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Lengthy charge times and high sales prices have been a deterrent to consumers wishing to buy a ‘green’ car. (REBECCA COOK/Reuters)
Lengthy charge times and high sales prices have been a deterrent to consumers wishing to buy a ‘green’ car. (REBECCA COOK/Reuters)

Alternative Power

A fork in the road to the electric future Add to ...

Canadians and car buyers around the world are not leaping at pure electric vehicles (EVs) – eyes and wallets wide open and expectations soaring. Not yet.

But the world is a simmering stew of interest in EVs and anything else that might nudge us in the direction of so-called “greener driving,” reduced fuel costs and less reliance on fossil fuels. Rest assured, the car business knows this. Just in case, regulators and vocal true believers keep up a steady din about sustainable transportation – backing it with increasingly stringent vehicle emission and fuel economy rules.

This explains the recent outburst of what we’ll call “green alliances” among auto makers. BMW and Toyota, reports just-auto.com, have just deepened their collaboration to develop joint fuel cell systems, lightweight technologies and lithium-air batteries that hold the promise of what you might call a “a post-lithium-battery solution.” Meanwhile, Daimler, Ford and Nissan have inked a three-way agreement to accelerate the commercialization of fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV) technology.

So that’s five world-class auto makers who have publicly agreed to spend great sums to further fuel cell technology. This is where zero emissions, and I’d argue EV technology, is headed. The point is that a hydrogen fuel-cell-powered vehicle is essentially an electric car powered by what many engineers call a “fuel-cell battery.” When BMW and Toyota say they plan to share technologies as they work on commercializing fuel cells, they are stating a belief in the future of EVs – just not a belief in what is now generally considered a battery-powered EV.

In any case, the car industry as a whole agrees that much needs to be done in the area of fuel-cell stacks, hydrogen tanks, electric motors and the infrastructure to support refilling the hydrogen tanks in a fuel-cell car. BMW and Toyota want to have something market-ready by 2020, though. The Ford-Nissan-Daimler alliance has the same aim.

This makes sense as a long-term goal for EVs. Vehicles that run on fuel cells generate electricity from hydrogen and oxygen; their only emission is water.

“Fuel-cell electric vehicles are the obvious next step to complement today’s battery electric vehicles as our industry embraces more sustainable transportation,” said Mitsuhiko Yamashita, the executive vice-president at Nissan who’s in charge of research and development. “We look forward to a future where we can answer many customer needs by adding FCEVs on top of battery EVs within the zero-emission lineup.”

All five companies say lightweight technology is essential to the success of any sort of EV, too; so that’s also where they are spending research dollars. Cutting weight also makes gasoline- and diesel-powered cars more efficient, thus easier on the planet.

The point is, the auto industry is accelerating its work – via alliances – in “green” technologies beyond just the battery-electric car. Sure, current electric and gas-electric options will still be offered. Yet by the end of the decade, they will have more efficient, smaller batteries that deliver greater range while at the same time car companies will have refined multi-speed transmissions, reduced vehicle weight and found ways to make engines run more efficiently, notes just-auto.com.

If you’re a cheerleader for “greener” transportation in general, this is good news – despite the sad sales numbers for EVs today. Now, if you’re channelling David Suzuki, hold on while I share some depressing data: according to J.D. Power and Associates’ real-time dealer sales data reported by the Power Information Network, EVs represented 0.03 per cent of the total Canadian market in 2012 (not including sales of EVs from Tesla, the Chevrolet Volt and Fisker EVs).

On the other hand, Power’s J.D. Ney says that thus far this year “it appears as though EV sales are on pace to certainly beat the 2012 totals by a considerable margin. Of course, that comes with the overarching grain-of-salt note that even if EV sales were to double on a year-over-year basis, the total volume would still represent less than 0.1 per cent of the Canadian marketplace.”

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