Skip to main content

Michael Subasic and his wife, Tammy, at their Calgary home, say they’ve saved thousands of dollars since buying electric vehicles, including their Tesla Model X. ‘I love not having to go to a gas station,’ he says.

High tension showed on James Locke's video-recorded face as he nursed his Tesla Model S toward his home in Hay River, NWT. With 3.4 kilometres to go, he had enough electricity left in the car to take him just six kilometres. The crisis had emerged when no one in the nearby hamlet of Enterprise was able to provide the high-voltage top-up charge he was looking for.

So, instead, Locke completed that day's 308-kilometre winter drive from High Level, Alta., on one charge, the end of a road trip that had begun days earlier in Sooke, B.C., near Victoria.

A Tesla enthusiast, Locke set out to make a point – that electric vehicles, or EVs, can travel longer-than-expected distances, even in harsh Canadian conditions. Inadvertently, he also proved that range anxiety is still real in parts of the continent that have few charging stations.

A rapidly expanding charging network will soon ease that concern, causing auto makers to predict that EVs could one day eclipse internal-combustion vehicles in sales volumes. "It won't happen in five years," says Joni Paiva, president of Nissan Canada. "But I could foresee that scenario."

The term sustainable cars, these days, mostly means EVs. They come in three forms: plug-in hydrids, battery electric (BEV), and fuel-cell electric (FCEV). In 2016, just 11,000 EVs were sold in Canada, but that was up 56 per cent from the previous year. Nearly 30,000 EVs are on Canadian roads.

Sales are expected to take off as fully electric and plug-in hybrids enter the market. In 2016, nine new plug-in models appeared: the Audi A3 e-tron, Tesla Model X, Volvo XC90, BMW 330e, BMW 740e, BMW X5 xDrive40e, Hyundai Sonata PHEV, Mercedes GLE550e, and the Mercedes S550e, according to FleetCarma, a Waterloo, Ont.-based company that helps consumers find fuel-efficient vehicles. And, last December, the first Chevrolet Bolts, Chrysler Pacifica PHEVs, and Hyundai Ioniqs were introduced in Ontario.

Paiva, whose company makes the pioneering Nissan Leaf, said the pace of EV growth will be affected by affordability, increased range, and a fuller network of charging stations. Leafs start with a MSRP of $32,698, GM's Chevy Bolt lists at $42,795 and Ford's C-MAX BEV is $34,249.

Ontario is driving hard to build a comprehensive charging network. The province's Ministry of Transportation lists 274 Level 2 charging stations in the province and 211 Level 3s, with as many more in the works. (Level 2 chargers use 240 volts; Level 3s deliver 480 volts and can bring an EV to 80 per cent charge in 30 minutes – eight times the speed of Level 2.)

Matt Stevens, co-founder of CrossChasm Technologies – which owns FleetCarma and MyCarma – says many myths about electric cars will soon be dispelled: such as the belief that EVs cannot be big and comfortable (he points to the Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrid) or that they can't tow (Yes, there is YouTube video in which Silke Sommerfeld and Rolfe Oetter tow a compact trailer across Canada in a four-wheel-drive Tesla Model X). The Model X claims a summer range of 475 kilometres and room for seven adults.

Stevens also says EVs are more pleasant to drive that internal combustion cars, with rapid acceleration and less noise and vibration. And cheaper to maintain: His Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid is not scheduled to get its first major service until 220,000 kilometres. At 190,000 kilometres the original battery still has 90 per cent capacity.

Michael Subasic, a tech work in Calgary, adds fuel savings to that list. He calculates that since he bought his first EV, a Leaf, in 2011, he has avoided $11,600 in fuel costs, while paying about $870 for the electricity he uses to charge the car at home. Since he bought the Leaf, he has added a Tesla Model S sedan and Model X crossover.

"I love not having to go to a gas station," he says.

He also has confidence in the Tesla's capacity to handle long trips with the family. Last summer, he and wife Tammy drove their four kids to Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., in the Model X – no problem.

Cold temperatures still have a big impact on range: Stevens estimates EVs lose 40 per cent of their capacity at – 30C, and Subasic figures his Model S range drops from 400 kilometres in summer to roughly 300 in winter. The 2011 Leaf has a much shorter range: 120 kilometres in summer and 70-80 in winter.

Paiva says there is good reason to expect BEVs will dominate the sustainable car market in the near term. FCEVs (which typically use hydrogen to generate electricity) are more complex, more expensive to build and not yet technologically mature. Over the long term, however, they still hold a range advantage over BEVs, especially for large vehicles, like transport trucks.

FCEVs are beginning to appear in California – in the Hyundai Tucson, the Toyota Mirai and the Honda Clarity, but one of the knocks against current models is the large amount of electricity required to create hydrogen. That fact undermines the current design's efficiency claims.

Subasic is putting his faith in EVs. He says the thing about disruptive technology is that you often don't see it coming until it's everywhere. Remington, the typewriter maker, must've scoffed at sluggish and problem-plagued early PCs. BlackBerry chuckled when it saw the first iPhones without keypads. EVs hold the promise of similar disruption.

"EVs will ultimately win for one simple reason," says Stevens. "Not because they're environmentally responsible, not because they're economic. It's fundamentally better technology."