Who Revived The Electric Car?
They started as a novelty, but has growing enthusiasm for electric vehicles in Alberta primed them to be the wheels of the future?
October 1, 2017
photography by Bluefish Studios
Peter Northcott had never seen – let alone driven – the car he was ordering, but transferred a $5,000 deposit to a relatively unknown company to make one for him anyway. Nine months later, a Tesla Model S electric car rolled off a delivery truck and into Northcott’s downtown Edmonton garage, and he’s been hooked on electric vehicles (EVs) ever since.
“I’m a gadget guy. Ever since I was a kid, I loved reading Popular Mechanics to find out about new gizmos and gadgets,” Northcott, a criminal lawyer, recalls. “I loved reading about electric cars, but they were always flawed with technological restrictions. But when I read about Tesla I thought, wow, they’ve solved all of these problems.” In 2013, Northcott owned one of only 157 EVs in Alberta, but, amid concerns about cost, reliability and effects on an oil-reliant economy, sales of and interest in electric vehicles have grown, and there are now estimated to be over 800 EVs in Alberta.
In contrast, Janine Rutledge, a teacher in Edmonton, had never thought much about electric vehicles. But when she drove her father-in-law’s Nissan Leaf, she immediately wanted one of her own and purchased a used 2013 model in August 2016. “I love it, I absolutely love it,” she says. “Once you try driving [an EV], you know.”
Rutledge uses the car daily for work and, though her husband drives a Honda Civic for his commute, whenever the two can travel together the Leaf is their go-to vehicle. When the time comes to replace his car, she says her husband will be buying an EV. “It’s really cost-efficient,” Rutledge says. “I’m frugal and I think it just makes sense to have this car because you’re not spending on gas or oil changes. I did the math; in the first six months of owning it, there was only about a 30-dollar difference in our electricity costs. The car’s fuel for six months costs the same as one tank of gas.”
For Andrew Batiuk, an I.T. manager and the Edmonton President of the Electric Vehicle Association of Alberta (EVAA), owning an EV was not a matter of if but when in the interest of driving a more environmentally friendly car. After owning a few different hybrid models, in 2014 Batiuk wanted to go fully electric but was initially turned off by Tesla’s high prices. When Tesla announced its cars would have all-wheel drive (AWD) and an autopilot feature, he immediately ordered a Model S. “It’s still an expensive car, but those features were enough to get me to buy one,” Batiuk says. “I was able to afford it and figured that if no one bought the cars, then the company was not going to succeed. [Tesla’s] whole goal was to eventually make EVs affordable for everyone.”
When Tesla’s $111,950 USD (approximately $148,000 CAD) Model X was one of the only EVs on the market, EVs became synonymous with expensive luxury vehicles. Now Tesla, and other manufacturers, sell EVs at more affordable prices – a new Nissan Leaf starts at $33,998 CAD and the Tesla Model 3 starts at $35,000 USD (approximately $47,000 CAD).
“Generally you can afford an EV if you want to,” Batiuk says. “You can’t look at a Tesla driver and assume they’re rich. There are rich Tesla drivers, sure. We [my wife and I] don’t fall in that category. I made changes in my lifestyle in order to be able to afford a Tesla. I’d rather spend my money on [my car] than on trips or other things.”
Rutledge was looking for an inexpensive option, and purchased her used 2013 Leaf in Seattle, Washington for $15,500 CAD. Rutledge explains that, because there are so many rebates in the U.S. for EVs, people will lease them and then upgrade to new models when the terms are up, leaving dealerships with a surplus of used electric vehicles to sell at affordable prices.
EVs don’t have many regular maintenance costs, and Batiuk, Northcott and Rutledge all say their insurance rates are reasonable. Batiuk’s is actually lower than on his previous vehicle, even though his Tesla is twice the value. A low number of Tesla owners in Alberta is correlated with a low number of Teslas in accidents.
As for reliability, it’s all about range and charging opportunities. Batiuk and Northcott needed cars for highway driving, so a Tesla – which can travel between 335-539 kilometeres on one full charge in ideal conditions – was necessary. Rutledge wanted her EV for city driving so the Leaf – which gets about 140 km on a full charge – was suitable for her. There are currently over 40 public charging stations in Edmonton, including two Flo supercharging stations in the parking lot of Simons at Londonderry Mall and eight Tesla superchargers at Southgate.
All three owners agree that, with winter tires, an EV is more than adequate for driving in Edmonton in the winter. “Electric cars have electric heaters, so they heat up right away. The car is warm before you are,” Batiuk says. “They don’t have to ‘start’ so they don’t ever ‘not start,’ they’re incredibly reliable.” Despite the Model S’ high price tag, it’s not a luxury vehicle in the conventional sense and can handle winter conditions. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has awarded five-star safety ratings in every category to Tesla’s Model X and S. Batiuk ordered his car after test-driving one in Edmonton owned by someone he found online; Batiuk recalls that the owner referred to his Tesla as his “winter beater” for when he didn’t want to drive his Ferrari.
“I do a lot of driving [across Alberta] for work, so being able to drive in the snow is important to me,” Northcott says, noting his Model S is able to handle icy highways.
Likewise, Rutledge says she’s had “absolutely no issues,” driving her Leaf in the winter. “You get less range, but you get used to it. For me [remembering to charge it] is like plugging in a cell phone, you just do it. It’s just thinking a little bit differently.”
What’s stopping the electric car?
If electric vehicles are so great, why doesn’t everyone want to drive one?
EVs are popular in other regions, including California and British Columbia, but remain an almost negligible fraction of total car sales in Alberta and in Canada; only 0.0015 per cent of total new car sales – 330 cars – in Alberta were EVs in 2016.
“We’re a hard sell here in Alberta, we’re oil country,” Rutledge says, citing cultural and political barriers as the reasons why EVs aren’t yet more popular in Alberta. “There just aren’t the incentives; we’re last to the party to take up this technology.” Howaida Hassan, a senior environmental project manager for the City of Edmonton, thinks barriers to EV ownership in Alberta include the absence of provincial rebates, a lack of local and regional infrastructure (including charging stations in multi-residential buildings), a lack of EVs in stock at dealerships and a lack of certified technicians who can service EVs. Batiuk, who consults with Hassan regarding Edmonton’s Community Energy Transition Strategy, shares similar views.
“EVs are great when you can provide power to them from a house, but for those who don’t have that ability… it’s going to be hard to get those people into EVs,” Batiuk says.
Batiuk admits it is “painful” to not have a specialized Tesla service centre in Edmonton – the closest one just opened in Calgary in July. “It’s been a bit challenging, but [Tesla] has made comments that with the Model 3 coming they know they have to increase their presence in Alberta – hopefully that means a service shop in Edmonton soon.” While Rutledge hasn’t yet needed to have her car serviced, she agrees that service options for EVs in Edmonton are “not where they should be. Edmonton just doesn’t have the need for it yet; hopefully that changes in the future.”
It may also be the case that dealerships are reluctant to promote EVs. Northcott claims that his nephew was interested in purchasing an EV, but couldn’t find any in stock at dealerships in Calgary. “All dealerships gave him the same basic reluctance,” Northcott says. “They’re not interested. It’s really going to take the consumer to push them to change things.”
Then, of course, there’s cost. While affordable options are on the market, Tesla’s expensive Model X and S cars have the most range. “It’s a fabulous car, but it’s not the most luxurious car for $125,000,” Northcott says. “You can buy a lot more luxury for a lot less money. Tesla has to get the cost down – which I guess they’re doing with the Model 3.”
The future is… soon
When you’re driving around Edmonton, you’re sharing the road with at least a dozen drivers who, well, aren’t actually driving. Tesla’s newer models have the option to add its autopilot feature. “There was a great deal of trepidation the first time I used the self-driving feature,” Northcott says. “I said to myself, ‘Oh my god why am I doing this?’ but then it worked so well. I’m hooked; one day we won’t be allowed to drive without it.”
“[Autopilot] gives a glimpse of the future and how all cars should be,” Batiuk says. “Automated vehicles [AVs] are just safer. I use the feature all the time.” Batiuk’s car once saved him from an accident, and during a 30-hour round-trip drive to Vancouver he only took control of the steering wheel for 45 minutes (during a stretch of construction and when passing someone on an unmarked road). Provincial laws are ready for a possible influx of AVs; Jamie Friesen, a Public Affairs Officer for Alberta Transportation, notes that “all types of automated technology offered in vehicles can be used legally, however, a driver must have control of the vehicle so as to disengage any automated features if necessary.”
Batiuk thinks it’s not a matter of if but when people will come around to EVs. “At car shows, people are fascinated by EVs no matter what they drive. At one show, I met a couple who run an Esso in the middle of nowhere and they asked me to put them in touch with Tesla to find out about how they could install a charger at their station. They came to this car show to see classic cars, and they left wanting to put an electric charger in their gas station in ‘Hicksville,’ Alberta.”
“EVs are the future for sure,” Northcott says. “The internal combustion engine is this crazy contraption that should have been outdated long ago. We’ve spent all this money on refining something that’s broken. EVs are so simple.”
How close is the future? Well, while Tesla made around 85,000 Model S and Xs in 2016, its CEO Elon Musk expects that, now that production has started on the much more accessible Model 3, Tesla will be manufacturing around 500,000 vehicles in 2018. With a then-market value of $59 billion, Tesla was the most valuable American car manufacturer from April through June 2017. Dozens of customers lined up at Alberta’s only Tesla showroom in Calgary the night before Model 3 pre-orders became available, reminiscent of the lineups that would form outside of Apple stores upon the release of new gadgets. Over 100 Model 3s have now been pre-ordered from that location. In July, Volvo announced that all of its models from 2019 onwards will be either hybrid or electric, in an effort to phase out combustion engines. Other manufacturers are following suit by pledging to offer more electric models within the next five years.
But the slow rise in sales of EVs in Alberta does not correlate to a slow decrease in sales of gas vehicles – car and truck sales in Alberta reached a three-year high in April 2016 of $2 billion. While some drivers are transitioning to EVs, gas vehicles are exceedingly the cars of choice for drivers.
You may have heard the infamous story of the Tesla that crashed into a truck while on autopilot, killing its driver, in May 2016. Reports show that the truck was camouflaged to some degree and not noticed by the vehicle, and the driver ignored seven visual and auditory warnings from the vehicle to put his hands back on the wheel. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has concluded that the autopilot system was not flawed, but the incident – amid other concerns – are enough to keep skeptics away from AVs for awhile. A 2017 study conducted by Mahsa Ghaffari at the University of Calgary reported that less than eight per cent of the 485 respondents from Edmonton and Calgary “would completely entrust the driverless vehicle in all situations,” but 43 and 40 per cent would be willing to allow control of lane keeping and speed, respectively.
So while the electric car isn’t dying, don’t start writing the gas car’s obituary just yet – it’ll be a slow transition until EVs and AVs crowd the Queen Elizabeth II Highway. But there is interest in the technologies, and an increasing amount of infrastructure and resources are being planned to accommodate and encourage more EV drivers.
In response to the growing numbers of EV drivers in Edmonton, Hassan and her team are working to develop Edmonton’s first electric vehicle strategy as part of the City’s Energy Transition Strategy. The proposed plan, to be presented to the Urban Planning Committee in February 2018, includes the installation of public chargers, using alternative fuels in the city’s vehicle fleet to reduce emissions and preparing multi-residential buildings and homes for EVs. “We’re trying to get ahead of the tech curve by making Edmonton EV ready,” Hassan says. “We know that the
technology is coming and that electric cars will be the vehicles of choice in the future. How as a city do we prepare for that and join other forward thinking cities? We want people to know EVs are a technology they can adopt.”
This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.