Sunday, July 26, 2009

Boldy Go!

The global economic crisis has led to two very important conclusions: first, that the “business as usual” scenario is no longer viable for the auto industry, and secondly, that our addiction to oil is neither economically nor environmentally sustainable. Couple this with the serious downturn of the Big Three automakers last year, and it would appear that our century-long romance with the car is finally over.

The reality is that North America’s functionality is predicated on the universal access to personal transportation. For most of us, owning a car isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

While there is a trend toward creating communities where we can live, work and play, the dream of a car-free society is decades away. In the meantime, access to some form of personal transportation pre-determines virtually every aspect of our lives: where we live and work and shop, how, when and where we play, even how we design our cities.

Automakers have responded by introducing a new generation of electric cars that will help eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels, and all the inherent problems associated with burning them. Building these vehicles is only half of the solution. The other half is creating the infrastructure to support them.

The problem is that until now an electric vehicle’s range was limited by the distance it would take to deplete half of its battery, leaving enough remaining charge to return home. Unlike gasoline, which can be transported and stored at gas stations and then purchased as required, the electricity needed to “re-fuel” electric cars is supplied by an elaborate grid. Access to this grid is monitored and measured from a static location.

We don’t yet have a system where you can simply pull up to any outlet and plug yourself in as needed. Even if we did, there is the time factor. While re-fuelling a car can take several minutes, electric cars take several hours to recharge.

Finally, there’s the issue of price. The new generation of electric cars costs substantially more than their combustion engine counterparts.

What it comes down to is a “chicken and egg” situation. Do we build the infrastructure first, hoping that electric vehicles will follow? Or do we encourage consumers to purchase the electric cars, creating a demand for a smart grid that will cut the invisible tether than currently ties them to the home outlet?

The answer is all of the above. To help encourage the transition, last week Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced a plan to provide rebates between $ 4,000 and $ 10,000 for owners who purchase plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles after July 1, 2010. To further sweeten the pot, electric vehicles will receive special green licence plates that would permit access to the High Occupancy (HOV) lanes on the 400 series highways.

The province also has plans to incorporate charging stations at GO transit parking lots and Ontario government facilities. In an effort to walk the talk, the government will add 500 electric vehicles to its fleet of public service vehicles.

These recent announcements come six months after the McGuinty government publicly supported Better Place, an innovative California-based company that plans to build a network of battery switching stations across the province. Depleted batteries would be replaced automatically in less time that it takes to fill up a fuel tank.

Project Get Ready is another interesting project that is helping to prepare the way for widespread use of electric vehicles. As the name suggests, the goal of Project Get Ready (PGR) is to create the infrastructure necessary to support electric vehicles. Lead by the Rocky Mountain Institute, PGR is a network of municipalities, businesses, partners and technical advisors. Within each city, partners work collaboratively on local projects such as plug-in garages or parking meters. They then share their successes with other municipalities through the PGR online database and network.

To date there are three Canadian cities that have already committed to Project Get Ready – Toronto, as well two of Canada’s largest motor cities, Windsor and Oshawa.

A new automotive future is definitely coming. And while these initiatives are encouraging, there’s a lot of road to be covered before we get to the place where we can simply plug in anywhere and travel beyond the limits of a single charge.


Check out for a glimpse into the future.

Visit to learn how you can make your community a plug-in pioneer.


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