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Mobility What keeps car buyers from switching to electric vehicles?

More automakers are building electric vehicles, but people still aren’t buying them in record numbers.

Petrina Gentile

More manufacturers are building electric vehicles, but people still aren’t buying them in record numbers. In 2018, EV sales accounted for just about 3 per cent of new car sales in Canada. Some say price is a major stumbling block to EV adoption, but others disagree.

“Everybody thinks EVs are too expensive mainly because they’ve heard of Tesla and nothing else. They don’t know there are 40 makes and models out there and lots of price ranges,” said Cara Clairman, president and chief executive officer of Plug‘n Drive, the world’s first Electric Vehicle Discovery Centre in North York, Ont. The non-profit organization is designed to educate consumers about the economic and environmental benefits of EVs.

Cara Clairman, president and chief executive officer of Plug‘n Drive.

Petrina Gentile

While many EVs cost $30,000 to $55,000, there is a premium to pay for going green, anywhere from an extra $5,000 or more compared with an equivalent gas-powered car. But the environmental benefits are undeniable. Switching from a gas-powered vehicle to an equivalent EV can cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90 per cent.

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Fully electric vehicles, which are powered entirely by an electric motor and battery, have no engines – no oil changes, transmissions or exhaust repairs required. Even better, no gas bill – the fuel and maintenance savings can add up to nearly $2,000 a year.

Electric vehicles are usually limited by range, though, and most can travel only between 200 to 250 kilometres on a full charge. The Kia Soul Electric can travel 179 km; while some, such as the Tesla Model 3, are capable of 425 km on a charge.

Switching from a gas-powered vehicle to an equivalent EV can cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90 per cent.

Petrina Gentile

Plug-in hybrid vehicles, or PHEVs, such as the Honda Clarity or Mitsubishi Outlander, use electricity and gasoline. They usually have a shorter range – anywhere between 20 to 80 km on a charge. When the battery is used up, a gas engine or generator kicks in to power the vehicle, adding an extra 500-plus km of gas range so you won’t suffer from range anxiety. To charge, plug into a dryer outlet or upgrade to a quick-charging home station.

To offset the price premium, a new federal EV rebate of up to $5,000 and some provincial rebates are available. In Quebec, for example, you can save up to $8,000 for a new EV and up to $4,000 for a used, fully electric car.

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“Used EVs are extremely affordable and there’s a good supply of them. Most people don’t think of used because they think EVs are so recent, but there are used EVs starting in 2011 to 2016s coming off lease, so there’s a good supply of four-five years’ worth of vehicles. Everything from Volts, Leafs, BMW i3s and Bolts are available,” Clairman says. Plug‘n Drive also offers a $1,000 rebate for drivers who buy a used EV.

Still, there are other challenges, including range, that keep consumers from going green.

“You read articles about people saying, ‘the battery went dry on me,’ et cetera,” says Jim Vincze, who came to Plug‘n Drive to test an EV – there are currently 16 on site available for test drives.

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“My take on it is in three to five years this is all going to be gone. The technology is evolving and money is being poured into electrics by the big guys like Tesla, Mercedes and BMW. When these guys start putting money into it, it’s just a matter of a short period of time. All these concerns, like range, will be gone,” the retired 71-year-old says.

Jim Vincze, who came to Plug‘n Drive to test an EV.

Petrina Gentile

Vincze currently drives an Audi SUV but doesn’t want to be “stuck in the past,” so he’s considering an EV for his next ride – even though he’s never driven one before.

“This is where the future is going. … I wanted to try the BMW i3 because I’ve had BMWs in the past and I like BMWs. A vehicle like this makes sense to me because the range [approximately 246 km] covers pretty much 100 per cent of my driving,” he says before getting into the driver’s seat and waiting for instructions from Plug‘n Drive employee Mary Mallin, 58.

She tells him how to start the car. Simply press the brake pedal and press the start button on the gear shifter stalk. Then, silence.

“It’s on?” Vincze asks, uncertain. “Wow. It’s pretty quiet,” he laughs, before he starts driving a short distance nearby. He’s impressed with the instant torque, the regenerative braking, and the ride and handling.

And he’s not shocked by the $51,568 sticker price. Still, he’s not prepared to sign on the dotted line just yet. But he might be back. According to Plug‘n Drive, 33 per cent of visitors buy a car within six months after a test drive.

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According to Plug‘n Drive, 33 per cent of visitors buy a car within six months after a test drive.

Petrina Gentile/The Globe and Mail

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