Automakers confident in electric future, even if sales aren’t there yet

The auto industry continues to believe in an electrified future despite Ontario’s electric vehicle sales remaining well below forecasts, a panel discussion heard Thursday.

“The commitment is tremendous at all levels,” auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers told the Toronto Region Board of Trade’s Electric Vehicle Revolution: Hope or Hype event. He noted that with Ford Motor Co.’s plan to double its electrified vehicle spending, the growing pool of funds earmarked for electric car and battery development by automakers around the world is nearing $ 100 billion.

Part of the industry’s commitment stems from the view that consumer preference for larger vehicles requires reduced fossil fuel reliance to meet auto emissions standards, but also reflects a confidence that EV use is set to accelerate as roadblocks fall away.

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Matt Stevens, CEO of Waterloo-based automotive clean-tech provider FleetCarma, said with the introduction of new models of hybrid and plug-in SUVs and crossovers, expansion of charging station infrastructure along with vehicle price declines and technological improvements, it’s time to “buckle up’ for rapid growth in electric vehicle sales.

He cited research that found young people more willing to give up motoring than a Wi-Fi connection as a precursor to widespread auto sector changes. And he said the main driver for EV adoption is that “they are way better vehicles” versus internal combustion engine models, which require more maintenance and provide a less comfortable ride.

“Electric is a better value proposition,” Stevens told the panel.

And issues such as the rise in distracted driving “provide a little more impetus every day,” to the industry’s pursuit of electrified autonomous vehicles, added Ted Graham, head of Open Innovation at GM Canada.

Moreover, Heather Ferguson, vice-president, environment at the Crown-owned utility Ontario Power Generation, said the province is “uniquely positioned to be a world leader” in electric vehicles as it invests in public fast-charging stations mainly along the 400 series of highways.

Ontario supports EV adoption by offering the country’s largest incentives and supporting the creation of the most extensive public charging network of 140 units, according to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.

Ferguson said Ontario has done most of the heavy lifting in rendering its electricity grid 90 per cent carbon free and transportation, which accounts for about 24 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, “is the next major sector to decarbonize.”

But while DesRosiers agreed the future of driving is electric, he said the change is gradual.

In part, that’s because improvements in fuel efficiency for internal combustion vehicles weaken the argument for electric vehicles, which he said occupy a disproportionate amount of auto dealers’ floor room space.

DesRosiers also said Canada’s move to electric vehicles some 17 years after introduction of the first fossil fuel, electric hybrid in Ontario lags progress in countries including Norway and China, with the latter pushing to have older gas-guzzlers banned from the road.

Stevens, however, noted there were a record 18,564 electric cars sold across Canada last year, up 68 per cent from 2016, with nearly 48,000 electric vehicles on the roads compared to 29,000 in 2016. And even though the figures pale compared to sales of internal combustion engine vehicles, he said the province has set the stage for “long term electrification.”

According to data compiled by FleetCarma, 7,477 battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles were sold in Ontario last year compared with 7,194 in Quebec, with Ontario rebates of $ 14,000 helping the province overtake Quebec as national EV sales leader. Overall vehicle sales in Canada grew 4.8 per cent to a record 2.08 million in 2017 with electric vehicles accounting for 1.4 per cent of the total.

Industry analysts have predicted the number of electric vehicles will remain well short of the Ontario government’s target of 5 per cent of overall new passenger vehicle sales in 2020.

Globally, money is pouring into a sector that amounts to less than 1 per cent of the 90 million vehicles sold each year, with the world’s top automakers poised to introduce dozens of new battery electric and hybrid gasoline-electric models over the next five years.

“We’re all in,” Ford Motor executive chair Bill Ford Jr. said after the company early this year announced a $ 11 billion investment in the sector. “The only question is will the customers be there with us?”

TORONTO STAR

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