Despite Vancouver’s reputation for rain, there’s not a cloud in the sky here today. In a huge parking lot squeezed between the BC Place stadium and False creek, the Vancouver Electric Vehicle association is hosting their annual public education event, with displays and test-drives of production electric vehicles from scooters to skateboards to sport sedans.
VEVA is a large association, and this year’s event is both ambitious and well-attended. Like the venue, the crowded city of Vancouver gets pinched in between the water and the white-capped mountains, meaning that the overall distance passenger cars travel is fairly low. There are exceptions, where folks head further up the Fraser Valley to carve out a slice of suburbia, but even then most people aren’t putting much more than a hundred kilometres in a there-and-back commute.
With sizable reserves of mostly guilt-free hydroelectric power on tap and a populace concerned with green living, it’s no wonder that there’s a crowd already buzzing with excitement here. They’re all getting a good look at the state of current affairs.
Her electric majesty
Conspicuous by its absence is VEVA’s grand dame, who would ordinarily preside over the proceedings with a dusty black majesty – a bit like Queen Victoria, fitted with wheels and stuffed with batteries. This is their showpiece, a 1912 Detroit Electric that represents more than a century of electron-propelled wheeled transport.
As proof against accusations of electric vehicle faddishness, the Detroit Electric is iron-clad. It was driven weekly right into the 1960s, and only had its Edison-made batteries replaced in the 1980s. VEVA acquired it upon the breakup and sale of the BC Transportation Museum, and has maintained it as a mascot ever since. It’s out of service today because an unnamed member decided to pull apart one of the controllers for the electric drive, and didn’t have time to put it back together again. Said member has been here since 8 a.m. and has been put in charge of scooping up goose poop.
Originally founded as a group of electric vehicle home builders, VEVA is now a blend of those who own EVs out of passion or pragmatism. Club president Bruce Stout, clad in a stovepipe hat and wearing a billowing beard, looks like he’d be an ideal chauffeur for the Detroit, but actually has a Tesla Model S and a LEAF, both of which were bought with considerations to range more than style. Says the six-foot-plus Stout, “The first time I sat in a Tesla, I said I’d never buy one. But with the sunroof, I fit.” His car is fitted with the standard wheels, in a subdued silver: a practical choice.
Slightly less practical but considerably more pulse-stirring is Ian Corlett’s gorgeous electrified 1966 Porsche 912. A concours-grade restoration, the silver-on-red car loses its air-cooled flat-four for a DC electric motor that produces a maximum of 214 horsepower and somewhere about 200 lb-ft of torque from a nominal zero rpm.
Retaining the five-speed manual gearbox, and classic Porsche looks, the electric 912 is a different take on a resto-mod: a car fitted with an updated powertrain. The suspension is entirely custom and, like the brakes, uses parts sourced from both more-modern Carreras and Boxters. Even so, button up the hood and it’d be hard to tell it apart from a classic 911, apart from the silent running. How have local Porsche purists reacted?
“Surprisingly positively,” Corlett responds, noting that he probably wouldn’t have done the conversion on a collectible 911 – but the four-cylinder version was the perfect place to start and build a classic Porsche that’ll run even after the last gallon of gasoline is gone.
Next to the 912 is a bit more of a hot-rod-style conversion, a 1979 Mini Cooper set up to run on electric power by engineering students at the University of British Columbia.
It’s a serious project, running and driving using the five-speed out of a 1990s Honda Civic. However, true to the impish reputation enjoyed by UBC’s engineering department, the e-Mini has those quad air-horns under the hood, and a license plate reading “L TIGRE”.
In fact, many electric cars here today sport some kind of clever vanity plate: KWH PWR, OFF OIL, that sort of thing. However, there’s a far more practical side of the electric car, one perhaps exemplified by the electrified postal van parked right up front.
Canada Post has several electric vehicles in its fleet, although they are principally only used in very dense urban environments, where stops are plentiful and routes are short. The Navistar e-Star step-van hauls over 1800 kg of mail, with an 80 kWh battery, providing a top speed of 80 km/h and a range of 150 kms.
The bulk of Canada Post’s fleet remains conventionally-powered Ford Transit Connects, although some electric-only versions are operated too. So far, for fleet use, the electric transport van is a novelty. Where passenger cars are concerned, it’s not.
Test-ride the lightning
Just over half of Electrafest is given over to a packed parking lot which is filled with Nissan LEAFs, Tesla Model Ss, smart ElectricDrives, Mitsubishi iMiEVs, and at least one BMW i3. Where once the LEAF was pretty much the only game in town unless you wanted to homebuild an EV out of a pickup with a bed full of batteries, these days multiple manufacturers offer electric-only or plug-in hybrid vehicles, including efforts from Toyota, Ford, and GM.
That means buying an electric car doesn’t require an electrical engineering degree should anything go wrong – you’ve got a warranty, and there’s roadside assistance and a dealer nearby. Aside from the consequences of forgetting to plug the car in at night, it’s not that much different in operation from owning a conventional machine, something VEVA would very much like to demonstrate to the curious.
To that end, they’ve set up a test-driving loop so that those interested in cross-shopping the various sorts of electric cars on the market can try out anything from the city-friendly Smart to the status-symbol Tesla. If the lineups are anything to judge by, it’s working.
Where Electrafest might once have been a gathering of like-minded hobbyists, today it feels as though some critical mass has been achieved and surpassed. VEVA’s membership may grow today, but there will also be those who end up buying an electric car because of what they’ve been shown who would never really be interested in joining a car club.
For the latter, it’s simply a practical choice, and in many two-car families in the congested, densely-packed lower mainland, the electric car makes total sense. With many facilities offering preferred parking to EVs with free charging, and a new Tesla Supercharger in Squamish to assist in driving the Sea-to-Sky on electrons only, having an electric car has perks beyond the low cost of plugging it in.
For a growing number of people, the electric car isn’t the car of the future at all. It’s the car of right now, parked out in the driveway, all plugged in and humming away happily. It that sounds like too much of an appliance for you, just install air horns.