? Along with gas stations, why not motivate businesses such as restaurants, drive-ins and large bookstores to get EV charging stations?
Others believe the best way to overcome range anxiety is to place EV charging stations where there aren’t many now. If you live in a rural region and drive an EV, then you are charging at home. When you are on a road trip, you don’t have the luxury of plugging in at home.
“If you’re on major highways like the 417 or 401 it’s not an issue. If you’re driving a Tesla it’s not an issue,” Breton says. “But on some rural roads it can get more complicated.”
The flip side of this equation is getting more charging stations into big cities. Between 80 and 90 per cent of EV owners have a driveway or garage, and that’s where the charging occurs. Many of those living downtown do not have access to a suitable parking and charging spot. That’s an impediment to going electric. In Quebec, there are 100,000 EV drivers. Seventy-five per cent of those live outside Montreal and Quebec City – presumably where parking isn’t an issue and driveways are plentiful.
Besides, most drivers do not let their cars run down to zero before fuelling up. Why would EVs be any different?
“How many times do you go plug your phone in even when it’s not empty?” Genevieve Cullen, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association told USA Today. “People like to do that.”
So how can we encourage the switch? Norway hits those who buy gas-guzzling vehicles with huge taxes. Want to buy a Ford 150 with an internal combustion engine? You could pay up to 150 per cent surtax. But North America ain’t Norway.
Ultimately, it’s government that can have the greatest impact. U.S. President Joe Biden is proposing to spend at least $15-billion to spur the deployment of 500,000 charging stations nationwide by 2030.
Many Canadian industry observers believe the only real solution to range anxiety and the rise of the EV is a national zero-emission vehicles (ZEV) standard (also known as a mandate) that would set minimum EV production standards on automakers. Essentially, they demand that an incrementally increasing share of vehicles sold by auto manufacturers be zero-emission. The thinking? Incentives trigger demand. Mandates secure supply.
British Columbia and Quebec have ZEV standards, as does China. California has had a ZEV mandate since 1990. “”If we don’t have a ZEV mandate, we will never get close to meeting our climate change or ZEV adoption targets,” Breton says. “We need regulations that ensure original equipment manufacturers sell more EVs.”
EV infrastructure in Canada has growing to do, but it’s far from the barren, charging-station-free desert that’s conjured up in the imaginations of those suffering from range anxiety. Right now, the Canadian EV charging station situation is a chicken-and-egg conundrum – we’re essentially trying to pound the egg back into the chicken. If we’re going to roll out EVs and make significant strides fighting climate change, we need to stop worrying about which comes first and start getting serious about taking concrete action.