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Baby, you can drive my (electric) car

By: Will Sloan
April 22, 2015

Plug’n Drive's Josh Tzventarny.

In 2011, they represented 0.03 per cent of car sales in Canada. By 2014, the number rose to 0.27 per cent. And in 2015, I went to a parking garage underneath the Centre for Urban Energy to try out what is still the best-kept secret of the automotive world.

Yes, I – your faithful correspondent – put the key in the ignition of an electric vehicle for the very first time.

As the dashboard of the Mitsubishi i-MiEV lit up, the car remained quiet. “As you can hear, there’s nothing,” says Ron Groves, manager of education and outreach for the electric vehicle nonprofit Plug‘n Drive, external link, opens in new window based at CUE. “There are no gears in the electric car. The electric motor just goes faster and faster and faster. There is no gear change – just a smooth, steady flow to the speed you want to achieve.”

After a few turns through the garage – in which I did my best not to crash into any poles – we took the car uphill and outside. The red needle on the dashboard flickered.

“All electric cars have electronic driver coaches on board,” said Groves, “and they’re coaching you to use the least amount of energy possible so you get the maximum amount of range out of the charge of the battery. If you drive like a crazy person, you’ll see the needle swing wa-a-a-ay over into the Power side. If you keep it in the Eco area, you’ll drive as many kilometres as the car can go.”

Navigating downtown Toronto, I didmy best not to run into any motorists, pedestrians, or cyclists. When I stopped at the first red light, I noticed that the car felt virtually the same at rest as it did in motion.

“An electric motor doesn’t propel the car until you actually tell it to do so by pushing on the accelerator,” said Groves. “When you sit at a traffic light, where everyone around you is burning fuel and going nowhere, you’re not burning anything. It’s stony quiet – almost unnerving at first, but you get used to it.”

“So the car is not consuming energy at this point?” I asked.

“The electric motor that powers the car forward can also be a generator,” said Groves. “If you see a red light ahead and take your foot off the accelerator, you’ll see the red needle swing down into the ‘charge’ zone. The electric motor is now generating electrons. If you’re going downhill, and you take your foot off the pedal to maintain your steady speed, it will generate electricity.

“Your gas car cannot make gas, but your electric car can make electricity.”

Plug’n Drive is an outreach startup that raises awareness of the environmental and economic benefits of electric vehicles.  Since becoming an independent nonprofit in 2011, and moving into the iCUE in 2012, Plug’n Drive has expanded from two staffers to six, and from two to four outreach events per year to 40 to 50, with events as far as New Brunswick and British Columbia.

“People tend to be more interested in how much money they can save,” said Josh Tzventarny, director of operation and a Ryerson continuing education student. “In the past, we might have gone to an event and been happy to be there, or just had one car. Increasingly, we’ve tried to have as many cars as possible for test drives. This year, we did test drives at the Toronto Auto Show at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, which traditionally doesn’t have any test drives.”

As I navigated the cabs and streetcars of Canada’s biggest city, Groves enumerated the benefits of electric vehicle ownership: an Ontario government rebate of up to $8,500 for purchase… a chance to decrease the carbon footprint of transportation… a clean hydro power grid in Ontario… the fact that Ryerson has made provisional plans to install EV charging stations into the Victoria Street parking lot at the new Church Street development.

So, given all the benefits, why don’t more people have an electric car?

“People look at  the capital cost of the car,” Groves acknowledged. “In a gas car, your gasoline only gets more and more expensive as the car gets less and less efficient. The cost of electricity is only 1/6 the cost of gas. You can save anywhere from $1,500 to 2,000 a year on gas. That could be up to $10,000 over five years.

“Anyone who has ever owned a car knows that the day you buy a car is just the beginning of your expenses.”

This post originally appeared in Ryerson Today, opens in new window.

"Your gas car cannot make gas, but your electric car can make electricity."