It’s electrifying!

Despite government cash incentives and rising gas prices, the electric car still has a long drive to reach its green dreams

The Chevrolet Volt
Image supplied by: Supplied
The Chevrolet Volt

For those who have experienced the rush of a metropolitan city, a large part of their day will inevitably be spent breathing the fragrant fumes of exhaust pipes and the thick black smog that emits from them. According to the Hewlett Foundation, going for a run in many major cities, like New York, Los Angeles and Mexico City, is roughly equivalent to smoking one pack of cigarettes a day. The constant flux of traffic spillovers onto every street, highway and paved road in the city is a testament to the need to change something fundamental about the way we travel. Enter one of the more popular, and debatable, solutions to this global dilemma—the electric car.

Many brush off the electric car as something they saw as a child watching the Jetsons: they know of the idea, but the details evade them. Questions of cost, efficiency and the transformation of our entire transportation system are often dismissed by consumers who turn to seemingly easier, cheaper means.

But much remains to be discovered about the electric car, along with its potential to compete with the ubiquitous fuel-guzzler, whose apparent unsustainable nature continues to rise along with emissions statistics.

In 1996, California roads began to experience an influx of electric cars. They were quiet, fast and ran without gasoline. But something happened, and soon after the electric car had become an extinct breed.

This wasn’t the first time the electric car entered the market. A little less than one hundred years ago, more electric than gas cars could be found on the roads. Electric cars were the cars of choice for drivers, but yet again, something interfered.

Why did the electric car lose momentum, and why are they once again making an appearance in the Canadian market?

With Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s new rebate plan to create incentive for a more vigorous demand of electric cars, people may now begin to re-think the age-old vehicle that had, several times in the past, attempted to catch the attention of drivers and manufacturers.

With General Motors’ 2010 release of the Chevrolet Volt—a hybrid electric vehicle—McGuinty hopes his plan will encourage buyers to consider a more cost affordable and environmentally friendly vehicle.

As potential customers complain about the barrier of cost—one lithium-ion battery costs around $7,500 U.S.—the Ontario government has stepped in to offer a rebate of $10,000 or more to get the electric car back on the road and on consumers’ minds.

Queen’s geography professor Warren Mabee said he’s optimistic about the effects of such incentives.

“I think that a $10,000 incentive would have a significant impact on buyers, provided that there is a selection of vehicles on the market,” he said.  “Currently there isn’t; this incentive will cost the government virtually nothing until the [hybrid-electric car] Chevy Volt rolls out.” Mabee said few governments worldwide have provided anything as specific as the plan proposed by the Ontario government.  The closest analogy, in terms of rebate size, is the Cash for Clunkers offering in Germany and other parts of Europe.  That program, however, doesn’t limit a consumer’s choice of what to buy nearly as much as McGuinty’s plan does.

Aiming to replace old vehicles with more modern ones, the Cash for Clunkers program aids in reducing inefficient vehicles that produce emissions on the roads. Germany’s program, called Umweltprämie, or “environment premium,” while most others simply refer to the program as Abwrackprämie—“scrappage premium.” The Italian and French programs maintain a requirement for the newly-purchased vehicles to meet various emission standards before being considered for the rebate.

It’s true that ‘green talk’ has been ubiquitous in markets on a global scale; eco-friendly choices and corporate social responsibility have but taken control of consumer choices and the marketing of products. Consumers and governments draft promises for a greener future—the demand seems to be there, in theory. But unlike electric cars and the rising gas prices, talk is cheap.

Setting an example for buyers, the Ontario government expects that by 2020, 20 per cent of the cars driven in Ontario will consist of electric hybrid vehicles.

“Making a government commitment to shift their own fleet is not really that hard,” Mabee said. “They likely have lots of vehicles in different ministries coming up on the end of their service life, and they just have to find a few slots where a Volt could do the job.  Mostly city jobs—transport and infrastructure I would guess—as trucks are going to be a while coming.  The government fleet, however, is a very specific market. It may be ready to make the move, but I doubt the general market is ready.”

Critics have suggested that this initiative is an ill-disguised replay of the Stephane Dion Green Shift initiative—one rejected by Canadian voters in October 2008’s federal election. Others criticize the plan on the basis that the recharge of the batteries relies on coal-fired engines that need to be refilled at work, downtown and other places in between. An electric car only allows for 113 to 130 kilometers of driving per charge—not a major problem for commuters, but a hindrance for long-distance travel plans.

“I don’t think that this is a replay of the green shift policy,” Mabee said.  “That policy tried to reduce CO2 emissions right across the board; this policy will only affect transport emissions. Remember that by 2020 we won’t have coal fired generation in Ontario—according to government policy—and so the second objection really won’t apply, although one would be right to question the realism of these objectives.”

What difference could these electric vehicles make for our environment lifestyle?

“Anywhere from 25 to 40 per cent of total life-cycle emissions associated with a new vehicle are attached to the manufacture of the car,” Mabee said.  “This is one thing people seem to forget; a massive shift to new vehicles, even if they operate cleaner than the previous incarnation, will create lots of emissions up front.

“A staged shift, which only takes cars out of service that need to go out—for instance, my old ’96 Corolla—has less of an impact because some new vehicle is likely to be brought into play anyway.  By the same reasoning, it is almost impossible to bring down our emissions fast with technology. The carbon debt associated with new technology development is huge in the first few years and has to be amortized over many years to make sense.” A staged approach, therefore, will make less of a noticeable difference but will actually work better in the long term, Mabee said.

Although the future of electric cars is uncertain, a lot is being done to direct consumers’ attention to the possibility of its success. In North Carolina, for instance, one will soon be able to find a McDonald’s franchise with free electric charging stations. In addition, many grocery stores across the United States are offering similar perks for drivers of electrically run vehicles.

Promoted by stars like Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson, the electric car is steadily gaining speed on government agendas and the public’s awareness. Often compared to the Batmobile, these vehicles are quiet, fast and sleek when speeding out of the darkened garage charging station. Not unlike Batman, consumers do want to take on a bigger role; one of a stylish saviour, a promoter of a set of values they help to uphold. But consumers have a long road ahead in the choice to remain in neutral or change gears into a new method of transportation.

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