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Electric Cars Need a Jump Start

They're where cell phones were in 1985, says one backer. Must we wait that long?

Irwin Loy 4 Jun 2009TheTyee.ca

Irwin Loy is a reporter for 24 Hours Vancouver, where a version of this article appears today.

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Juiced: Leifso with his electric RAV4. Photo by Irwin Loy.

Lowell Leifso hasn't filled up at a gas station once since he bought a sparkling grey Toyota RAV4 earlier this year.

It makes his presence at a Chevron on the corner of a Surrey boulevard all the more unlikely.

Leifso's commuter vehicle would look like any of the other popular Toyota crossover SUV models on the road today, if it weren't for the bright "electric vehicle" decals he has stuck to the car.

"It's quite an attention grabber," Leifso admits, as a few onlookers sneak a peak at his ride. "People ask questions like, 'Did you build it? Where can I get one?' Most people are just really interested to know a little bit more about it."

Leifso's 2003 model was among the last of the plug-in electric vehicles Toyota retailed in California before shutting down its line.

It's proven its worth to Leifso already. While acceleration on the vehicle is noticeably sluggish, the car can zip down the highway at a 130 kilometres an hour max. And with a range of about 160 km, it costs about $2 to "fill up" when he charges up the RAV4 at home through a paddle that slips in under the front grill.

That's about one-fifth of the cost of filling up a regular gas-powered RAV4, Leifso says.

And as gas prices head north of $1 per litre and car companies continue their very public struggle to survive, the interest in alternative fuel technologies is only spiking.

Today, most major manufacturers have rushed to promise electric vehicles for the market within years. GM, Dodge, Ford, Nissan, Renault, Mitsubishi, Subaru and Toyota all have models in the works, to varying degrees. Canadian auto-parts magnate Frank Stronach wants to mass-produce electric cars within three years.

But what are the chances of the technology succeeding? Is the idea that electric vehicles will be widespread in just a few years merely a pipe dream?

Billions behind electric vehicles

"It's never been more serious," says auto industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers, of manufacturers' renewed interest in electric vehicles.

"They're investing billions into developing the technology."

But still, DesRosiers doesn't believe there will be wide acceptance of the technology any time soon.

"Electric vehicles' ability to get into the mainstream is probably at least a decade, if not two decades, out into the future," he says. "It's just that daunting a technological challenge."

He points to the popularity of hybrid vehicles, which have been readily available for several years now.

Out of 1.6 million new vehicles sold in Canada last year, he says, only 25,000 were hybrids.

There are significant barriers to widespread acceptance, as well as plethora of other alternative technologies all competing for the sustainability crown -- biodiesel, ethanol, butanol, natural gas, solar and hydrogen power.

"Promoters of electric vehicles tend to isolate themselves, that they are the only competing technology to gas. There are actually 10 or 12 different technologies."

Some manufacturers are casting a wide net.

"We have not backed any particular solution," says Honda Canada executive vice-president Jerry Chenkin, who calls his company's strategy a "portfolio approach."

"We are recognizing the fact that nobody knows which solution will be the best in the end. The key for us is to invest in several different alternative solutions."

Cell phones used to be 'bricks'

Proponents of electrical vehicles, however, see the technology only growing. "It is where cell phones were in 1985," says John Stonier, of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association.

"The cell phone in 1985 was a brick. It had a huge battery and there was very little production. The electric car industry is at the exact same point."

Even with today's technology, Stonier argues, electric vehicles would be fine for most consumers, getting them from point A to B and back in time for a charge-up.

"People's needs are actually a lot less than they think. If you look at the statistics, only one per cent of trips made with a car are above 100 miles long."

New policies for new car types

Government policy has to keep up with investments to stimulate the industry, as well as supports for the infrastructure needed to support electric vehicles, Stonier says.

Behind the scenes, steps are being taken to streamline market acceptance for EVs. Developer Concord Pacific, for example, recently announced it would build a condominium project in Vancouver with a parkade equipped to handle the charging needs for electric vehicles.

But provincial and federal authorities are still trying to predict exactly what kind of infrastructure will be needed to handle widespread EV acceptance.

BC Hydro, for example, is part of a provincial working group studying the demands plug-in EVs may have on infrastructure.

"We've been monitoring it," says spokesperson Dag Sharman. "The amount of electricity they would use is something we simply don't know because we don't know how many electric vehicles there would be."

A federal working group is tackling similar issues. The federally coordinated Canadian Electric Vehicle Technology Roadmap, or evTRM, is composed of industry players and is set to submit its recommendations to Ottawa by the end of the week.

'Enough to get ball rolling'

However, initial projections for electric vehicles in Canada are modest. By 2018, the group is envisioning 500,000 highway-capable plug-in EVs on the road, a number that adds up to about 15 per cent of new vehicles sold in Canada over the next decade, the group says.

It's not an earth-shattering number, admits Mike Elwood, chair of evTRM's steering committee.

"It's enough to get the ball rolling," says Elwood, vice-president of marketing at Azure Dynamics, a player in electric drive technology for commercial vehicles.

"Even though I personally would like to see it at 100 per cent, I know that's probably not attainable.

"It's better than putting the bar way out there and failing. I would rather under-promise and over-deliver."

'We don't have time to waste'

But although he admits the figure is conservative compared with the paradigm shift many observers see as necessary for the auto industry, it's still a daunting leap from today.

"We don't have time to waste. We don't have time to sit there and say, well, in 10 years, maybe things will be different," Elwood said.

Lowell Leifso, too, saw the clock ticking before he bought his RAV4. "I'm getting older now. I've got grandkids," says Leifso, who only "mildly" identifies as an environmentalist.

"The oil prices are not going to go down anymore. They're going to go up. Within my lifetime, or perhaps my kids', we're going to have problems." Leifso steps out of his electric vehicle and looks around the gas station.

The irony isn't lost on him.

"Isn't it nice not to have to fuel up?" he says.

Leifso takes a seat in the back as his car pulls out of the station.

"I want you to step on the gas," he says... The pedal hits the floor and Leifso's RAV4, fueled with nothing but electricity, quietly gathers speed and zips down the highway.

COMING UP: One idea that could stimulate the burgeoning electric vehicle industry.

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