Electric cars are at once familiar and exotic, moving us from point A to point B like a standard vehicle, but using technology very different from the internal combustion engine. More and more manufacturers are producing them, but the question on everyone’s mind is: will the technology catch on?
“It’s a little early to predict how soon and how quickly electric vehicles will take off,” says Scott Wilson, senior policy analyst at AMA. A number of issues could jump-start the trend, though – like the rising cost of gas and improvements in battery technology. But regardless of why or when, change is coming. And that means it’s time to bone up on the latest advancements.
Projecting the uptake of electric cars is tricky. “Most experts agree that consumer acceptance of these vehicles is in its infancy,” says Wilson. Studies from Renault, Ford Canada and JD Power & Associates say electric cars will amount to 10 per cent of total car sales by 2020. Early adopters are expected to be people who already own a hybrid or a highly fuel-efficient car and who have an annual income of more than $100,000.
Electric cars accelerate faster, are quieter and have no stinky or environmentally damaging tailpipe emissions; who knows, one day they might not even need a tailpipe. After tooling around town, you can head home, plug in your car and feel good about mitigating your carbon footprint. Bonus: charging up costs a fraction of filling up.
A 2010 study by Deloitte identified “range anxiety” as one of the most pervasive barriers to mass adoption of electric cars, meaning most consumers are afraid they won’t get far enough on a charge. The same study found that 500 kilometres is the minimum range most consumers would consider before buy-ing an electric car. “Consumers’ expectations for electric vehicles are similar to those for their conventional gasoline-powered cars,” says Wilson. How do current models stack up? The Nissan Leaf, arriving in Canada this year, gets about 160 km per charge. The Chevy Volt’s battery carries it just 65 km, but its combustion engine can stretch that out to 500 km. Another drawback of electric vehicles: charging up isn’t as fast as filling up. The Chevy Volt takes eight hours to charge in a standard 110-volt outlet. The Nissan Leaf takes 16 hours.
Electric cars are pricey in Canada; the Nissan Leaf, for example, costs about $40,000. This is because they use expensive batteries, either lithium ion or nickel metal hydride. These require replacing after 200,000 km and can cost as much as $10,000. But that price is likely to come down as the technology becomes more widely accessible. In addition, some provinces, including Ontario and Quebec, offer cash incentives to purchase an electric vehicle – as much as $10,000. No word yet on whether the Alberta government will follow suit.
The big auto manufacturers are pumping big R&D dollars into electric cars. The technology differs from company to company. Here’s a rundown of the main contenders:
Battery Electric Vehicle: The battery powers an electric motor, which drives the car’s wheels. No internal combustion engine here; these cars recharge by plugging into a power source. Cars: Nissan Leaf (available late 2011), Ford Focus Electric (available 2012)
Hybrid Electric Vehicle: The most familiar electric vehicles, hybrids have an internal combustion engine, a battery and an electric motor to power the wheels. You don’t plug in to charge; the engine charges the car as you drive. Car: Toyota Prius Gas Electric Hybrid (available now)
Extended Range Electric Vehicle: The battery powers an electric motor that drives the car’s wheels. Charge it by plugging into a power source. For extra range, an onboard internal combustion engine acts essentially as a generator. It charges the battery but can’t drive the car’s wheels. Car: Chevrolet Volt (available now)
Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle: The battery can be charged by plugging the vehicle into a power source or by the internal combustion engine, which also drives the wheels. Car: Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid (available 2012)
Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle: This model uses hydrogen for fuel, producing electricity that powers an electric motor and the vehicle’s wheels. These have no internal combustion engine and, in some cases, no battery. Car: Mercedes Benz B-Class F-Cell (availability unknown, but the cells are now in production)