Published Saturday June 14 2014
For the past two decades, automobile manufacturers have been working on developing alternative power technologies to meet new government emission regulations, and for competitive reasons.
No manufacturer wants to be left behind in the race to develop the next big thing in automotive power technology. But none can agree on what that will be.
Will it be a new all-electric (or hybrid-electric) vehicle? Could ethanol, hydrogen, diesel, propane or natural gas revolutionize the market?
At this point, hybrid-electric vehicles are the front-runners in terms of sales in Canada and the U.S. Currently, there are more than 30 models available in Canada and that number is growing.
Clean diesel is also making a strong foray into the North American. Currently, 40 different diesel models are available, which produce 20 to 40 per cent better gas mileage than comparable gas engines. In Europe, diesel engines represent more than 50 per cent of the car market.
Today's diesel technology is much improved over the noisy, smoke-producing engines of the the 1980s, and more diesel models are being introduced all the time.
While some alternative power systems have caught on with consumers, mass adoption of any single new technology is still years away. Electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles account for less than two per cent of new vehicle sales in Canada (2012), which includes consumers who buy alternative powered vehicles for environmental reasons because they want to generate fewer carbon emissions.
The Ontario government has said it would like five per cent of all vehicles on the road to be electrically powered by the end of this decade. That's an ambitious goal, but the prospect of more electric vehicles raises many questions.
Where would the government recoup the lost gas tax revenue if a larger percentage of vehicles were electric? Could our existing electrical grid handle a significant increase in electric cars without causing blackouts?
Those who have purchased alternative powered models are generally pleased with their vehicles. Based on my experiences in the VW and Audi world, customers like the performance and fuel economy of diesel and wouldn't think of going back to gasoline.
Several factors are keeping buyers away from alternative technologies. The most obvious deterrent is price. All-electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles come with a higher price tag than their internal combustion engine counterparts.
Car buyers need to figure out if the higher cost of an alternative powered vehicle would be offset by the estimated gas savings over their ownership period. Plus, car buyers still need to choose a vehicle that best fits their budget and driving style.
Another deterrent is 'range anxiety.' Consumers fear there aren't enough charging stations to accommodate their driving requirements, especially on longer trips. But many car dealerships now have charging stations on their premises, as do many hotels, sports complexes, major highways, community centres and GO stations.
The CAA website (caa.ca/evstations) has a list of the current charging stations in Canada.
A third deterrent is a natural skepticism about new technologies in general. The internal combustion engine has been the standard automotive power source for more than a century; it's a technology that everybody understands and is familiar with.
Consumers may understand all-electric and diesel technology in principle, and they may endorse the environmental benefits of these vehicles. But when it comes to spending their hard earned dollars, they are inclined to go with a technology they know, rather than a technology they don't.
For that mindset to change, the auto industry needs to introduce a radical, game-changing technology that is highly accessible, affordable and efficient.
I am waiting for that great new technology to arrive.