As a young boy working at the family greenhouse business in Coquitlam, British Columbia, Jerry Kroll could hear the roar and snarl of the sports cars from the nearby Westwood Race Track.
His father would take him to see the races at the course that the renowned Formula 1 driver Stirling Moss designed, and it was there Kroll first fell in love with cars.
For Kroll, it’s an affair that continues unabated today - but with a difference: these days the love of his life is electric.
As CEO of the Vancouver-based, electric vehicle start-up, Electra Meccanica, Kroll is leading the launch this June of a one-person, three-wheeled electric commuter vehicle called the Solo.
With a light-weight, all-composite chassis, the electric Solo will hit a top speed of 120 kilometres an hour and be able to travel 160 kilometres at a time. The price tag for a Solo will ring in at $19,888, less any clean vehicle rebate in a consumer’s province.
Kroll calls it the solution to the 83 per cent of commuters who travel by themselves.
And electric vehicles just might go a long way to solving Canada’s problem with global greenhouse gas emissions. But is the technology ready for prime time?
“If we can put a million a year of these small electric vehicles with zero emissions on the road, we are actually now starting to move the needle of global climate destruction caused by fossil fuel vehicles.” Kroll told National Observer.
A million sounds wildly ambitious, but that’s Kroll’s stated goal.
In late March Kroll had just returned from China, where he says he signed a memorandum of agreement with a large manufacturer to produce upwards of a million Solos annually for the Chinese market and beyond.
So how does a guy who loved internal combustion engine cars - Kroll is an accomplished race car driver himself with a U.S. state championship to his name - come by his interest in electric vehicles? Honestly, as it turns out.
A serial entrepreneur, Kroll was former CEO of Crailar Technologies, a firm conducting research and development into clothing manufactured from hemp and flax.
At Crailar, Kroll stumbled onto the concept of sustainability, “providing products that aren’t necessarily the least expensive, but are produced in an honest fashion.”
The more he thought about it, the more Kroll realized it was good for people to use such products. Kroll decided to turn his attention to making a cleaner car.
“It’s one of those things where if you think about the idea of companies producing millions of fossil fuel-burning vehicles just because they need the money, it really is sounding criminal,” Kroll said.
“Everybody knows it’s bad. One hundred per cent of the people who use gasoline know that it’s bad. Yet they continue to do it and companies continue to manufacture these vehicles. What the hell is wrong with people?”
Indeed, what the hell is wrong with people?
Just as electric vehicle technology appears to be accelerating and becoming more affordable - in late March Tesla announced a US$35,000 model - the tar sands-owning, billionaire Koch brothers are reportedly funding a group to lobby against government subsidies for electric vehicles.
According to an unsourced article in late February, the Kochs are planning to spend $10-million annually extolling the benefits of petroleum-based transportation fuels while attacking incentives for electric vehicles.
The reason? “In 20 years, electric vehicles could have a substantial foothold in the U.S. market.”
When told about the Kochs’ potential plan, Kroll just scoffed.
“I find it implausible that any person can push back the tide of the ocean - even if they’re the Koch brothers,” Kroll said.
In fact, the very idea sends Kroll into a rant.
“If somebody who owns two million acres of the tar sands is pushing back against electric vehicles and you ask a room of a thousand people if that was a good idea, if anybody put up their hands, they’d probably be booed, right? So why are we even discussing it?
“What a couple of idiots. Like seriously, there’s a particularly warm place in hell for people like that. If in fact that’s what they’re doing.”
Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, agrees. When news of the Koch’s plans broke, Musk tweeted out, “Worth noting that all gasoline cars are heavily subsidized via oil company tax credits & unpaid public health costs."
In reality, Kroll, and other electric vehicle makers, have more pressing concerns on their minds.
The market for electric vehicles is currently microscopic, with electric vehicles forming less than one per cent of new vehicle sales in Canada.
Affordability and availability are issues, as is the driving range of the vehicles; the industry needs better government policies to help it grow; and even consumer awareness is a problem.
When it comes to electric vehicles, surveys show consumers are confused, according to Jonn Axsen, who is a director of the Sustainable Transportation Action Research Team at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University.
Consumers are aware of the term “electric vehicle,” but they can’t tell a Nissan Leaf and a Chevy Volt apart. “And that’s a very big difference because I’m explaining a plug-in hybrid versus a regular electric vehicle,” Axsen noted.
But Axsen’s research shows that once consumers are made aware of the technology, they’re quite interested in purchasing an electric vehicle - that’s if they can get their hands on one.
Another problem is availability, according Axsen, with only about a dozen different electric models to be found in Canada.
“Even among those, many of them are not carried in a given dealership, or the dealership is not really aware of it, doesn’t know how to talk about it. We found a lot of barriers that way.
“Moving forward, we think there’s a lot of potential. The technology is getting better. The consumer potential is there, but the transition to electric mobility will not happen by itself.”
Axsen cites government policy as a strong driver and points to California in particular. In 1990, the state introduced a zero emission vehicle standard that requires car companies to sell a certain percentage of clean energy cars.
Currently, about 14 per cent of sales in California must consist of zero emission vehicles by 2025.
“It puts the onus onto the auto companies to innovate, to channel their research and development, to channel their marketing toward those zero emission vehicles, to make them available in dealerships,” Axsen said,
In the absence of any meaningful government policy, Axsen anticipates the transition from fossil fuels to electric will take several decades. The lack of a zero emissions policy or a “super-strong” carbon tax means electric will continue along as one or two per cent of consumers’ purchases.
“I would say that there’s not any real concerns for oil and gas to suddenly go out of business. Without any real government policy, there’s no threat at all,” Axsen said.
Axsen’s Sustainable Transportation Action Research Team has carried out modeling simulations examining the introduction of a zero emissions policy in Canada at the federal level. He contends such a policy would send a clear signal to industry and consumers that the government was serious about reducing vehicle emissions.
Currently in Canada, provincial governments have stepped up with incentives of varying levels. In B.C., for instance, the government brought out a $5,000 incentive toward the purchase or lease of a new battery electric or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle in 2015.
Ontario announced aggressive new incentives of up to $14,000 in early February.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne called the incentives an important step in fighting climate change while supporting the province’s economic growth.
Transportation accounts for nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, with fossil fuels still powering 95 per cent of Canadian transport.
Over at Clean Energy Canada, policy director Dan Woynillowicz proposes that electric vehicles would offer a significant breakthrough in combating climate change.
“A shift to electric vehicles powered by zero carbon electricity is going to make a really significant difference in transportation-related emissions,” Woynillowicz said.
“I think it could be one of the more significant things that could happen in the course of the next decade or so.”
That said, electric vehicle purchases lack behind other countries because of limited federal support, Woynillowicz maintains. Like Axsen, he points to federal and state incentives south of the border that has helped lower the cost of the vehicles, combined with support for electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
Where incentives are offered in provinces such as B.C., electric vehicle purchases are stronger than in provinces without - such as Alberta - Woynillowicz pointed out.
“There’s definitely some catch-up that we need to play in Canada to help spur electric vehicles on, particularly on the charging infrastructure.”
One person who is bullish on electric vehicles is Dave Paterson, the vice-president of corporate and environmental affairs for General Motors Canada in Oshawa, Ontario.
“I think the future is electric,” he declared.
However, the emphasis is still on the word “future.”
Tesla’s much-vaunted Gigafactory, which broke ground in 2014, aims to manufacture enough lithium ion batteries to meet its target goal of 500,000 vehicles annually, but that won’t be until 2020.
Nor is Tesla alone. Outside of GM’s headquarters in Warren, Michigan, the auto manufacturer has a battery lab that is several football fields in size. The investment in the lab is over $1-billion. The company works with lithium ion batteries primarily sourced from LG in Korea.
The challenge is to lower the price of the battery technology while simultaneously increasing longevity and performance. Paterson estimates that could take another decade. He said people mistakenly assert that volume will bring down the cost, but according to him that’s not the case.
To date, battery improvements have occurred roughly every five years and Paterson believes it will take two more cycles to reach the point where electric vehicle batteries can efficiently compete with internal combustion engines.
Right now, customers can walk into a Chevy showroom and buy a gasoline-powered Spark for under $10,000. The retail price before incentives of the electric Spark model is $32,000.
“Now tell me, which would you buy?” Paterson asked. “You can buy three of the gasoline, or you can have this one,” he said, referring to the electric vehicle.
He agrees that government incentives are important and says Ontario’s up-to-$14,000 incentive “blows away any other state in the U.S. or province in Canada.”
But from Paterson’s perspective a couple of other things are still needed to spur growth in the electric vehicle industry. A significant increase in the cost of gas through a carbon tax or some other form of tax would potentially steer people toward electric vehicles.
While a small segment of the population buy because they want to change the world and make the best environmental choice, Paterson said, “Predominantly, the reality of the marketplace, despite all policy, is that people will buy with their pocketbook.”
A savings in gas costs over the life of a vehicle might influence consumers to purchase electric vehicles. “Pay-back time is probably the most important factor in terms of having people make more purchases,” Paterson said.
The second problem is the lack of infrastructure for recharging the vehicles’ batteries. GM’s research indicates “range anxiety” is a big barrier to the purchase of electric vehicles.
Again, Ontario leads the country in its move to invest $20-million into public recharging stations.
Coupled with that is an improvement in battery technology. The new Chevy Bolt, for example, has a fast charging system that will retain a 50 per cent charge in less than 30 minutes.
“It’s not like the two minutes that it takes you at the gas pump,” Paterson acknowledged, “But we need to make sure people can recharge quicker. If there’s no recharging station, that’s a problem.”
A change to building codes could enable recharging stations in parking spaces in new condominiums, while a home incentive could allow people to retrofit their garages with chargers. Paterson would also like to see incentives to businesses allowing them to install recharging stations for employees.
“I would love to see consumers adopt electric vehicles faster and we’re betting that that’s the future.”
Back in Vancouver, Kroll is preparing to take Electra Mechanic public on the Toronto Stock Exchange in September. He and 50 other people “as passionate about turning around automobile-caused climate change” have invested in the company already.
Kroll said people want to invest, “not because they think it’s going to make tons of money like Tesla has, but because it’s the right thing to do.”