Summer has traditionally been the time of the Great Canadian Road Trip, and its appeal has been particularly strong during the pandemic because of the bubble-like safety of travelling via one’s own vehicle.
Like many others, my husband and I were smitten with the idea of hitting the open road and picked August for a trip to the Rocky Mountains and Jasper National Park from our home in Vancouver. This would be different from our previous driving adventures, however. We planned to drive our electric vehicle.
Curious about how the EV would manage on a long journey and keen to conduct a bit of a field test to gauge the differences in time and cost compared to our previous road trips, we carefully planned out our maiden electric vehicle voyage.
Utilizing various smartphone apps, my husband planned our route, locating the necessary fast charging stops every 300 kilometres or so, and calculating our driving time to Jasper. Depending on speed and topography, our vehicle could manage just over 400 km a charge. The nearly 800 km of driving would take approximately 10 hours and leave us with sufficient charge to assuage any range anxiety. Except things didn’t entirely go according to plan when another car was already using the single charger at one of our stops.
As a result, we found ourselves desperately in search of power close to midnight when we reached our destination of downtown Jasper. In order to be ready to hit the road first thing in the morning, we had to find a charger to use that night, but our apps only turned up chargers in use or on private property. A chance encounter with a stranger alerted us to a Parks Canada charging unit that had failed to appear on our apps.
Grateful and relieved, we plugged the car into the Level 2 7kW/40-amp circuit charger, which is similar to a dryer electrical outlet. The slow trickle of power would take all night to fully charge the car – something that normally only takes 40 minutes when plugged into a Level 3 350kW DC fast charging station, which provides a quicker option for longer trips.
An ideal start to our holiday this was not.
The Canadian government has set 2035 as the mandatory target for the sale of zero-emission SUVs and light-duty trucks. That means the end of the sale of all combustible-engine run cars and light trucks. With our country battered by climate change-induced heat domes and wildfires this summer, this goal to reduce carbon emissions and meet climate targets appears increasingly – and alarmingly – necessary.
While most major car manufacturers around the world are working toward full electric vehicle fleet targets before or around 2035, we found out the hard way that Canada’s EV charging network – including in high-traffic tourism zones such as national parks – isn’t quite as ready for the electric future.
In 2020, electric cars represented 3.5 per cent of the 24 million cars and light-duty trucks in Canada. The ownership disconnect between provinces is striking. British Columbia and Quebec track at nearly 9 per cent; Ontario lags at barely 2 per cent. While B.C. has committed to completing its own public electric vehicle fast charging network by 2040 (there were 205 stations as of December, 2020, out of a planned 400), Saskatchewan has slapped annual road-use fees of $150 on EV owners. (The provincial government’s rationale is that EV owners don’t pay the fuel tax and as such don’t contribute to road maintenance.)
Because the provinces vary in their adoption of green technology, there is an uneven charging network across the country, one that involves provincial parks, shopping mall parking lots, cities, hotels, small businesses and even gas stations located along Canada’s highway systems.
For the tourism industry, a robust public charging infrastructure is critical for attracting road trip travellers and it needs to include access to national parks and more remote regions away from urban areas.
“This is a really good opportunity for destinations and accommodation properties that want to attract visitors,” says Nino di Cara, founder of Electric Autonomy Canada, an independent news platform highlighting Canadian innovation. “EV drivers will go where they can charge their vehicles, and will stay for a longer period of time.”
Charging an electric vehicle can take 30 minutes or longer, versus a couple minutes for gas, which means EV drivers have time to wander in the vicinity of a charging station.
The District of Hope in the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver has recognized this opportunity. Hope’s extensive EV charging network – 19 EV charging stations within a 5-km radius in its downtown and Silvercreek neighbourhoods – is in position to serve the 21st-century electric vehicle traveller.
“Hope has always been a transportation hub,” says Shannon Jones, executive director of AdvantageHOPE, the district’s economic development and tourism agency. “The EV network is seen as a great way to bring that driving demographic into town, spending money, discovering what’s here in Hope and potentially coming back again. It’s been very beneficial.”
Hope is home to many Tesla chargers, but they’re not the only charging network in town. Electrify Canada has a presence in the district and plans to increase its current roster of 32 stations nationwide to more than 500 charging locations across nine provinces by the end of 2025.
“For mass EV adoption, charging needs to be as fast and convenient as fuelling a gas vehicle. From a tourism perspective, it’s important for recreational destinations to welcome and invest in charging infrastructure to support people driving EVs,” says Rob Barrosa, senior director of sales, business development and marketing for Electrify Canada.
Creating a large nationwide network of fast charging stations at strategic locations along highways, near major tourism destinations and at hotels and attractions will be important for the viability of future leisure travel by electric vehicle.
The existence of such a network would be welcome news to EV-owning travellers such as Kat Tancock, who drove from Toronto in her newly purchased Tesla model Y to visit family in Nova Scotia this summer.
“Charging on route worked well, though it was heartbreaking to see the stations located in the middle of nowhere. We would have loved to pull into a little town, plug in and then pop into a business or use the facilities. It feels like a missed opportunity,” Tancock says.
During her time in Nova Scotia, Tancock noted the lack of fast charging stations, including at well-known destinations such as Lunenburg, a Parks Canada National Historic Site. According to Parks Canada, there are 280 Level 2 charging stations for visitors to use in 35 Parks Canada-administered places across the country, and the agency is committed to working with its partners to help reduce emissions and support more sustainable transportation.
In downtown Jasper, which is located in Jasper National Park, several new charging stations were being installed as of late August, including eight Tesla Superchargers, which will be able to fully charge electric vehicles in around 45 minutes.
The increasing demand for more and faster charging stations, both in national parks and across the country, will require a comprehensive and cohesive strategy involving all levels of government.
“There’s no question that Canada can be a leader as we transition to a zero-emission transportation network,” says Andrew McCredie, an automotive journalist and hybrid vehicle owner. “We’re at a crossroads of a different way of looking at travel.”
As for my own holiday, after our brief charging hiccup in Jasper, the remainder of our road trip continued without a hitch. Our maiden EV voyage was a success, the first of many zero-emission electric summer road trips to come.
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