We keep asking who killed the electric car. But as time runs out, a more important question looms: who will bring it back?
It wasn’t clear who was in control: the car, or me. When I pressed the pedal we zoomed ahead, but rather than gliding along, we lurched back with a jolt to a rolling crawl. Each time, though I hadn’t touched the brake, the Tesla I was driving powered forward and jerked back in Toronto’s summer traffic.
Maybe there was an easy fix, I thought. I fumbled around on the giant control screen, tapping one button, then another, but I couldn’t find the right one. As I slowed down to do this, other drivers swerved past me with honks, revved engines and impatient looks.
I pulled over near the intersection of King and Bay, the blue sky reflecting off the sky-scrapers above. Eventually, I fixed the issue. Something called “regenerative braking” was turned up. The function creates extra electricity for the car, but it also caused the lurching. I would test it out again later, but not in downtown Toronto, hardly a stress-free laboratory. I finally started the car and then, checking the mirrors, slowly crept onto the street, determined things would get better.
In my rear-view mirror I saw a young woman biking towards me, and a guy skateboarding beside her. As I waited for them to pass, the woman, pedalling quickly, yelled out “Hey! Do you even know how to drive your Tesla?”
Nestled within the cyclist’s sarcastic barb was a certain emerging truth: I was struggling. But she was wrong about it being my Tesla. I don’t own a car, and before that summer, I’d only ever driven old combustion-engine vehicles: a green GMC Sonoma, a beat-up Chevy Cavalier. My last car was a grey Ford Focus, which I bought for $900 and drove across the country from Quebec to British Columbia.
Now, like many others, I’ve grown curious about the alternatives to cars with combustion engines. A shift is occurring. Much like the scientific consensus on climate change, there is close to a policy consensus on the need to electrify our transportation. Gas cars are simply spouting too much carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. Road transport accounts for almost half of global oil consumption. And in Canada alone, 25 percent of carbon emissions come from transportation.
Experts tell us that electric vehicles, often called EVs, are crucial to reducing this number. A 2017 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put it this way: to help limit the Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, electric vehicles and other types of electric transit need to “displace” regular vehicles in the next fifteen to thirty years.
With over a billion cars on Earth, this would have to be one massive displacement. But in Canada, EV adoption is languishing. A paltry 0.5 percent of the country’s 23 million passenger vehicles are electric. And while the federal government has pledged that, by 2030, 30 percent of cars sold in the country will be EVs, last year battery electric cars and plug-in hybrids made up just 3 percent of new passenger vehicles sold in Canada.
Shaky perceptions play a part in this slow uptake. Over the years, when I talked to friends and acquaintances who had never driven EVs, there was still a notion they were inconvenient. It’s a hassle to charge them, they don’t travel far enough, and charging stations are scarce—or so people told me. As I read news articles about EVs, the same narrative kept coming up: someone tries one out and trouble ensues.
Still, if 3 percent of new car sales are now EVs, then clearly not everyone is dissuaded by these fears. A year before Covid-19 entered our lives, I decided I wanted to learn more about EVs, and crucially, the people already driving them. I wanted to know: Who were they, exactly? Environmentalists, tech fanatics? Why did they trade in liquid gas for electric current? And did their experiences echo the concerns I had heard?
So I rented a Tesla Model 3 out of pocket—not from a regular car rental agency, but from TURO, a website that connects car owners with renters—and I planned to drive eight hundred kilometres from Toronto to Quebec City.
But as I sat in gridlock on the Don Valley Parkway, creeping forward in the summer heat, I began to question whether I was cut out for this.
People have no shortage of reasons to see EVs as a pipe dream, as many still do. The price tag is one of them. While costs are coming down, they’re still more expensive than gas cars. A cheaper EV in Canada is around $32,000, which far exceeds the average person’s budget.
With EVs, though, direct comparisons don’t often work, whether on technology—as I was about to learn—or price. A 2018 study from the University of Michigan found that not needing to pay for gas means EVs cost, on average, $632 less than combustion-engine cars per year. When the low cost of maintaining EVs is included, one report from a Toronto non-profit, Plug’n Drive, put savings for Canadians as high as $1,900 a year.
How far away the pipe dream seems also depends on where you live. EVs now account for 9 percent of new vehicles sold in BC. In Quebec, it’s 7 percent, and in the first half of 2019, thirteen thousand EVs were sold in the province.
Quebec, BC and Ontario make up over 95 percent of EV sales in the country, while outside these provinces, EVs are still rare birds in the vast Canadian forest. In the first half of 2019, just sixty-seven EVs were sold in Saskatchewan, and seventeen in Newfoundland.
Globally, a yawning gap is also growing between Canada and countries where EVs are more common, like Sweden, China, and the class high-achiever, Norway.
Remember that Norway, the land of deep fjords and serene glaciers, is also oil country. Oil and gas accounted for 62 per-cent of the country’s exports in 2018. But rather than sit back, satiated in its liquid wealth, Norway is tackling climate change.
Exactly how they got there is less obvious. In 2012, only 3 percent of vehicles sold in Norway were EVs, just like Canada now. But seven years later, in 2019, Norway’s numbers had rocketed to a staggering 56 percent. As Christina Bu, the Secretary General of the Norwegian EV Association, said at a 2018 eMobility conference in Amsterdam, “That is the most interesting part of the Norwegian story: how fast this has happened.”
I had all this in mind when I finally squeezed out of Toronto and began barrelling down the 401. It was clear these were not Norwegian roads. Without a combustion engine, EVs are eerily quiet, and as I cruised along the highway beside gas cars, mine felt like a leopard among stampeding rhinos. At points, though, I could see Lake Ontario to my right, ripples of blue beyond a forest of green, and the stress and annoyance I had felt in the city began to dissipate.
My first stop was in Belleville, only 180 kilometres from Toronto. While I had more than enough battery power, I wanted to see what a charging station looked like. I scanned the digital map on my Tesla screen, where a small red icon indicated not only where I could find one, but how many people were currently using it. Countless smartphone apps do the same thing. I followed the directions to a mall parking lot, where, tucked into the far corner, there was a line of twenty white charging ports.
As I pulled in, I turned my attention to the main reason I needed to stop: Tesla’s seventeen-inch computer screen that sits beside the driver’s seat. It’s the key to everything—music, air temperature, directions, charging. I didn’t want to explore it until I was safely parked. Part of me was baffled by the screen and its proximity to the driver. I kept thinking: isn’t it risky to put a giant, addictive screen in front of someone operating a fast-moving, four-thousand-pound metal machine?
I would soon get another perspective. After toggling through the controls, I struck up a conversation with Jean-François, a forty-one-year-old Model 3 driver from Laval, a suburb just north of Montreal. He’d bought his EV two years ago and was charging it nearby.
If I was hesitant about all the technology, Jean-François was not. He downloaded software in his Tesla much like others update their iPhone or computer. He told me about features like “sentry mode,” which can activate external cameras around his car to record accidents or break-ins. Sentry-mode videos posted online show cars swerving into Teslas and people vandalizing them—one even caught an alleyway fistfight.
Jean-François then showed me a feature on his screen that his young daughter was most excited about: Beach Buggy Racing 2. It’s like Mario Kart. You can use Tesla’s steering wheel and brake pedals to drive a virtual car on the screen. Whenever his Tesla was charging, he let his daughter sit in the driver’s seat and play the game, navigating her car through Beach Buggy’s virtual world—which, presumably, instilled in her a devout commitment to forever drive Tesla cars. “It’s a hit with kids,”he said.
Jean-François loved all this technology. He had followed Tesla from the beginning, biding his time until he decided to swap his Toyota Corolla for an EV. “It’s a dream to have a Tesla car,” he told me. As a tech-savvy sales engineer who worked in IT, he also fit the mold of your cliché early-adopter: ready and eager for new technologies to change society. “Within five years,” he said, “you’ll probably see a ton of electric cars out there.”
There is no doubt the tech-glitz and iPhone-like abilities of Teslas have raised the overall interest in EVs. I chose the Model 3 for my trip because it’s the top-selling electric car of all time. It dominates the Canadian EV market, and the brand and its eccentric founder, Elon Musk, have elevated the electric car into global consciousness.
Musk is a polarizing figure, heralded in some circles and reviled in others. His erratic, frat-boy-like Twitter persona doesn’t always help his cause. And since his following can seem a bit cultish, you could forgive the general public for assuming most EV drivers are only interested in the unnecessary, futuristic gadgets.
But Tesla’s flashier technology has perhaps disguised an important reality: it was Tesla’s pragmatic battery, more than anything, that facilitated its mass-market appeal. Tesla unveiled its first car, the Roadster, in 2006. It was the first mass-produced electric vehicle to use lithium-ion batteries, which stretched the distance EVs could travel on a single charge. Today, the vast majority of EVs use these batteries, meaning there are many other EV options beyond those sold by Musk. At the time of my trip, there were over sixty other types of EVs available in Canada. Some are fully electric, while others, like plug-in hybrids, have batteries but allow you to use gas for longer trips. On my own journey, Jean-François was the first of many EV drivers I met and he matched the EV stereotype perfectly—but he was last person I met who did.
I was ready to hit the 401 again when, across the road, I noticed a whirl of activity. Dozens of vehicles with flashy colours were parked beside an A&W. It was an antique car roadshow, against the backdrop of an electric charging station. I made my way over to the group, which consisted mostly of fifty- and sixty-year-olds. The Beach Boys blasted from a speaker. Soon, I found the oldest car I’d ever seen in person, a 1916 Ford Model T.
Its owner was a sixty-eight-year-old who told me his name was Stephen. “You can’t go fast,” he explained to me, but “you can see more of the scenery as you go by. It’s just a fun car to drive.” Pointing to the charging station across the street, I showed Stephen how I’d driven in. He thought EVs were becoming more popular, but told me, “I don’t expect that, in my lifetime, everyone’s going to have an electric vehicle.”
Fun or not, to modern drivers, the Model T would also be a complicated car to operate. Just to start the thing seemed exhausting: pulling a “choke” chord, rotating a “crank” handle, flipping switches, turning a key, and then rotating the crank again, all before the vehicle rumbled to life.
It’s easy to forget how frequently our understanding of “normal” evolves, and how often technology, cutting-edge one day, eventually becomes obsolete. To start Tesla’s Model 3, I simply tapped a black card the size of a credit card onto a centre console, and the car instantly, and silently, turned on.
From 1908 to 1927, the Ford Motor Company sold 15 million Model Ts. They were cheap enough for the average worker to buy, and they changed the way we lived, worked and built our cities. Since then, combustion-engine cars have defined countless parts of our culture, economy and geography, from urban sprawl to drive-thru dining, to the road trip, the highway system, gas stations and the minivan.
And yet, gas cars were not inevitable in the way we experienced them. At the end of the nineteenth century, fifty years before Stephen was even born, before World War I and the Titanic, it was possible to imagine that we would instead drive electric vehicles. They’re far from a modern invention. In 1900, about a third of American cars were electric. A decade later, over twenty companies made electric vehicles; it was unclear which car would dominate the twentieth century.
The electric vehicle has always had advantages. In the late 1800s, urban transit was dominated by “horsecars,” where horses pulled streetcars of up to forty people. By 1890, twenty thousand horsecars carried hundreds of millions of passengers annually in New York, and the results were less than ideal. Horse droppings littered the streets and filled cities with foul odours, and horses were often treated cruelly, sometimes dying on their routes.
One electric car manufacturer, Pedro Salom, worried rather prophetically that the smells and emissions of gas cars in cities would be even worse than life with horses. By contrast, electric cars were quiet and odourless and seemed ideal for the city. They were also pretty fast. In the first American track race, in 1896, electric cars claimed first and second place, beating out five gas cars.
Manufacturers were soon producing not only cars but electric trucks, electric theatre buses and electric ambulances. They were so easy to use and maintain, in fact, electric cars were patronizingly marketed to women. One advertisement stated that an electric car “takes no strength. The control is easy, simple. A delicate woman can practically live in her car yet never tire.” Thomas Edison’s wife, Mina, and Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, both drove electric vehicles.
Canadians also dabbled in electric cars, but their adoption was far less widespread. In 1896, the first car driven in Toronto was actually the first electric car in Canada. It was designed by an engineer named William Still and bought by Frederick Barnard Fetherstonhaugh, a patent lawyer. Fetherstonhaugh lived downtown, not far from where I started my road trip, and he commuted daily to his office. You can imagine him, with the first car on Toronto’s streets, dodging in and out of “traffic” consisting of horses and carriages.
While electric cars at the turn of the twentieth century had benefits, they also had downsides. Their lead-acid batteries were far weaker than the lithium-ion batteries to come, which limited the distance they could travel. There was also the issue of infrastructure: the pace of electrification was just too slow. In 1900, even most wealthy families lacked electricity and by 1910, only about 10 percent of American homes were connected. Without a widespread electrical network, there was nowhere to plug in your car. As Michael Schiffer described in his book Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile in America, “The electric car could not be democratized until vastly more American homes were wired.”
Electric cars also had to contend with the flourishing culture of “touring.” Cars in the early 1900s were bought by the wealthy who, chugging along in their “horseless carriages,” liked to gaze at the surrounding countryside. “Automobile touring has never been so popular,” proclaimed a 1907 New York Times article. And this was a problem for electrics. With the spread of electricity lagging most severely in rural areas, oil companies clinched the upper hand. They built countryside gas stations that allowed touring motorists to roam farther than ever before. “The gasoline automobile...began to find a mass market,” Schiffer concluded. The gas car had won out.
Yet of course, while a vast network of roads for gas cars was expanding in the twentieth century, an equally vast network, one that pulsed electrons to light houses, factories and cities, was also being built. And eventually, after electric wires had wrapped the planet like a giant fishing net, the electric car attempted a comeback.
In 1996, a decade before Tesla’s first car, General Motors (GM) unveiled the first modern, mass-produced electric car from a major automaker. The two-door EV1 was sleek and sporty, with a range of 130 kilometres. Celebrities like Mel Gibson and Tom Hanks were soon driving them. After the EV1 launched, it appeared on the front page of the New York Times, near a photo of President Clinton and his new Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. “With No Tailpipe But Much Fanfare, A New Car Arrives,” the headline read. One of the first EV1 drivers, exuberant with his new purchase, exclaimed to the reporter, “What you have here is the beginning of a revolution.”
In the end, it wasn’t. Still, that generation of EVs had an important lesson for the one to follow.
My layover in Belleville was longer than anticipated, and it had grown dark outside. On my way to Montreal, I stopped to recharge the battery at a shopping centre in Kingston—my first charge of the trip. When I picked up the charging cord it was warm, and heavier than I imagined. I placed it into the port and heard a small click. The car’s screen indicated it was charging, and a green bar, much like that on my iPhone, began to fill up slowly. I had twenty to forty minutes to kill, depending on how much energy I needed.
As it turns out, a lot of people do not like this wait time. One New York Times article dubbed the inconvenience “charging time trauma.” Because I associated trauma more often with survivors of war, I girded for the worst. In the end, I simply had a snack and caught up on emails before continuing on to Montreal, where I stayed the night. Over four hundred kilometres’ worth of charge cost me a mere $14.66.
The next morning I embarked on the last leg to Quebec City, travelling east on Autoroute 40. I stopped in the small town of Yamachiche, where there was a charging station in the parking lot of, ironically, an Irving gas station. I didn’t need to charge; I just needed a coffee.
That was where I met Maryse, a thirty-eight-year-old farmer who was charging her EV. East of Quebec City, in the rural town of Notre-Dame-Auxiliatrice-de-Buckland, Maryse owns a goat farm that produces cheese. She and her husband sell their cheese in Montreal, a three-hour drive from their property, and she said that while buying an EV fit their environmental values, the decision was more influenced by economics—on these long treks they no longer paid for gas.
Initially, she was worried about whether the car would be able to go that distance. When she first bought an EV, in 2015, there weren’t even any charging stations near her town, except for the one at her house. To plan her trips, she had to constantly calculate the distance she could go on each charge. She was always eyeing the battery level. “It was stressful at first,” she told me.
Because she frequently had to drive a vehicle stocked with refrigerated cheese hundreds of kilometres to the market, often on remote roads, charging infrastructure was crucial. Eventually, her anxiety was eased after a station was built closer to her home. “Now that there’s a charging station in Lévis, it’s going really well,” she said. “I’m forty-five minutes from Lévis so I just recharge there.”
The charging infrastructure where I drove, mainly in cities and on major highways, is improving, though still imperfect. But for those in rural areas, the situation is different. There’s a term in the EV world: “range anxiety”—the idea that EVs, due to limited battery power and charging stations, create anxiety for drivers who fear they’ll run out of charge.
Since the “touring” craze of the early 1900s, range expectations have shifted drastically. Today, people want the freedom to travel across the continent, unplanned, on a moment’s notice. Let’s drive to Tijuana! While the average range of a gas car is 663 kilometres, EVs are catching up. According to Bloomberg, the average EV range is about three hundred kilometres, and many, like my rental, go about five hundred. Considering that Canadians only drive, on average, fifty kilometres a day, the range of EVs far surpasses most people’s needs.
But the topic of range anxiety is still entrenched in our public discourse. From the Globe and Mail to the New York Times, headlines have focused on this problem, declaring “Second time with Chevy Bolt doesn’t relieve range anxiety,”or “With i3 Electric Car, BMW Tries to Ease Range Anxiety.” (And, in the more recent twist that had weighed on me: “For Electric Car Owners, ‘Range Anxiety’ Gives Way to ‘Charging Time Trauma.’”)
On my entire eight-hundred-kilometre trip to Quebec City, my car’s long range meant I only charged twice. That doesn’t mean range anxiety isn’t real. Every other EV driver I met told me they initially felt some range anxiety. But, with the exception of Maryse, after a short time driving their EVs, they barely thought of it again.
Still, it needs to be mentioned that most of my stops were in Quebec, and Quebec is ahead of the game when it comes to charging infrastructure. This is made possible, in part, by good policy, a receptive public, and a sprawling system of dams that provides Quebec with cheap hydroelectricity.
The vast majority of EV owners, around 80 percent, charge at home. But for those other times—like a long drive with coolers filled with goat cheese—charging stations are critical. According to Natural Resources Canada, there are currently about 12,800 publicly available chargers in Canada. The biggest share—just over five thousand—are in Quebec, while Ontario has about four thousand. BC, Alberta and Nova Scotia have 2,297, 472 and 158 respectively.
Some intrepid souls might wonder: Can you drive an EV from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean? Well, it depends. You really need fast-charging stations, like I used on my trip, or you end up using weaker ones that can take several hours to charge. In late 2019, Tesla finished its Canada-wide fast-charging network, and soon after, two fanatics together completed the drive from Tsawwassen to Halifax—all in just under seventy-four hours.
But this network caters exclusively to Tesla models. For a driver using any other car, there’s a dearth of fast-chargers in the sweeping stretch of highway across Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Northern Ontario. People can either use the slower chargers available, which means a much-delayed trip, or dip down into the United States to find the fast-chargers needed for efficient, long-distance travel. Other companies and the federal government are working to build coast-to-coast fast-charging networks—but they’re not cross-country road trip material quite yet.
For most people, these developments still aren’t enough to justify going electric. When I asked Viviane Gauer, a PhD student researching sustainable transport at Simon Fraser University (SFU), if current EV infrastructure would allow for wider EV adoption, she told me bluntly that “we need to greatly improve in this area.” This is a policy problem. In 2016, the research team she is now part of gave Canada a C– grade for its collective EV policies, describing their impact as “marginal.” The following year, Jonn Axsen, the study’s lead author, described Canada as a “clear laggard.” While things have improved since then, the 3 percent sales number from last year proves there’s a long way to go.
There are some who might ask, why involve governments in EV policy in the first place? For one, transportation is clearly part of our climate commitments. But there’s another reason: for over a century, governments have supported gas cars by building highways, subsidizing oil companies and, during economic collapse, forking over billions to bail out the auto industry. The roads we drive on and the gas that helps propel us are already inextricably linked to government policies.
The reasons behind the failure of the last generation of electric cars, like GM’s EV1 in the nineties, are crucial to keep in mind these days.
By the mid-nineties, Los Angeles was swamped in smog. To help stem the pollution, the California government implemented new vehicle regulations, vowing that by 2003, 10 percent of cars sold in the Golden State had to be powered by electricity. The EV1 was GM’s attempt to meet the new standards.
But the EV1’s promising beginning met a cynical end. Powerful forces worked hard to prevent the car’s success, as described in the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? Oil companies fought to stop EV infrastructure from being built. And recalcitrant automakers, along with the federal government under George W. Bush, successfully killed the 10 percent EV sales mandate. This left little imperative to continue making the cars.
With this, GM then cancelled the EV1, and things got weird. Because their technology was so new, GM had originally leased the cars to owners rather than selling them. When the EV1 program was cancelled, though, the drivers thought they could continue leasing their cars. Inexplicably, GM said no. Instead, the company not only collected the cars but it also demolished them, leaving them to sit in flattened stacks at a compound in the Arizona desert. Only a few EV1s were saved, with one sent to the Smithsonian for future generations to gawk at. Within a matter of years, EV enthusiasts went from ecstasy to despondency.
Lamenting the death of the EV1, along with California’s EV mandate, one energy policy expert, S. David Freeman, later put it this way: “People need to be reminded that it took a law to get seatbelts in cars, it took a law to get airbags in cars, and it took a law to get catalytic converters to control pollution.”
While the law mandating EV production was laudable, it’s also key to note that it lacked widespread support. The public was skeptical. It was difficult to convince people weaned on cheap gas and long ranges to give up their perceived freedom—even if their daily commute was far shorter than the EV1’s range. If car companies were going to ignite a desire for electric-powered cars, they needed policy but also something more.
With EVs today, and the lithium-ion batteries that extended their range, that something was found. But there is, still, twenty years after the EV1’s launch and well over a century after the invention of EVs, the persistent fear that they aren’t good enough.
Considering what we’re up against now, governments might need to go further. Vivian Gauer, the PhD student from SFU, argues that rebates—a classic “carrot” in government “carrot and stick” policies—should be used to accelerate adoption. While provinces like Saskatchewan and Newfoundland have few EV policies, BC offers up to $3,000 towards the purchase of one, and Quebec offers $8,000. Ontario initially had a rebate, but it was cancelled under the Ford government. In 2019, the federal government also stepped in. It gives up to $5,000 to EV buyers in any province—and has already issued over fifty-three thousand rebates.
In a video posted on Twitter to promote the policy, Transport Minister Marc Garneau channelled his inner car salesman: “Go to your dealer to be part of the solution!” he urged.
Still, rebates and charging stations only go so far. The federal government’s goal, again, is for EVs to represent 30 percent of cars sold in Canada by 2030. Gauer estimated that we’re unlikely to even reach 10 percent without stronger policies.
If Canada was to get really serious, it could, for instance, go as far as banning the sale of combustion engine cars—a move Quebec just made in mid-November, promising to outlaw gas car sales by 2035. California and BC have already done so, as well, committing to phase out gas car sales by 2035 in California and 2040 in BC. Canada’s federal government has even signalled plans to do this across the country. However, while many jurisdictions have suggested they’ll do the same, very few have actually turned their intentions into tangible law, like in BC and California.
On the bright side, governments don’t necessarily need to be ardently pro-climate to move the ball forward. While some EV policies are clearly climate-related, others seem more about economic recovery, especially given all of the auto production that takes place in Canada. In September, Ontario’s provincial government, along with the federal government, invested half a billion dollars to turn Oakville’s Ford assembly plant into one that manufactures EVs. (The irony wasn’t lost on many that, just two years after Premier Doug Ford cut the EV rebate, he would now subsidize EV supply but not demand.)
Canada could also borrow a few ideas from Norway. At a conference last year, Christina Bu, the head of Norway’s EV association, poked fun at questions she still hears in other countries about EVs. “Can they go uphill?” She described how an array of aggressive incentives, along with excellent charging infrastructure, have helped the Norwegian EV increase. First, EVs in Norway are exempt from a 25 percent sales tax. Their drivers are also permitted to use bus lanes. And up until 2017, EV owners didn’t pay on ferries or toll roads, and now they only pay a maximum of half the fare.
These are creative policies, but what about people who aren’t even familiar with the basics? Plug’n Drive—the EV nonprofit in Toronto—is designed for the EV-curious, allowing people to test-drive electric vehicles out of its facility in North York. A recent survey by the organization, for example, showed one source of confusion: costs. But Cara Clairman, the organization’s founder, says there needs to be better education around this. “Consumers don’t understand the total cost of ownership—that they will actually save money,” she says, describing the gas savings and the low cost of maintenance. Over the lifetime of an EV, this can add up.
If we take a step back, it’s a worthy thought experiment to imagine our cities if, over a hundred years ago, the EV had dominated rather than the gas car. Even if traffic was equally busy, cities likely would have ended up cleaner and quieter.
That thought experiment was recently rendered before us, at least partly. In the early stages of Covid-19, reduced traffic brought plummeting pollution levels. In Montreal, in the month after the March lockdown, fine particulate pollution fell 25 percent compared to previous years. Satellite imagery showed a similar pollution decline in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. And in the Indian state of Punjab, because of less smog, residents reported seeing the distant Himalayas for the first time in decades, in large part because of reduced traffic. This change arrived at a terrible cost, yet it offered a brief glimpse of a post-pandemic future, and one where fewer gas cars are polluting the skies.
Of course, despite the role EVs can play, it’s important to recognize they are not a climate change panacea. They represent one arrow in a large quiver—but the vast majority of these arrows need to hit the Paris target. Governments and corporations must also do a lot more to facilitate low-carbon transportation in other ways. Crucially, we need better public transit. Our cities need fewer gas cars and more electric buses; they need more fast, efficient and far-reaching light rail transit; they need upgraded subway systems, and they need more spaces to walk and bike.
I finally reached Quebec City and stayed the night. I had travelled eight hundred kilometres in over two days, and in total, spent $30.86 on electricity. The same trip would have cost over three times that much in gas. The next morning brought clear skies, sunshine and a light breeze dancing against the stones of the old city. I headed back to Toronto, driving along the Boulevard Champlain and beside the St. Lawrence River, just below the Plains of Abraham. Outside the city, at an IGA parking lot, I stopped to charge my battery before continuing on.
By this point, the small annoyances I had initially felt, like stewing in the crush of Toronto traffic, were gone. Gaining experience helped, as did the open road. I still thought the massive screen was a distraction, but it wasn’t stressful to find charging stations. I even tried the regenerative braking again and got used to it. If the young cyclist in Toronto could have seen me, she would have been proud.
At the charging station I pulled into, two guys stood beside an EV brushing their teeth. A small cooler of food rested at their feet, all telltale signs of a road trip. Charles, a pharmacist, and Francis, a crane operator, were returning to the East Coast after visiting Charles’s son in Ottawa. They were driving fourteen hours that day; it was one of the longest single-day EV journeys I’d ever heard of.
Both in their fifties, Charles and Francis had grown up on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, a rural stretch just east of Halifax, and had been friends since middle school. They both wore plaid shirts and sunglasses, and they both had moustaches. When they were in their twenties they’d drag-raced cars together, they told me. Charles had a silver ’84 Mustang and a Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, and Francis drove a Corvette. On Sundays, they raced down Highway 7, which Charles described as a “twisty old piece of two-lane blacktop between Halifax and Sherbrooke.” For the both of them, these were clearly the good ol’ days.
The EV Charles now had was a souped-up Model 3. He described it as “hellish fun to drive” and said it could go “a hundred clicks in three-point-eight.” It satisfied his nostalgia for racing days, but at fifty-three, he had more prosaic concerns, too. Charles’s previous car had been a Subaru Legacy he drove for 320,000 kilometres. In that time, he estimated he paid around $40,000 in gas, with “another ten thousand for timing belts, oil changes; things you never have to do with [EVs].”
As we chatted in the parking lot, with blue skies overhead, we also touched on climate change. Charles said he understood that things were getting worse, and in some way, he wanted to be a part of the solution. “I have children,” he told me. “I think we’re messing with the world and we need to change what we’re doing in a big way.” He added, “if that’s not obvious, it’s time to wake up.”
David Geselbracht is a freelance writer. He currently lives in Ottawa and originally hails from Vancouver Island.