With their futuristic designs and new technology, electric vehicles are the seductive consumer-friendly face of the energy transition.

As first incarnated by Tesla, the EV is increasingly seen as sleeker, slicker, faster and more stylish than traditional internal combustion engine cars and trucks that burn those dirty fossil fuels blamed for disrupting weather patterns and killing off species. 

For people with money and a conscience, EVs are doubly satisfying. They allow the affluent to indulge in the time-honoured pleasures of conspicuous consumption while at the same time saving the planet.

Not so fast

But for those who have looked more deeply at how the world can escape its dependence on oil and gas, the rush to replace existing gas guzzlers with a new fleet of clean, silent battery-powered personal transport leaves them uneasy.

Many, including John Lorinc, last month’s winner of the 2022 Balsillie Prize for Public Policy for his book Dream States, worry that the dash to go electric has not been well thought out. 

The potential result? Unsustainable costs and unnecessary damage to the environment.

“It’s a really important evolution of technology to get away from internal combustion engines, so that part is necessary,” said Lorinc in a recent phone interview. But he said the change comes with many caveats, including the fact that a lot of the world’s electricity is still made using fossil fuels. 

Even though they are electric, larger trucks and SUVs like this Rivian R1T mean they are not environmentally friendly to manufacture, and their large batteries make them heavier and harder on roads, say urban planners. (Nathan Frandino/Reuters)

“Electric vehicles are large engineered objects that require a lot of metal, they require a lot of components that are shipped all over the place,” he said. “There’s a lot of mining and processing of minerals required to make the components, so it’s not an environmental panacea by any stretch of the imagination.”

People who study what they call the energy transition — the move away from releasing hundreds of millions of years worth of carbon trapped deep underground into the atmosphere and, instead, move toward renewable energy sources — insist it must be done strategically. Like Lorinc, they say that while getting all fossil fuel vehicles off the road is essential, it is far from the first step to saving the planet.

Lorinc’s new book, a study of the complexity of attempts to building green “smart cities,” is stuffed with information and written in an accessible, sometimes humorous style — “What city wouldn’t want to be ‘smart’?” —  and delves into the thorny problem of urban transportation.

‘Horrendously inefficient’

Illustrated with real examples, the chapter “The Quagmire of Mobility Tech,” relates how cities have struggled with uncontrolled market forces competing for limited urban space and limited funding. 

Lorinc describes how innovations such as early, inexpensive ride-hailing apps like Uber drove people away from public transit, helping to plug up downtown streets. In one case, he describes how Stouffville, Ont., a small town north of Toronto, experimented with switching away from costly bus services to ride-hailing apps — and how the idea became so popular it blew the municipal budget. 

And there’s research on how electric self-driving cars could one day transform cities, Lorinc writes, but in a way that just might be flawed. 

 “EVs are here to save the car industry, not the planet, that is crystal clear,” said outspoken urban planning advocate Jason Slaughter in a recent email conversation. “Electric cars use batteries instead of gasoline, but they are still a horrendously inefficient way to move people around, especially in crowded cities.”

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A strong advocate of public transportation on his YouTube channel Not Just Bikes, Slaughter insists that in order to make cities people-friendly instead of being dominated by cars, public transportation has to be both comfortable and easy to use.

Slaughter’s adopted home, the Netherlands, is one of the most advanced in making its cities walkable and bikeable, thus discouraging the domination of cars. Lorinc, too, describes Dutch urban centres as among those closest to becoming true smart cities.

And there are signs the trend toward fewer urban cars is growing. Last week San Jose, Calif., became the largest U.S. city to abandon parking minimums — the traditional requirement that urban development had to have a certain number of parking spaces. Also last week Paris announced it was paying car drivers to switch to electric bikes.

Outside of financial incentives, there are other ways to entice people to get out from behind the wheel — make the alternatives the easiest option. 

One person and a yogurt

“Using a vehicle to move a person and a quart of yogurt is energy inefficient,” said Kate Daley, a climate and energy specialist who works in Waterloo region, referring to the drive many suburban Canadians must make just to pick up an essential ingredient from the nearest shop.

Her community’s climate strategy has been to make walking, biking and public transit convenient enough that residents don’t have to drive, whether in a fossil fuel burner or an EV. She notes that the move toward large SUVs has already been hard on road surfaces, and the additional load caused by batteries makes the damage worse.

But most important, said Daley, is that a successful energy transition must be done strategically. As those working on fuel switching for heating Canadian homes have noted in the past, one of the advantages of fossil fuels and why we remain addicted to them is that they remain an incredible bargain.

Switching from gas to electric for high-use vehicles including taxis, delivery trucks and car-share vehicles would have a bigger impact on the climate than trading in a car that is seldom used. (Don Pittis/CBC News)

“The reason we want to use less energy first is because if we don’t reduce our energy use, [fossil fuel energy is] really expensive to replace,” said Daley.

As a Vancouver green building planner has told me in the past, insulating and sealing up homes can cut energy use by 90 per cent, meaning the cost of alternative energy sources becomes less important. 

Daley said the three stages of energy transition, which applies equally to EVs is that “we need to use less energy, we need to use clean energy and we need to generate local clean energy.”

Who goes first?

Recently, Canada celebrated the opening of a General Motors factory in Ingersoll, Ont., to build electric delivery vehicles, and according to Colleen Kaiser, low carbon transportation expert with the Ottawa-based Smart Prosperity Institute, they may be on the right track.

“We really want the oldest [fossil fuel] cars off the road … and we want the ones that drive the most,” said Kaiser. “So we can think about taxi kind of vehicles, whether it’s an Uber or a traditional taxi, any kind of fleet vehicles.”

Effectively, she said, any car or truck that is on the road many hours a day, including buses, delivery vehicles, travelling sales reps, long-distance commuters, car shares such as Communauto or Zipcars, should be the ones to electrify first. 

She agrees that changing the “built urban form of our communities” may be the most important way to reduce total car use, but she said that takes a long time. “That is why we have to start now.”

Electric rickshaws are a constant on the streets of New Delhi, often fighting for space outside busy areas, but they are a vast improvement on the previous generation of motors that created choking fumes. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“We definitely don’t want to replace all the gasoline cars one-for-one with electric vehicles,” said Kaiser. “We have an opportunity with the transition to not just repeat the same patterns of the past with a different energy source.” 

Kaiser said she thinks that may come with a generational change. Already, young people are more likely to live downtown, take transit more often and are less likely to drive a car. But for the many Canadians who live in rural or suburban areas that may not be possible.

“We’re going to have to have electric vehicles because not everyone is going to use some alternative mode of transport,” she said.

As Lorinc has noted, the consumer-friendly side of buying and driving a flashy electric car needs to be backed up by many more expensive steps. Those included developing green power sources, transforming our ability to get electricity to where it is needed with “smart grids,” building systems for storage and the business of finding, extracting and processing essential battery minerals. That’s a lot less sexy and a lot more complicated than picking out a new car.

But as Lorinc observes in Dream States, “Anyone who fails to acknowledge that everything is complicated, simply isn’t paying attention.”



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