In Norway, in March of 2019, something happened that would be utterly unthinkable in North America. Electric vehicles took over the market.
In that month, 58 per cent of all sales in the Scandinavian country were battery electric vehicles. It was just another in a long series of statistics leading to Norway’s dominance in EV adoption, with more than half of all cars on the road powered by electrons and not petrochemicals.
Norway leads the world in EVs. It’s not even close: in Iceland, Norway’s nearest rival, EVs have 25 per cent market share.
In Canada, sales of EVs in the same year hit 2.6 per cent market share. The reasons for the disparity between the two countries are as varied as the many other differences, but the primary differences appear to be geography and taxation. At its widest, Norway is 420 kilometres wide, while Canada is more than 10 times that distance.
So, not only are many destinations in Norway within EV range of each other, a well-developed railway network provides an economical, and often faster, alternative to highway driving.
Norway offsets the higher costs of EVs with an array of incentives, including waiving the value-added tax (similar to our GST), waiving of purchase and import taxes, waiving road tax and halving of parking and ferry costs for EV owners. Incentives are the carrot, the stick is a punishing set of taxes on fossil-fuel vehicles that become more expensive the greater a vehicle’s emissions. The irony in all this: Norway’s economy is powered by what is normally a lucrative oil industry that ships 1.2 million barrels per day.
What is needed to bring Canada to the same tipping point in EV adoption as Norway reached in March 2019? Well, aside from compressing the size of the country, Cara Claiman, chief executive officer of Plug-N-Drive, a Canadian EV advocacy group, thinks we’re almost there.
Claiman says there is now a trans-Canada network of charging stations, recently completed by Tesla and Petro-Canada, that allows for coast-to-coast EV motoring. As well, urban centres have a good collection of charging stations, she says.
"For the most part, the infrastructure is quite good and is growing substantially," she says. "Given that most EV drivers plug in at home — at least 80 per cent — we are actually getting close to all we need."
She says the most important deficit may be the numbers of charging stations in multi-family residential buildings.
"That would be an important place to focus on for infrastructure, more important than public places, in my opinion."
It’s an important and sometimes overlooked distinction: those living in multi-family dwellings are a key target market for EVs. They’re often living in highly walkable neighbourhoods, with easy access to either work or to mass transit and in some cases are more inclined to be ecologically mindful.
Which leads to another consideration: urban planning. The future of the automobile and the future of cities is intertwined. Urban planners and architects are advocating for a return to the "streetcar suburbs" of the 1940s and 50s, where a neighbourhood would cluster around high-density housing that fans out to single-family dwellings. The idea is that cities would still offer choices in housing options, but in neighbourhoods that more easily lend themselves to walkability. That’s a term defined as walking with purpose — to work, either directly or by public transit, or to shop or access services — not simply going for a stroll. Such would benefit all drivers.
As for the energy needed, consider many cities have switched from power-hungry sodium-vapour streetlights to light-emitting diode (LED) lights, which is saving cities such as Los Angeles enough excess electricity to power charging stations.
As for the technology of EVs, it’s arguably there already. The disconnect between buyers and EV adoption now is largely psychology and cost. That price gap remains large: the least expensive EV, the Volkswagen eGolf, is $37,000. A fuel-sipping Nissan Micra is $10,488. That gap pays for a lot of gas. Only market share will help bring down the price of EVs.
On its website, Plug-N-Drive notes that EVs currently on the road have sufficient range to meet the typical commuter’s needs in a day four times over. Most EVs have range greater than 200 kilometres, while most commuters travel only about 50 kilometres in a day.
Aside from cost, the main obstacle to higher adoption of electric vehicles may well be psychology: between range anxiety — the fear of being stranded when the battery dies — and, for older drivers, the understandable nostalgia for the gas-powered cars of their youth, the leap to electric is one many drivers are leery of making.
Free Press copy editor Kelly Taylor has been an automotive journalist since 2000, winning numerous writing and photography awards.
Copy Editor, Autos Reporter
Kelly Taylor is a Winnipeg Free Press copy editor and award-winning automotive journalist. He's been a member of the Automobile Journalists' Association of Canada since 2001.