The electric vehicle revolution is coming, but is the infrastructure in place to maintain it?

Companies like Tesla, BMW, and Volvo are all helping change the consumer vehicle industry, but with most consumers still worried about range anxiety, and with charging station infrastructure still a problem across the country, the revolution might just need an oil change.

Electric vehicles are cheaper than ever, but advocates say there are still obstacles for prospective drivers

Tesla's Model 3 is just one of the more affordable electric vehicle options expected to roll out within the next year. (Tesla)

As electric vehicles become more affordable, a lack of charging station infrastructure may be serving as a roadblock to widespread adoption.

Tesla, Volvo, and BMW are just a few of the automotive manufacturers that have pledged support for building affordable, consumer-grade electric vehicles (EVs).

The global stock of registered electric vehicles surpassed the two million mark last year, according to a report from the International Energy Agency, with 95 per cent of sales coming from 10 countries, including Canada.

Canada's EV sales were up 19 per cent in 2016 over the year prior, the report says. Still, that represents only 0.59 per cent of the total market — with just under 30,000 EVs registered here.

Electric vehicle advocates, however, say there's only so much that industry can do if consumers don't express their support for an electric shift.

Fears like range anxiety — the concern that electric vehicles are unable to travel the same distance as gas-powered ones — tend to stop people from fully committing to an electric option.

But in a lot of ways, the problem is a catch-22.

In cities like Regina, for example, a lack of public infrastructure means fewer citizens are likely to invest in electric vehicles, leading to a lack of support for electric vehicle infrastructure.

Still, provincial governments are slowly pledging support to the electric revolution, as some members of the private sector are capitalizing on an economy driven by electric vehicles.

On the nature of 'range anxiety'

Critics will tell you electric vehicles just can't compete with traditional gas vehicles when it comes to distance. But if you ask Wilf Steimle, president of Ontario's Electric Vehicle Society, he'll tell you to crunch the numbers on your own daily driving habits before balking.

I drive an unusually high amount every … [and] I drive 100 per cent of that electric.- Wilf Steimle, president of the Electric Vehicle Society

People look at an EV's range numbers and think it won't meet their daily needs, he says. But his own experience shows otherwise.

"I drive an unusually high amount every year, over 50,000 kilometres every year," said Steimle. "I drive 100 per cent of that electric."

Cara Clairman, CEO of EV advocacy group Plug'n Drive, frames it in no uncertain terms: "Ninety-nine per cent of us have no plans, nor will we ever, to drive across Canada."

According to Transport Canada, the average Canadian drives approximately 50 kilometres every day. That includes common activities like driving to and from work, taking the kids to school, picking up groceries, and going to a mall or a movie theatre.

"For many of us, we just drive a short distance every day. And an electric vehicle is perfect for that," said Clairman.

The charging station conundrum

There are roughly 5,000 public charging stations across Canada, with the majority located in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. That pales in comparison to the almost 12,000 gas stations in the country — nearly one for every 3,000 Canadians.

A snapshot of Canada's approximately 5,000 charging stations. Most are clustered in Canada's largest cities. (CAA)

Building more charging stations isn't necessarily the solution, says Ron Groves, manager of education and outreach at Plug'n Drive. Rather, communities need stations that are more evenly distributed.

Places like the Greater Toronto Area don't need more charging stations. But outside large cities, it's another story.

"We need large banks of them at rest stops on the way to the next city or town, just like we have rows of gas pumps at the ONroutes today," said Groves.

Electric vehicle driver Darryl McMahon agrees, saying even provinces that are better equipped — like Ontario — still suffer from a cluster problem. There are, for instance, approximately 220 charging stations in Mississauga, Ont., but only three in nearby Guelph.

"There's a huge dead zone across the rest of [Ontario]," said McMahon. "I can't get from Ottawa to Toronto via the fast-charger network. The gaps are too long between charging stations."

Provincial solution to a cosmopolitan problem

Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia are currently the only three provinces providing any kind of subsidy or rebate for owning an electric vehicle.

We are serious about reducing emissions in this province.- Perry Trimper, climate change minister

Residents of Ontario who drive an electric vehicle, for example, can get back anywhere between $3,000 and $14,000, based on the kind of vehicle they drive, its battery capacity, and its seating capacity.

Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are all working toward building up their existing EV infrastructure. In fact, P.E.I. boasts its extensive charging network spans the entire province, from tip-to-tip. (The Island is only 224 kilometres long, and at most, 64 km wide.)

An electric vehicle is shown at a public charging station in Ontario. (David Donnelly/CBC)

While Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan don't have any specific subsidies in place, individual cities, like Calgary and Winnipeg, are also pushing to build up quick-charge infrastructure.

As for Newfoundland and Labrador, Minister Responsible for the Office of Climate Change Perry Trimper — who drives an electric vehicle in St. John's when the House of Assembly is in session — says his province is currently planning to announce an action plan that will address both climate and EV needs.

"We are serious about reducing emissions in this province," Trimper told CBC News. "Electrification is an important part because transportation represents a large portion of our emissions."

The private sector: 'It's only a matter of time'

While it might seem like realizing the full electric dream is still several years away, there are companies looking to address Canada's EV charging needs now.

Flo is a Quebec-based EV charging station network distributor with roughly 3,000 stations connected to its network, including more than 30 in New Brunswick and three in Nova Scotia.

The company says it also sells home chargers that allow customers to reduce the already small amount they spend charging their cars at home. (A typical EV battery costs about $0.78 to charge each night.)

"The promise is wherever you might be at home, at work, on the go, you'll be able to rely on a good charging network [that's] 99 per cent reliable," said Louis Tremblay, Flo's president and CEO.

A snapshot of Flo's independent charging network across Canada. Most of their charging stations are clustered in Quebec. (FLO)

Flo is already working with the Ontario and Quebec governments to expand the provinces' EV charging networks, and also has partnerships in place with several auto manufacturers.

"We're the preferred solution across Canada," said Tremblay. "Nissan Canada is recommending our charging network across their dealerships."

Tony Han, the founder of Havelaar — a Canadian EV startup working on building its own consumer-ready vehicle — believes the best solution is to address specific consumer needs, rather than attempting to find an all-encompassing solution.

"If [Canadians] want to achieve the dream of driving electric vehicles across Canada, they need to start now … learning and adapting technologies now." he said.

"Either way, it's going to happen — it's just a matter of time."


Sameer Chhabra

Associate Producer

Sameer Chhabra is an associate producer with CBC News: The National. He's previously worked with CBC's Day 6, Spark and Cross Country Checkup radio shows, as well as with CBC Toronto local radio, and with CBC Windsor as a web reporter.