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At the tipping point: How the next year is crucial to the rollout of electric vehicles

In a career full of twists and turns, Mike Elwood went from motorcycles to commercial vehicles with the objective of using less, not more gas.

After a decade as partner in Toronto's Indian Motorcycle Café Lounge, he joined Azure Dynamics in 2004, a company dedicated to developing and producing hybrid electric and electric components and powertrain systems for commercial vehicles. At the time it was just a startup. Now, Azure Dynamics has more than 4,000 vehicles on the road and about 60 percent of the North American market share of medium duty commercial hybrid trucks. After moving its headquarters from Vancouver to Toronto (where its sales and marketing offices remain) then to Oak Park, Michigan, Azure Dynamics currently has about 170 employees in five cities: "As a technology company building the vehicles of the future, we don't have to operate under the same roof," says Elwood, vice-president of marketing.
How did Elwood become chair of this week's national Electric Mobility Convention and Trade Show? "By default," he laughs. "I haven't been able to shake this role of chair of Electric Mobility Canada. I think they found a sucker."
Elwood predicts this convention will be a turning point, as the years of planning among industry players start to produce results that consumers will actually see.
Paul Gallant: How has the industry changed in the last few years?
Four years ago there was talk. We came up with the Electric Vehicle Technology Roadmap in 2009, with a vision of having 500,000 plugin vehicles on the roads of Canada by 2018. People thought it was crazy and it wasn't going to happen. It's still going to be a stretch to get there. What's happening now is that vehicles are being delivered, infrastructure's being planned—rollout is happening.
Who's taking the lead?
It's an interesting intersection. It's the first time utilities are speaking with OEMs [original equipment manufacturers]. Utilities are used to selling hydro, and now they're selling electrons to the drivers of these vehicles. Then you have the EVSEs [Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment] and the third-party charging companies. All these different sectors are intersecting with utilities and the OEMs. A lot of it will be driven by consumer behaviour.
Consumer behaviour is still the biggest mystery because the consumer isn't really at the table yet until there are vehicles and services to buy.
You're going to see corporate fleets adopting electric vehicles very quickly. There still has to be a consumer shift over range anxiety. I've been at this so long, I have a good chuckle over it. Back in 1908, when Ford was delivering the Model T, a lot of them ran out of gas because there weren't gas stations. When we're in 2011, we see 2011, we don't see what happened 100 years ago to get vehicles on the market. It wasn't until after the Second World War that you saw the proliferation of service stations, until the early or late 1950s when people stopped carrying the extra can of gas in the trunk for emergencies. Right now, people are hearing about the vehicles, but they're not seeing them. If we can get energy stations—not gas stations, but energy stations—from coast to coast, consumers will be more comfortable. You have to get people to understand the 'why' without scaring them. You need to be honest. The facts are overwhelming that passenger vehicles and commercial vehicles have contributed immensely to greenhouse gas emission. People don't think it's their problem, but it will be their problem.
The automotive industry is good at marketing itself on style and sex appeal and speed. The electricity industry isn't used to marketing itself at all. But now they're responsible for selling people on the big picture of the environmental impact of vehicles.
Automakers are used to selling a car as an extension of your perceived lifestyle, but, you know, for me personally, my lifestyle is about making the best decisions for the future of the planet. I have hybrids now and, yes, I will move to full battery electric. I hear people saying, will they buy them? In the end, if gas is $5 a litre, they'll buy them. The operating cost even right now is significantly less than an internal combustion engine, which is about 10 cents a kilometre to run, whereas an electric vehicle is probably a penny and a half. It's the upfront cost that concerns people, but that will come down where there's more volume.
What kind of progress is being made on the infrastructure—commercial charging stations, home charging stations, systems that provide feedback between the cars and the electricity grid?
Codes and standards have been where the hiccups are. The utilities have been great and understand what they do. But every province is different. British Colombia, Manitoba, Quebec and Newfoundland are 90 percent-plus hydro and owned by the province. Ontario has different resellers. Within Ontario, pockets have been great, but we need to unify them. You see Toronto, Burlington, Hamilton going hard on it.
Where will things be a year from now?
Next year it'll be a coming out party. We'll be talking about the business of going electric and the new business models. Right now, we're talking about the idea of green highways; next year we'll be talking about the business opportunities in them. I'll liken it to the early days of the Internet where there were a lot of little players in the beginning but a lot of it migrated to the big players. A lot of the little guys will get acquired and eaten up by big guys, but you're also going to see new business models.
Electric Mobility Canada's convention wraps up Sep. 29. Its trade show, at the Allstream Centre on Princes’ Blvd., is open to the public from 6pm to 9pm on Sep. 28.

Planet In Focus is screening Revenge of the Electric Car, narrated by Tim Robbins, as the opening night program in this year's festival of environmental films. The film screens October 12, 7pm.
Paul Gallant is the managing editor of Yonge Street.
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