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Electric slowpokes

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A recent Huffington Post article claims that Canada is “among the worst-equipped countries for electric cars.” The article cites statistics from a study by GoCompare which measures percentages and absolute numbers of electric vehicles and charging stations in 30 countries. According to the study, Canada has the seventh lowest ratio of charging stations to roads with only 0.56 stations per 100 kilometres of road. Compare that with the Netherlands’ 23.25 stations per 100 km. This, combined with a lack of government incentives and the fact that many Canadian auto dealerships aren’t stocking electric vehicles, means that Canada’s adoption of them has been slow compared to other countries.

However, I feel that HuffPost’s presentation of the data is unfair and fails to take into account Canada’s unique geographic circumstances. Canada is a vast country with a very low average population density for our size. Many long stretches of roadway between settlements will naturally bring our average down compared to smaller or more densely-populated countries. Taking a closer look at Electric Avenues, GoCompare’s survey on electric vehicle infrastructure, reveals that the number two nation for charging stations per 100 km is Luxembourg. This shouldn’t be too surprising since Luxembourg is a tiny “postage stamp” nation in Europe. It makes sense that the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and other European countries can and will cram more stations into less space.

A fairer measure would be charging stations per capita. Using the data from Electric Avenues, the United States, which has similar geography and land area to Canada, has a total of 45,868 charging stations. Since Canada has one-tenth the population of the United States, we should have at least 4,586.8 charging stations to be doing as well as the U.S. Canada actually has 5,841 stations, which is above the mark but not by very much. The Netherlands has a total of 32,735 stations. So perhaps we aren’t doing as well as we could be.

Why are Canadians hesitant to embrace the age of the electric car? One reason is the lack of infrastructure. Charging stations are not so widespread that you can be reasonably sure of finding one when you need one, like gas stations. Nobody wants to be stranded in the Canadian wilderness because their electric car ran out of juice. So, people in rural areas play it safe and stick to gasoline vehicles or hybrids (which the survey does not count). This drives down demand, especially outside of major cities.

Another reason suggested by the HuffPost article is that concerns about air pollution have spurred governments to create programs to encourage electric car use. This is perhaps why China is the world leader in total numbers of electric vehicles and charging stations. Air pollution is so bad in China that the air has become unbreathable in major cities like Beijing, making the problem impossible to ignore. Yet in North America’s wide-open spaces, we are less concerned about air pollution, even if we should be.

Lastly, perhaps Canadians simply haven’t made the mental leap that electric cars are not the future, they are the present. Most people who are old enough to drive grew up learning that electric cars were a fringe, currently non-viable technology that would be everywhere in the near future. Yet, much like cold fusion, that “just around the corner” tech revolution never seemed to come, until it did. It doesn’t help that electric vehicles are a hidden technology. Electric cars don’t look or behave any differently from gas-powered ones. You could be seeing electric cars every day without realizing it. I think this internalized assumption of gasoline’s dominance makes people underestimate both the availability and effectiveness of electric vehicles today.

Still, even Huffington Post admits that we are closing the gap. According to their article, electric vehicle and hybrid sales were up 158 per cent in the first nine months of 2018 compared to the previous year. The demand is there, the transformation is just a bit slow to get moving. In a country as vast and complex as Canada, a transportation revolution will not occur overnight.

Image: Cory Jensen/The Cascade

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