As interest in electric vehicles soars, experts say they haven't quite hit the mainstream
Rising cost of fuel has more car buyers considering electrified options
When a friend told Seymore Applebaum about the efficiency of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, he was intrigued.
Applebaum, who lives north of Toronto, was in the market for a new car. While safety features were top of mind, the high cost of gasoline couldn't be ignored.
So in January, he traded in his sedan for a brand-new plug-in hybrid (PHEV), a vehicle that can run on both electricity and gasoline. Applebaum says he can travel almost 50 kilometres on battery power alone — more than enough to get around the city.
On a recent trip downtown, he recalled, "I drove about 45 kilometres … and the only thing I used was the electric motor and the electric battery that runs the car."
"Normally, on a day like that, [it] would be comparable to $10, $15 of driving cost."
Automotive industry analysts say rising gas prices have more consumers looking into electrified and electric vehicles (EVs).
Prices at the pump have soared across Canada in recent weeks. Estimates suggest Vancouver could see the country's highest prices this weekend, potentially hitting $2.34 per litre for regular fuel. According to fuel price tracker GasBuddy, the national average as of Sunday afternoon was just below $1.98 per litre.
"Canadians are motivated by high fuel prices, but they truly believe this is the new normal," said Peter Hatges, national automotive sector leader for KPMG in Canada, pointing a recent survey by the consulting group.
"When consumers believe it or perceive it to be true, they're going to modify their behaviour around what kind of vehicles they buy."
Kevin Roberts, director of industry insights and analytics for U.S.-based online vehicle marketplace CarGurus, told Cross Country Checkup he has seen a similar trend.
"As gas prices went up, interest in electric vehicles went up almost in lockstep with just a couple of days delay for both new and used vehicles," he said.
But even as interest in electrified cars spikes, experts say too few options — and too high prices — mean they haven't quite hit the mainstream.
Where consumers in North America favour larger vehicles like SUVs and pickup trucks known for their utility, EVs tend to come in compact or sedan-style models. EV range — and the availability of chargers — are also considerations for many Canadians, said Hatges.
Ramp up production
Big investments into electrification by major automotive makers, however, are beginning to bear fruit.
A greater variety of models and sizes are coming onto the market in the coming years, the analysts say. Battery life is improving too, with several models able to travel more than 400 kilometres on a charge, according to manufacturer estimates.
"It's absolutely a tipping point," said Hatges. "I think there's a confluence of factors that are pointing toward an alternative to the internal combustion engine."
The big test for consumers will be whether manufacturers can cut prices enough to get customers in the showroom — and EVs on the road — said Grieg Mordue, associate professor and ArcelorMittal chair in advanced manufacturing policy at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
While a handful of models start below $50,000, many run far north of that figure with some selling for over $100,000.
The sweet spot for Canadian buyers? Between $35,000 and $45,000, says Mordue. Key to hitting that price point is mass production, he added.
"We need production in North America of vehicles at that level, and we need high-volume vehicles — not little, niche vehicles where they sell 10,000 or 15,000 of them a year — because that's a lot of the vehicles that we have now, Tesla notwithstanding," Mordue told Checkup.
In April, GM announced a $2-billion investment, with support from the Ontario and federal governments, which will see electric vehicles rolling off assembly lines in Oshawa and Ingersoll, Ont., as early as this year.
Stellantis, which owns brands including Dodge and Jeep, is similarly investing billions into electrification at its Windsor and Brampton, Ont., plants.
Mordue cautions, however, that as plants begin producing electric models, it will take time for them to reach the existing output of gas-powered vehicles.
Focus on fuel efficiency
While interest in EVs may be gearing up, Hatges predicts a shift for gas-powered vehicles too.
"I think you'll see a strive to make cars lighter, more fuel efficient, even when it comes to electricity," he said. "Heavy vehicles use more power to power themselves down the road, whether it's electricity or fuel."
And as long as gas prices stay high, the market could see a shift from SUVs and trucks — which consumers and manufacturers have favoured in recent years — to gas-sipping models.
"We have a fascination with pickup trucks and SUVs, North Americans do, and there's a lot of them on the road now…. I don't see that changing any time soon," he said.
"But in the medium term or in the immediate term, will you see a shift or reconsideration of cars that are more fuel efficient? I think so. The price in the pump is very, very significant."
Applebaum touted the flexibility of a plug-in hybrid, saying he doesn't worry about range at all. And though his PHEV cost more than a comparable non-electrified model, trading in his previous vehicle combined with the fuel savings over three to four years made it affordable, he said.
With gas prices now higher than they were in January, "that's even more true," he told Checkup.
Now, he says friends are taking notice.
"They're saying the next car they purchase will be an electric car."
Written by Jason Vermes with files from Abby Plener.