Technology & Science

Earth Day 2014: Electric cars at a 'tipping point'

Cars powered by electricity such as the highly touted and fun-to-drive Tesla are challenging the auto industry status quo, but hurdles remain before they will displace gas vehicles on the road.

Clean vehicles challenge the auto-industry status quo

When documentary film producer Chris Paine looks out his kitchen window over Los Angeles, he sees smog, palm trees and a sea of cars bumping up against the coastline beaches.  

The National

Duncan McCue heads to the heart of car culture, Los Angeles, for a documentary on the future of electric vehicles Tuesday night on The National on CBC News Network and CBC Television.

Beyond that landscape, though, he envisions the beginning of the end of those gas-guzzling vehicles fouling up the air, and a world where someone like Elon Musk, the Silicon Valley-based CEO of Tesla Motors, leads the way in driving the all-electric vehicle into our lives.

"We are in the middle of a titanic struggle and I'm just glad that we have some of the coolest people in the world," says Paine.

"We are in the tipping point now. If you look at the adoption rates of places where they actually have [electric] cars available, with some incentives to encourage people to buy them, they are remarkably high."

Paine was one of the early adopters. He leased an EV1 electric car made by General Motors in 1996 and felt like the 21st century had arrived.

Ten years later, Paine released his first documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?, an angry riposte aimed at GM, which had crushed its fleet of electric vehicles and shut down its production lines.

Jump forward five years and suddenly e-cars were back on the road and Paine released a second documentary, The Revenge of the Electric Car.  

Documentary film producer Chris Paine was an early adopter of electric cars, buying an EV1 made by General Motors in 1996. (CBC)
He followed a trio of auto executives for three years as they drove their companies into the e-car business.  

Musk, arguably the only American to seriously challenge the established global automakers in a century, is viewed with some awe.

"My impression is he's somewhere between a Thomas Edison and a Steve Jobs. He's a massive risk-taker and not in it to be a billionaire. He's in it to fundamentally change things," says Paine in an interview with CBC News.

Now, it's another three years since the release of Revenge. Wealthy people are showing off their Teslas, writing blogs and sharing photos with one another. 

U.S. total auto sales 2013

Gas-powered:  15.5 million
Electric and hybrid:  53,000
Electric market share:  0.62%

Source: Polk Vehicle Registration Data

Consumer Reports says the Tesla Model S "performs better than anything we've ever tested before. Not just the best electric car, but the best car."  

Meanwhile, Nissan and GM are competing for e-car sales with more affordable clean cars, the Leaf and the Volt, which sell in the $35,000 range, compared to $70,000 for the base Tesla Model S.

For owners of e-cars, the Tesla has been hitting the ball out of the park.

"It's like the famous thing of Babe Ruth standing at the plate and pointing at the right field wall and saying I'm going to hit a home run," says Vincent Argiro, a successful entrepreneur living on Salt Spring Island, B.C., who has a green conscience and a love of sports cars.

"Elon Musk did exactly that. He said, 'I'm going to build a high performance sports car that will completely erase the golf cart myth.' "

Vincent and Maggie Argiro sold their Ferrari and bought Tesla's first offer, the sporty two-seat Roadster. (CBC)
Vincent and his wife Maggie purchased Tesla's first offer, the hyper-sporty two-seat Roadster, after selling their Ferrari. When the $100,000 Model S sedan was offered, they bought that, too.  

Add to the Tesla's performance the fact that it offers a super-charge network (it has just opened its 100th station) that allows owners to drive from Vancouver to San Diego or L.A. to New York, stopping every 400 kilometres for free 20-minute charge-ups, and Vincent says "it removes this barrier in people's minds as to the promise [of] personal freedom that you have with a gasoline car."

Not so fast

Despite the enthusiasm of Tesla owners, others are quick to put the brakes on thoughts of a quick transformation to electric cars.

John O'Dell, who was a car reviewer for 10 of his 25 years at the L.A. Times and is now the senior green car writer for, has found that electric cars are fun to drive. They are super fast off the line, nimble and quiet.

On the other side of the ledger, however, is the dilemma that affordable e-cars in the $30,000 range only take you 100 kilometres or less on a charge-up and can leave you with the question of where to get the next power boost.

"You know, a great number of people in this country live in apartments ... in New York, San Francisco and Chicago," says O'Dell.

"You don't have a garage, a place to have a 240-volt charger and hook it all up. So there's no access to charging for a lot of people." 

Canadian plug-in electric vehicle sales 2013 

Chevrolet Volt:  718
Tesla Model S:  504 
Nissan Leaf:  412
Toyota Prius: 197 

Source:  Polk Vehicle Registration Data 

While the race toward cleaner cars has certainly left the start line, O'Dell is putting his bets on conventional hybrid vehicles that have both electric and gas engines side by side.

"If you have a shortish commute, around [a] 20-mile round trip, you can drive all week long on battery power, but you could still get in the car in L.A. and drive to Las Vegas." 

This month, Toyota unveiled plans to launch a hydrogen-powered vehicle — a hydrogen fuel tank combined with an electric motor — but O'Dell says there are hurdles facing backers of this technology. "I've always maintained that they initially will have a limited market share, until - or unless - the fuel suppliers create a widespread hydrogen fuelling infrastructure."

In that market, one California salesman who wants to crush the world's gasoline car fleet has a particularly uncharacteristic approach to his job.

Paul Scott greets customers on a Nissan lot in downtown L.A., where he sells that automaker's Leaf electric car. His sales pitch is not exactly the standard fare: in fact, when you drop by and ask for a test drive in a Leaf he'll inquire about your bank account. 

"I'm telling people all the time, if you can afford a Tesla, it's the best car in history. Why burn gas and cause all these problems when you can have a better car that doesn't do any of that?"

But the speed of the transition to clean vehicles has a myriad of pot holes, costs and challenges. 

'They just don't believe you'

Asked what surprises him most about trying to sell electric vehicles, Scott says it is how negative people can be.

"They just don't believe you. You have to take 'em out and prove it."

It is still early days in the adoption of electric vehicles. They represent less than one per cent of the vehicles on the road in the United States.

And as brilliant as Tesla's reputation is, it sold only 25,000 vehicles globally last year.

But still, there's a sense electric cars will eventually prove a serious challenge to the status quo. 

"I think electric is the clear winner," says documentary maker Paine, who uses solar panels to charge his electric cars and his home's appliances.

"Obviously one car doesn't solve all the transportation problems of the world. That's why we need bikes, plug-in hybrids, low emission diesel trucks and so forth. There's lots of different solutions.  But electricity for automobiles is ideal. 

"What give me hope is that there's some really good people doing it. At the end of the day physics wins. And as we get economies of scale, people understand it's not so scary and more fun to drive and I think that's what's going to win this."

(Duncan McCue heads to the heart of car culture, Los Angeles, for a documentary on the future of electric vehicles Tuesday night on The National on CBC News Network and CBC Television.)


  • This story originally reported that John O'Dell was a car reviewer for the L.A. Times for 25 years. In fact, he was a car reviewer for 10 of his 25 years with the L.A. Times. The story was also updated to clarify that O'Dell feels fuel cell cars will have limited appeal until there is a widespread hydrogen fuelling infrastructure.
    Apr 22, 2014 12:56 PM ET


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