As many fleet managers know, EVs are not quite ready for prime time. While they offer benefits in terms of operating costs, the challenge of range has not yet been conquered.

Cost, range and charging

As our need to develop sustainable sources of alternative energy grows, hybrid and electric cars have evolved from novelties to viable modes of transportation. As recently as 2017, only the luxury-priced Tesla Model S, with 400 to 539 km, boasted a truly practical range. Today there are half a dozen vehicles in the $50,000 range capable of travelling between 200-400 km on a single charge. We’re no longer questioning if e-vehicles are coming – they’re here.

However, only Quebec and B.C. currently offer rebates for EV purchase as Ontario’s government ended the Electric and Hydrogen Vehicle Incentive program in July of 2018. While this resulted in a massive surge in Ontario’s EV sales early last year, the loss of up to $14,000 in rebates will most certainly make prospective fleet customers think twice about EV ownership.

Equally important to consider is the operating cost – while electric vehicles, with far fewer moving parts than traditional gasoline-powered cars, boast much lower maintenance costs – they rely on a charging infrastructure that’s still in the nascent stages of development in Canada. It costs about $2.20 to drive an EV 100 km, compared to an average $10.65/100 km for a gasoline-driven car – if you charge overnight on a home- or business-based Level 2 charger.

This works if your drivers stick to a typical commute of 25 to 30 km a day. But what happens when they need to go further afield? What if your EV users need to travel outside of an urban centre – is long distance travel really viable in an electric vehicle?

Hydro Quebec invests heavily in charge station infrastructure, and Montreal, with half the population boasts twice as many charging stations as Toronto.

In 2016, Ontario announced a $20 million dollar plan to build 500 charging stations across the province. But 55 percent of those stations ended up in downtown Toronto and the GTA, where there was already a healthy charge network, instead of along the provincial highways between cities where they’re most needed.

Real life trial

We decided to find out just how feasible long distance EV travel is by driving an all-electric vehicle from Peterborough, Ontario, to Windsor – a roughly 500 km route along the 401 and 403 highways. With a schedule to maintain, we would have to use Level 3 quick chargers (one to two hours’ waiting time) instead of the more plentiful Level 2 units (up to eight hours charging time).

Downloading the free Plugshare app showed us the location and type of all stations along the route. For this test we only wanted Level 3 chargers, and the app let us filter out all the rest. Although there are several different companies operating quick charge networks, we opted to use the well-known Chargepoint, and Flo, for ease of use and more plentiful coverage. While the proprietary Tesla network is well developed, it is unavailable to other vehicles.

Our vehicle began with a 400-plus-kilometre range, which quickly dropped to 367 km in the frigid minus14C temperature, and using cabin heat depleted the range even more quickly.

Our first scheduled charge was at 170 km, using a Level 3 Chargepoint station in Milton.

These stations work using a tap card registered to your account, or by downloading their app and using your smartphone to communicate with the charge station. Fleet owners will probably order a card, rather than rely upon a phone that could be out of range, or low on battery.

In our trial, while the Chargepoint would authorize the connection, we could not get it to complete the transaction using the smartphone app.

The next closest station, 20 km away, happened to be on the FLO network. Their free app is extremely user-friendly, showing availability, cost, directions, and even photographs of the station and its location. Syncing up your smartphone with the station is straightforward, and once the session begins, the charger is locked to the car until the user ends the connection, either with the app or their vehicle’s touchscreen. The FLO network charges $17/hr, which is good for approximately 200 km of driving.

However, none of these chargers is located along the highway, at the On Route or other stops convenient to most travellers. Several of our charge stops were in towns 30 to 50 km off the main highway. While some were adjacent to busy malls offering food and rest stops, the Ingersoll station was several blocks away from the nearest coffee shop, and the only Level 3 charger in the Windsor corridor was at a sports complex 32 km off the main road – surrounded by dark fields of rattling cornstalks.

Waste of time and money

As a fleet manager, would you want you put your drivers through this experience? It’s time-wasting, inconvenient and potentially unsafe.

Clearly, these roadblocks are not acceptable for business users. Time spent charging is one thing, but spending time driving to find remotely located chargers is time wasted. Malfunctioning machines or apps, over-reliance on technology as the only way to access a charge is another issue. Further, the remoteness of chargers could pose a safety issue for solo travellers. Alone in a cornfield at night with a low battery and no way to move the vehicle is an unacceptable position to put staff into.

Our trip, that normally should take about five or six hours, turned into a 10-hour odyssey. Not only did we waste time finding charging stations and waiting for the electrons to flow, but driving off route to find charge stations added kilometres to our route.

To conclude, while many EVs now offer boast impressive range, they still depend upon an infrastructure that has a long way to go before it’s ready to support anxiety-free, long-distance travel.

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