When we see Will Farrell, Kenan Thompson and Nora Lum (a.k.a. Awkwafina) co-star in a Superbowl ad about electric vehicles, we know EVs are on the cusp of making the leap to becoming mainstream.
This shift is one that is being actively encouraged in Canada through the federal government’s mandate to virtually eliminate the sale of internal combustion engine light-duty vehicles by 2035. This leaves Canada at an important junction when it comes to greening transportation.
The bottom line is that there will be a lot of EVs coming off the assembly line in the next few years. It will be important to focus on more than simply hitting sales targets. As they say, the devil is in the details. The real impact of EVs will be determined not by how many are produced, but how they are produced and how we experience them as consumers and drivers.
As Canada makes this transition toward a market that is predominantly made up of zero emission vehicles, here are a few things we need to get right for the EV market.
Design cool, functional cars that just happen to produce zero emissions.
Up until recently, the EV market was mostly comprised of compact cars with limited range: a good second vehicle for a household for short trips in the city, but not ideal to replace the family car or deliver the utility of a pickup truck. Tesla changed the conversation on EVs, designing a high-performance car that just happened to be electric, while opening up the market to consumers beyond environmental activists. This gave the industry a jumpstart.
GM, with its “everybody in” campaign has pledged to have 30 new EVs by 2025. Meanwhile, Ford is putting its all-electric F-150 on the road next year. These are game-changers in terms of opening up the possibility of EVs to the masses. The functionality of these cars needs to be at the level of replacing – not just supplementing – existing vehicles. EVs need to perform the same, if not better than their conventional counterparts.
No more round pegs in square holes. Planning for better charging infrastructure.
Ever tried to plug your iPhone into an Android charger? That’s what today’s EV charging infrastructure can feel like. While the type of EV chargers typically found at homes and businesses (Level 1 and Level 2) are standard across North America, Level 3 (DC fast chargers)— the type you would use while on a road trip — are not universal. There are three competing charging platforms/connectors. Many charging stations have a combination of plugs and adapters that help increase connectivity, but not for all vehicles across all charging platforms.
Making EVs mainstream requires a consistent charging infrastructure – and lots of it, particularly in a vast country such as Canada. To put the type of infrastructure needed into perspective, there are currently about 12,000 retail gas station locations across Canada, compared with just over 6,000 EV charging stations (only about 1,000 of the EV stations have fast charging capability).
Tell us what’s under the hood: making the ‘green’ car sustainable.
For the most part, it has become accepted that an EV is greener than a vehicle with an internal combustion engine. The mantra of many EV advocates has been “let’s just get them in an EV – any EV.” But as the EV market expands, we need to start considering broader sustainability metrics for EVs, just as we would for food or fashion. Right now, it’s hard to tell if one EV is more sustainable than another.
In terms of production and design, the main impact is the vehicle’s battery. Batteries that power EVs contain metals such as cobalt, lithium, nickel and copper. As demand for EVs increases, so will the mining for these materials. Mining and the processing required to produce these metals can produce significant environmental and social impacts, including child labour.
As the industry moves forward with zero emission vehicles, it needs to look at increasing the transparency of the supply chain — as well as working together on a plan to recover materials for recycling when an EV battery reaches the end of its life. Doing so will allow stakeholders, such as consumers and investors, to differentiate between “kind of sustainable EVs” and truly sustainable ones.
As a driver, we will know that Canada has succeeded in its mandate toward zero emission vehicles when we can pack the family in an-all electric minivan and drive from Toronto to P.E.I. without having to stress about where and how often to recharge our car. As a conscious consumer, we will have confidence that the policy decision to encourage zero-emission vehicles was a good one when we know that the production of the vehicle has not simply improved our local air quality at the expense of someone — or somewhere – else’s well-being.
Dr. Jennifer Lynes is associate professor, school of environment, enterprise and development at the University of Waterloo.
Dr. Dan Murray is lecturer and program advisor for the master of environment and business degree at the University of Waterloo.