Tesla, Volvo, BMW — all join in: Is this finally the dawn of the electric car era?

The first Tesla Model 3 is set to roll out today to mark the high-end electric automaker's entrance into the mass market. Volvo also announced it will end production of gasoline-only vehicles starting in 2019, on the heels of BMW offering electrified versions of all its models within three years. Has the electric vehicle finally hit the mainstream?

First Model 3 rolls off the assembly line today, Volvo, BMW, Volkswagen all to electrify every make & model

Tesla Model X owner John Dixon, seen here at his Haliburton, Ont., area cottage, has two Tesla Model 3s on order. (John Dixon)

The very first Tesla Model 3, the electric car maker's much-hyped, long awaited mass-market vehicle, rolls off the assembly line today capping what might one day prove to be a monumental week in the evolution of the electric vehicle.

"We believe with everything happening that it's no longer an 'if' it's a 'when,'" says Cara Clairman,
president and CEO of Plug'n Drive, a non-profit electric vehicle (EV) advocacy organisation.

"[It's] not the death of the internal combustion engine but certainly we'll see an overwhelming move to electric vehicles over time and it's just a matter of how long that takes."

That timeline appears to be accelerating.

In addition to the first Tesla Model 3 hitting the road, Volvo this week announced all of its car models launched after 2019 will either be electric or hybrid. It's the first major traditional automaker to set a date for phasing out vehicles powered solely by the internal combustion engine.

"We launched our new XC90 two years ago and 20 per cent — one of every five XC90s — we delivered over the last year and a half were plug-in hybrids," says Alexander Lvovich, Managing Director of Volvo Car Canada. "So based on our own experience, our consumers, they embraced the technology." 

Earlier this week, France went even further announcing it will end the sale of gasoline and diesel powered vehicles by 2040 in a bid to become carbon neutral by 2050. 

BMW also has plans to electrify each and every one of its makes and models by 2020, while Volkswagen says it will spend $2 billion in the United States on electric vehicle infrastructure which includes the installation of more than 500 charging stations across America.

The question is: Does all of this finally mark a tipping point in the adoption of the electric car? 

You can count Canadian Tesla Model 3 buyers among those who answer: Yes. 

"What we're seeing now is every major vehicle manufacturer has an electrification program well underway and I truly believe it's all because of Tesla's [leadership]," says John Dixon, president of the Tesla Owners Club of Ontario.

Dixon, who claims he was one of the first people to own a Tesla in Canada back in 2012, owns a Model X and has two Model 3s on order.

"Don't ask me what I'm doing with them, they'll be a second car in my family or for an employee or my son or something," he says.

He's able to do that in part because of Tesla's entry-level price.

Official prices haven't been released but Tesla says the Model 3 will cost about $35,000 US. On a straight conversion basis, that works out to roughly $45,000 Cnd, but with government rebates — Ontario offers up to $14,000— the cost will be much less.

"When you factor in the gasoline savings and now the rebates from the Ontario government it makes the car very, very affordable," Dixon says. 

Tesla says the Model 3 will be able to drive as far as 345 kilometres on a single charge, a much longer range than most electric vehicles, particularly in its price range. 

Model 3 a game changer?

Boosters call it a game changer for the electric car segment. 

"I do believe that this is really an iPhone moment for the EV industry as a whole," says Trevor Page, who lined up at one of Tesla's Toronto stores at 4 a.m. to sign up for a Model 3 the day the waiting list opened. 

"It's not the first long-range mass market EV available — that's the Chevy Bolt — however the Tesla [Model 3] represents a vehicle that is much more compelling because of technologies like Autopilot," says Page. "[There are] more options like a larger battery pack, better aerodynamics, [and] there's a sexiness factor with the vehicle."

He's still waiting to buy his first Tesla despite having founded the Tesla Model 3 Owners club, an online forum for fans of the vehicle.

Dozens of people waited for days outside Tesla Motors on Robson Street in Vancouver to put down a deposit on the Model 3 when orders were first opened. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

According to FleetCarma, a clean tech company based in Waterloo, Ont., there were a record-setting total of 11,000 electric vehicles sold in Canada last year. That's up 56 per cent from 2015. But that still only brings the total number of EVs in this country to just 30,000. While growing fast, EVs are still a tiny fraction of the cars on the road considering there were nearly two million vehicles sold in Canada in 2016.

And not everyone is buying the idea that developments this week are a landmark moment for the EV industry.

"There are a number of [automakers] coming out with all electric cars," says Kenneth Elias, an analyst with Connecticut-based Maryann Keller and Associates, an automotive strategy consulting service.

"I'm not convinced it's as big a deal for the U.S. market as it is may be elsewhere where gasoline could be more expensive or less available."

In the first 24 hours that order banks were open, Tesla said it had more than 115,000 reservations for the lower priced new Model 3. (Justin Prichard/AP)

Elias says most Volvo customers buying a new vehicle after 2019 will probably buy a mild hybrid — a car where the gas engine is assisted by a small electric motor. It's a system that is more fuel efficient than gas alone but not as clean as a plug-in hybrid or an all electric vehicle. 

He says Volvo's decision was made with an eye towards China, Volvo's biggest market and among the fastest growing markets for electric vehicles in the world.  Bloomberg reports Chinese consumers bought more than 300,000 EVs last year, and more than five million are expected to be on the road by 2020.

Is electric really cleaner?

China has been criticised for its coal-fired power plants and lax environmental laws, leading some to suggest switching to electric powered vehicles is simply exchanging one form of pollution for another.

But Clairman believes electric vehicles are still cleaner than the alternative. 

"Even with coal-based electricity, the efficiency of a big coal plant is always better than the efficiency of an [internal combustion] car engine." she says.

Clairman says there are still a few barriers to widespread adoption of EVs including people fearful of being unable to charge up on longer trips away from urban centres. 

"For the longer trips we do need more DC chargers on the highway. Ontario, Quebec, and BC are all making great strides on that, we've got to fill in, but it's getting easier and easier."

With files from Reuters


Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Business Reporter. Tips/Story ideas always welcome.


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