STEPPING on the gas . . . wait. No, it's not gas. Stepping on the accelerator of an electric vehicle, you'd be surprised how much torque it gives you.
Forgetting the word "gas" is just one of the many ways you have to think differently when dealing with electric vehicles - or "EVs" as they're known to enthusiasts. There's no revving sound, no tailpipe and, at first, a cold sweat-inducing anxiety that you're going to end up stranded and pushing the EV in search of an outlet.
But with almost every major auto manufacturer mass-producing EVs or plug-in hybrids that have the ability to get the average commuter to work and home and then some on a single charge, is it time to consider a switch?
Yes, says Bruce Stout, a North Vancouver resident and president of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association.
With a major breakthrough in lithium-ion battery technology in 2004, auto makers have found the "sweet spot" in EV range, with more than a dozen on the market offering upwards of 160 kilometres on a single eight-hour charge.
Stout doesn't promote one type of electric vehicle over others. If you're a daily commuter and you don't leave town much, he says, there are a number of pure electric models that will meet your needs. The Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MiEV get 100 to 150 kilometres to a charge, depending on what onboard features the car has running.
If you want more than that, there are plug-in hybrids like the Toyota Prius or Chevy Volt, which has a gasoline engine that kicks on only after the battery is drained. The Volt, with its relatively small tank and battery, could get you almost all the way to Castlegar without stopping.
At the high end of the scale, there are the very sporty Fisker Karma and Tesla Model S, the benchmark against which all other EVs are compared. Boasting a range up to 500 kilometres and a top speed of 201 km/h, you'll know where your $130,000 went.
Once you're over the "range anxiety" and "charge anxiety" -which happens quickly, Stout says - you can start enjoying the benefits of an electric vehicle.
"Instead of you spending $15 to drive 100 km, you're spending $3 for 100 km. You're driving by a gas station seeing the price has gone up another couple of cents today, and you don't care," Stout said.
There's also the advantage of essentially eliminating the auto mechanic from the list of people you will owe money to over the life of your vehicle. With fewer moving parts and less heat, the wear and tear under the hood is almost nil.
"Basically (mechanics) are lonely. They want you to come back," Stout said, "With a pure electric car, it's going to be the brakes at 200,000 kms."
There is also something of a satisfaction in knowing that even if they aren't perfect, electric vehicles are still twice as efficient as an internal combustion engine.
But, while manufacturers are jockeying to see who can build the car with the most range, the average consumer is probably more satisfied with the market's status quo than they realize, says Jonn Axsen, assistant professor for the school of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University.
Axsen has spent the last 10 years studying alternative energy vehicles and has found that plug-in hybrids would go a long way to reducing greenhouse gas emissions while meeting most drivers' needs.
"My consumer research has shown that people are actually really attracted to that. When you show them you can have this vehicle that you plug in for a while and for the first 20 km, you can be powered by electricity and after that, you drive like a hybrid and still get good fuel economy, we see a lot of support for that sort of thing," he says. Plug-in hybrids also happen to be much, much cheaper and much more technologically-achievable today than waiting until the next breakthrough in battery technology.
For all the benefits of electric vehicles, Stout also recognizes their flaws and limitations. Their list prices, for instance, are high enough that they will probably not be offset by the total cost of gas saved over the life of the vehicle, at least not at today's prices. Their batteries require mining of scarce and toxic heavy metals to run. They hate cold temperatures and no matter how many charging stations are around, they just won't work for some trips.
But, taking into account the cost, environmental resources and the driving experience, there's no question in Stout's mind. EVs are the way to go.
As many have pointed out, the prospect of a new alternative to a gas guzzling, emission belching internal combustion engine has always been "just around the corner" and yet it never actually arrives.
Not only does that perception have merit, says Axsen, there's also a name for it: "hype cycles."
"In the late 1970s, it was electric vehicles and then it was diesel and methanol and compressed natural gas. . . In the 2000s, we had George W. Bush talking about putting all this funding into hydrogen," Axsen said.
But every time a flaw or serious challenge comes up with alternative energy vehicle development, or when the political winds change, government funding tends to jump to another technology.
"You can track these funding cycles and these hype cycles in the consciousness of politicians and media. If we're constantly dismissing something based on one drawback and diverting funding, we're never going to get anywhere," he said.
After all, it's not like powering a vehicle with electricity is a new idea. The Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association has stewardship of a 1912 Detroit Electric vehicle, which formerly belonged to a Victoria couple and then the now-defunct B.C. Automotive Museum. The electric vehicle association takes the 101-year-old vehicle to car shows, museums and anywhere else they can show it to raise awareness about EVs. The car still runs on its original motor and only recently had its batteries replaced due their cases disintegrating.
Many see the 1912 as a symbol of what could have been if society had continued along the path of EVs as opposed to fossil fuel-based transportation. It inevitably invites accusations of
collusion between the car manufacturers and oil producers. The conspiracy theories often go along the lines of one or all of the Big Six car makers or a Saudi oil billionaire buying out battery research and development firms and suppressing their breakthrough technologies in the interest of protecting profits.
But Axsen isn't buying it. "I don't believe in that. I work a lot with car companies and they just want to sell cars, whatever cars they are. They are not in cahoots with oil companies. I've never seen any evidence of that," he said.
Ignoring the opportunity to capitalize on a new technology, whether it's electric or not, doesn't make financial sense and automakers would do so at their own peril, Axsen said.
Stout, meanwhile, takes a pragmatic view in which the cloak-and-dagger perception of the past isn't important.
"I ignore it because I can't deal with it. Some of it is probably true but at the end of the day, what does it matter? We are slowly progressing forward now. We will always slowly progress forward. We have evolutionary change, not revolutionary change," he said.
It's more likely that automakers are foot-dragging on new technologies out of fear that governments will force them to fast track the costly upgrades via environmental regulation, Axsen said - similar to making the switch to unleaded gasoline or mandating that vehicles have catalytic converters.
"Every time, automakers say 'We can't do that. We're going to lose a ton of money,' and the regulation goes through anyways and it ends up not being a big deal in the long run," Axsen said.
Governments need to reach into their toolboxes and use the carrot and the stick if they want to meet their carbon reduction goals - in the case of the U.S. and Canada, 60 to 80 per cent fewer emissions by 2050.
"If we're serious about this, and I think we should be, we want to incentivize and start this transition as soon as we can," he said. "Despite all the promise I talk about, I do believe that without stringent environmental policy in Canada or North America, a big transition to electric vehicles won't happen on its own. They're neat. They're interesting. But they're for a niche market," he said.
EV drivers shouldn't find themselves stranded on the North Shore in 2013, at least not for lack of places to plug in, with a mix of public and private sector charging stations coming online.
The City of North Vancouver will soon be home to five Level 2 (240-watt) charging stations; three near municipal hall and two at the city's operations yard on West First Street, on top of two hosted at Regency Nissan and Carter GM in the Northshore Auto Mall.
Three private businesses have installed courtesy vehicle charging stations in the District of North Vancouver, including Mountain Equipment Co-op, the Holiday Inn and Angel Restoration on Rupert Street.
The District of West Vancouver has two Level 2 charging stations at Gleneagles Community Centre and the West Vancouver Community Centre and two more stations expected with partial government funding by the end of 2013.
The latest additions to North Shore EV infrastructure are direct current fast charging stations - destined for Lower Lonsdale and the District of North Vancouver's operations centre on Crown Street - that can give an EV battery an 80per cent charge in 20 to 30 minutes, as opposed to four to eight hours. In January, the Ministry of Environment announced $1.3 million in funding for fast chargers around B.C. to entice more people into making the switch.
"It's really rapid charging because they go at 480 volts," Environment Minister Terry Lake told North Shore News when the new stations were announced in January. "Your household current is 110. This really cuts down on charging time."
It's a good gesture by the province and the increased visibility will help, Axsen said, but it's not going to be a difference maker.
"Do we need to have fast chargers on every city corner for this to work? I say no. Maybe eventually, but at least half of all households that buy new vehicles already have a basic electrical outlet near where they park," he said. "That is the biggest foothold for getting this going. That's the base. Most of the driving trips will be from home. Most of the cars will be parked at home overnight. The workplace would be a distant second."
Lobbying for that change is something the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association now does. Since its inception in 1988 as a hobby club for "geeks and wrench turners," the group has found itself taking on the role of activist with a goal of getting society to adopt EVs en masse.
The association successfully lobbied the City of Vancouver to require all new condos and apartments to have 20 per cent of their parking spaces EV-ready and 100 per cent conduit-ready.
That doesn't mean you will see Stout and his cronies at any of the North Shore's three municipal councils. Vancouver has its own community charter and building code, while every other city must comply with the B.C. Building Code. Lobbying the province and individual strata councils has proved a tougher nut to crack, Stout said.
But B.C. hasn't turned its back on EVs and would-be EV drivers, at least not yet. Through the clean energy vehicle program, multi-family residences can apply for up to 80-per cent funding for a new charging station. And depending on the size of the battery included, the province is also offering rebates of up to $5,000. The fund created to dispense grants and rebates is set to expire on March 31, even though $4.7 million of the original $6.8 million is sitting untouched. The Vancouver electric vehicle group has pushed hard for the province to extend the fund, but it did not survive the 2013 budget.
It's optimistic, he admits, but Stout thinks 50 per cent of new car purchases will be EVs in the next 10 years. We're over the hump now when it comes to technology, he says, and battery research and development is still "exploding."
It's getting the average driver to do away with 100year-old notions about liquid fuel and what happens under a car's hood that needs to catch up.
If he's right, it will be interesting to see what noises little kids make when they're pushing their matchbox cars around the floor in 2023 or what a car chase scene sounds like in a Hollywood movie in 2050.