What do we want electric vehicles to do for us, anyway?

OPINION: The New Democrats have announced their latest platform proposal supporting electric vehicles. Maybe we should step back and ask what we want to get out of EVs in the first place
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 19, 2021
The NDP has pledged that any incentive for electric-car buyers wouldn’t apply to luxury models. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Last week, New Democratic Party leader Andrea Horwath went to Guelph to roll out her partys proposal to support the faster adoption of electric vehicles in Ontario. Fleshing out a commitment first made in the NDPs environmental plan — billed as a Green New Democratic Deal” — the party would set mandates for the minimum fraction of new cars sold in Ontario that must be battery-powered, as well as help defray some costs for consumers and offer incentives for manufacturers to retool their current internal-combustion production lines.

The plan is hardly groundbreaking stuff, but its not bad for that. Indeed, the NDP took the opportunity to give the current Progressive Conservative government a poke or two, noting that some of its proposals would simply undo the harms that Premier Doug Fords government did in its earliest days. (The Tories have since started to come around on electric cars, at least a little bit.)

Even the relatively straightforward parts of these plans can end up being more complicated than they first seem, however. Take, for example, the NDPs pledge that any incentive for electric-car buyers wouldnt apply to luxury models. This is a serious issue, and one that weve seen get snarled in details both provincially and federally. Kathleen Wynne's Liberals implemented an incentive for prospective buyers to go electric, then trimmed it so that it couldn't be used to subsidize high-end Teslas, then made the policy more generous again so that Teslas qualified (shortly after which, a Liberal staffer went to work for Tesla — will wonders never cease?).

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So last week, I asked Horwath whether she could be more specific about what kinds of luxury vehicles” would and wouldnt qualify for the NDPs proposed subsidy.

I think we have to be really thoughtful about people who have different lifestyles and different challenges and needs in terms of transportation, depending on where they are in our very diverse province,” she said. I think we have to think carefully that we arent preventing people who really do need heavier-duty vehicles from having that kind of help.”

This policy file is devilishly complicated, and it requires policymakers to pause for a second and ask what it is we want electric cars to do for us, instead of simply assuring ourselves that all new electric vehicles are a good thing.

Take, for example, the imminent arrival of the Ford F-150 Lightning, an all-electric version of the venerable pickup. Its likely to be one of the best-selling electric vehicles in North America when it becomes available, if for no other reason than that its internal-combustion forebear has been the best-selling vehicle in Canada of any kind for more than a decade.

Some EV boosters are overjoyed about the F-150 Lightning. They hope it will make EV buyers out of an entirely new kind of customer: people who would previously have dismissed battery-powered cars as being underpowered for their tastes. But its base-model sticker price — nearly $60,000 Canadian — would seem to qualify it as a luxury” vehicle, at least if were going by the current cut-off for the federal government’s EV rebate. On the other hand, every single non-electric pickup truck purchased in 2021 will probably spend something like a decade on the road, belching out more than 100 tonnes of greenhouse-gas pollution in that time. Even conservative estimates of the social costs of carbon pollution indicate that we should be turning as many pickup truck consumers as possible on to electric versions.

But maybe we should instead talk about whether we should be subsidizing electric cars and trucks at all: if we were honestly looking to cleanly move people around our cities (where most of us live) with the most efficient investment of public dollars, wed probably end up subsidizing electric bikes for anyone who wanted one, with additional supports going toward the electrification of transit fleets (something the NDP also has in its platform).

The long and short of it: what a sensible subsidy for electric vehicles looks like depends a great deal on what exactly youre trying to achieve. If getting consumers to move away from some of the most polluting vehicles on the road is your goal, you might talk yourself into subsidizing electric pickup trucks. But thats far from the only policy goal when were talking about electric vehicles (EVs' ability to help stabilize electric power grids, for instance, is another important piece of the puzzle).

In Ontario, it looks as if all four parties currently represented at Queens Park are likely to develop some kind of EV policy: even the Tories have started to see which way the global industry is going, and they arent about to sacrifice Ontario auto-making jobs to their own skepticism of battery-powered cars. It will be worth watching to see where they agree — and, more important, where they diverge.

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