'We've got a long, long way to go:' Auto reviewer says the electric car won't save us

Jim Kenzie, chief auto reviewer for The Toronto Star, says the science to prove that electric cars are the answer to our climate change woes just isn’t there.
Go Ultra Low Nissan LEAF on charge on a London street. (Getty Images for Go Ultra Low)

The announcement this week that several countries around the world are promising to sell nothing but electric cars by the year 2040, had many declaring that gas and diesel-powered cars were about to have their Kodak moment. Which is to say, the phasing out of internal combustion engines seems to be an inevitable change, like the end of film shortly after the invention of digital cameras.

But for Jim Kenzie, chief auto reviewer for The Toronto Star, the science to prove that electric cars are the answer to our climate change woes just isn't there.

Kenzie spoke to Cross Country Checkup's host Duncan McCue to lay out the reasons why Canadians should think twice about jumping onto the electric bandwagon:

Jim Kenzie, chief auto reviewer for The Toronto Star, says the science to prove that electric cars are the answer to our climate change woes just isn't there. Kenzie spoke to Cross Country Checkup to lay out his reasons. 10:43

Here is some of what he had to say:

'The electrical infrastructure is simply not there'

The Montreal Economic Institute did a study of the subsidies that both Quebec and Ontario are giving to electric cars. They concluded that by 2030, under the most optimistic sales expectations for electric cars, it will reduce pollution by something like 2.6 per cent to 3.5 per cent in Quebec.

This is at the cost of several billion dollars in subsidies.

And at the same time, the Quebec government is giving millions of dollars for the building of a cement manufacturing plant in the Gaspé region, which gives you a bit of a sense of the consistency of the Quebec provincial government.

The other issue that nobody's been able to answer for me is, a couple of years ago in the city of Toronto we had a major ice storm. The city was basically without power for up to six days. That's how robust our electrical infrastructure is.

So let's plug 400,000 cars into that every night and see what happens. The city burns to the ground is what happens.

The electrical infrastructure is simply not there.

We burn millions of gallons of gasoline. For better or for worse. Where are you going to get that much electricity to replace all of that gasoline?
Jim Kenzie is an automotive writer. (Jim Kenzie)

Not the best bang for the environmental buck

Well first of all we have to understand that automobiles in Canada contribute something like 12 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions in our environment. So if tomorrow every car in Canada was powered by the sheer force of Elon Musk's ego, 88 per cent of the problem would still be here.

Cars are getting cleaner since the whole emissions thing started 25 to 30 years ago. That percentage of contribution to greenhouse gases is, in fact, decreasing despite the increasing number of cars

In Canada, electric cars currently occupy 0.6 per cent market share. That's not very much, and it's not going to get significantly better until they get a whole lot cheaper than they are now.

Missing the bigger picture

Cement manufacturing, for example, is the number one single contributor to our environmental gas emissions situation. The Quebec government is spending millions of dollars building another one. Cars, on average, last somewhere around 11 to 12 years. So even if you banned gasoline cars from being manufactured, which is obviously hopeless, you still have 11 to 12 years to deal with. The problem is simply way bigger than the electric cars.

A friend of mine actually converts delivery trucks to hybrid use. Hybrid technology has some advantage because what hybrid technology does is convert kinetic energy into motive power. They can reduce the fuel usage of a vehicle by maybe 15 per cent, but they are very expensive unless you drive in a particular type environment.

So there is a role for electric cars. Inner city delivery vans, for example, that have a pre-planned route - they maybe drive 150 kilometres a day. They always go back to the same location. Plug them in. This is fine. But again you're dealing with about 12 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions problem — it's simply nibbling at the margins. You are taking very small chunks out of the problem.

My concern is that we're missing the bigger picture. Electric cars simply aren't the issue.

Is this the auto industry's Kodak moment?

Well I'm reminded of maybe the smartest guy I've ever met — Jim Hall. He worked on the original EV-1 electric car, the first General Motors electric car. When he left that project his parting gift from his fellow employees was a 75-foot-long extension cord, which I thought was terribly funny. And he said that there are three types of liars in the world: there are liars, damned liars and battery engineers. They will promise you anything.

The latest General Motors car, 20 years later, the Bolt, will give you 300 kilometres on a good day and it only takes eight hours to recharge. Well my diesel Jetta goes 1,000 kilometres and I can recharge it in two and a half minutes.

So electric cars still have a long long way to go.

I live about 50 kilometres northwest of Toronto and I take Highway 401. When I do have to come into the city, it's variably the busiest highway in the world. You will not see a single electric car on that road. You see the occasional hybrid, which are economic only if you do lots of inner city miles, which is why New York City cabs are all hybrids.

There is a role for electric cars in a very limited sense.

'A long, long way to go'

I had a Kia electric car, and I was about 110 kilometres from my house and I had 100 kilometers of range. I plugged it into the restaurant I was in, which gave me about two kilometres of additional range in the two hours I was in that restaurant. When I was 10 kilometers from home all the dash lights just went double up. I just had enough to get home.

I did drive the Tesla up to Barrie and back and it said I had 170 kilometres of range. I had 110 kilometres to go and I pulled into my driveway with one kilometre of range left.

I've seen Teslas at the side of the road because they've run out of bolt.

I still think we've got a long, long way to go.

The chief engineer of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and his boss has said by 2025, 25 per cent of Mercedes-Benz will be electric powered — probably hybrid — but have some electrification. Last time I looked, when the Raptors scored 25 points and the Golden State Warriors scored 75 points that wasn't a win.

Jim Kenzie's comments have been edited and condensed. This online segment was prepared by Ieva Lucs on July 31, 2017. 


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