Do Ontarians dream of electric vehicles?

EV sales have been up and down in the province — but experts say that they’re poised to accelerate
By Diane Peters - Published on Oct 05, 2020
Bloomberg predicts that worldwide EV sales, which hit 2.1 million in 2019, will rise to 54 million by 2040. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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Five years from now, electric vehicles are set to start rolling off the assembly line at Ford Motor Company’s Oakville plant, thanks to a $500 million pledge from the federal and Ontario governments, plus a $1.8 billion investment from Ford.

But will people in Ontario be keen to buy and drive electricity-powered cars, trucks, and SUVs? They lead to cleaner air and generate about 90 per cent less greenhouse-gas emissions; various factors, though, have kept consumers from snapping them up. But experts say that circumstances are changing — and that consumer preference is changing along with them.

Until now, sales of EVs in the province have been up and down. The cancellation of a provincial buyers’ rebate in 2018 put the sector in a downturn — the third quarter of 2019 saw sales drop 44 per cent from the year before. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has dented the auto sector overall. But many industry watchers believe EVs are poised to grow in popularity: Bloomberg predicts that worldwide sales, which hit 2.1 million in 2019, will rise to 54 million by 2040, representing 58 per cent of all vehicle sales.

“It’s exploding,” says Cara Clairman, president and CEO of Plug’n Drive, a Toronto-based non-profit aimed at promoting EVs, of the market for these vehicles. “Even the most cynical of analysts would say it’s happening. The only thing experts disagree on is how long it might take.”

But the vehicles can be hard to come by in Ontario, she notes: “You could want to buy an EV, but you won’t necessarily find it.” While most manufacturers make numerous models of fully electric cars, vans, and SUVs, along with hybrid vehicles and plug-in hybrids — regular hybrids charge their own batteries as they drive, while plug-ins also let you charge up externally — few dealerships in the province have them handy on the lot.

“Not everybody is willing or able to wait three to six months for their car to arrive,” says Clairman. Buyers may end up ordering a model without a test drive — a problem Plug’n Drive seeks to remedy by offering a range of vehicles to test at its location in Toronto and at a newly set up mobile location in Ottawa that will be in operation until December.

Raymond Leury, president of the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa, a local non-profit that promotes EVs, says that dealers want prospective buyers to be able to go home in a vehicle, because, otherwise, they risk losing the sale. “It’s a cutthroat business, so what they want to sell you is what’s on the lot.”

Local manufacturing could help mitigate this problem, Leury says — and if Ontario had more EV buyers, more companies would ship their vehicles to the province’s dealers.

Cost has been another barrier. The conventional Hyundai Elantra starts at $20,749 for the most basic model; the electric IONIQ, a comparably sized car from the same manufacturer, goes for $41,499. The cheapest Tesla, the Model 3, starts at $51,600.

The price gap should narrow in time, says Leury — himself a long-time Tesla driver. “In the past, the price of batteries has been expensive, but they’re going down by about 20 per cent every year,” he says. “When we get to a prince point where EVs are cheaper, we’re going to see a massive shift.” He predicts that the price difference will have been eliminated by around 2022 or '23.

The previous Liberal government introduced a rebate of up to $14,000, which helped temper the sticker shock, but the Tories nixed it in 2018. (Ottawa introduced a $5,000 rebate in 2019.)

Such programs do appear to work: British Columbia and Quebec still have lucrative rebates, and EV sales are soaring.

Clairman says that people can find deals on used electrics, particularly those coming off lease. While they might not go as far on a charge as the newest models, she notes, they can work well as a second car or for city driving. Plug’n Drive now offers a $1,000 rebate for used EVs in Ontario; it goes up to $2,000 if you scrap a gas-powered car.

Also helping offset the purchase price is the fact that EV owners can cut expenditures down the road: according to Hydro One, the average Canadian driver can save up to $2,500 annually on fuel and maintenance.

And they’re reportedly also cheaper to maintain: a recent study from Consumer Reports found that owners can save about $4,600 over the lifetime of the car. That’s because the vehicles don’t need oil changes and have a simpler powertrain.

But then there’s the issue of worries about running out of power and accessing charging stations — so-called range anxiety. Older models can run up to 200 kilometres on a charge, while newer EVs can run up to 400. Currently, according to Natural Resources Canada, there are 1,300 charging stations and 4,001 charging outlets in the province. Petro Canada has already created a cross-country network of charging stations, and Canadian Tire and market newcomer Electrify Canada, which is backed by Volkswagen, are currently expanding their networks.

“We’re trying to get to the point where consumer confidence is there,” says Electrify Canada COO Rob Barrosa, adding that busy routes, such as the 401, offer numerous stations but that less populated regions in the province need more.

“In time, it’s going to become about which stations have cool features, not where am I going to charge,” says Barrosa. (Electrify Canada’s rates for charging start at 27 cents a minute for 90 kilowatt charging and go up to 57 cents for for 350 kilowatt charging. Those with a $4 monthly membership get rate reductions.)

Charging up versus gassing up does require drivers to adopt new habits. It can take some time to charge, depending on the nature of the station and how much juice you need. Leury drove to South Carolina two years ago and followed his Tesla’s touchscreen to map out charging stations. (Drivers of any EV can use third-party apps, such as PlugShare, to find stations.) He estimates that the trip took 50 minutes longer because of charging downtime but that he saved around $200 in fuel.

Leury is optimistic that Ford’s investment will spur growth in the province’s EV market: “Having the experience and the expertise to do that kind of work will give those plants a future,” he says. “The more we can get into this industry, the better.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Electrify Canada’s charging rates. TVO.org regrets the error.

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