‘We need much more infrastructure’: David Suzuki on the challenges faced during his cross-country EV road trip

David Suzuki and his wife, Tara Cullis, stand next to a fully electric Volvo C40 Recharge that they drove from Vancouver to Toronto.Handout

Vancouver-based environmentalist David Suzuki was faced with a problem. He and his wife, Tara Cullis, recently had to be in Toronto for the June 9 world premiere of What You Won’t Do for Love. The play, which the pair wrote and star in together, was scheduled for a number of performances over 11 days as part of the Luminato Festival.

Because flying has a high carbon footprint and train tickets were pricey, they decided to drive an electric vehicle from British Columbia to Ontario. But this, too, had its challenges.

Volvo Car Canada Ltd., in partnership with the festival, lent Suzuki the C40 Recharge and planned the route with DC fast-charging stations highlighted so they could charge in less than 30 minutes and travel up to 364 kilometers between charges.

After they finished their 4,100-kilometre, eight-day trip from Vancouver, we caught up with Suzuki to ask him about the trip, whether he thinks EVs can slow climate change, and how he was planning on getting home.

What challenges did you face when charging?

[In] a couple of places, the chargers that were supposed to be there were down, so that caused a bit of fluttering around to find another charging station. In many places, you have to download an app and then do all this internet stuff [in order to charge]. I don’t have the patience for that. What you need is to be able to put your credit card in and, boom, that’s it.

Did you have any mishaps on the road?

We had this unbelievable accident. We were coming from Brandon to Winnipeg. … We were roaring along at 100 kilometers an hour and we hit a pothole and it blew the tire – it sounded like an explosion. This was at night. We got out. So, where’s the spare tire? Modern [electric] cars don’t carry a spare tire. Here we are, out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s pouring rain. We push the SOS button and, in five seconds, we’re connected. We told them our situation and it turns out there isn’t a spare tire for this model anywhere in Manitoba.

What did you do?

The solution was: A flatbed truck from Brandon will come and load your car with the flat tire and drive 200 kilometers to Winnipeg. They will take the tire off of the display model at the dealership, which was already sold to someone, and put it on our vehicle. They did it and we were on the road the next morning.

What was the total bill for charging?

I didn’t total it. It averaged around $8 a charge – a couple of them were free in BC We stopped three times a day [for a total of about] $240. It’s 4,000 kilometers – if you go on gas at $2 per liter – it’s quite a difference.” [Driving a gas-powered car that consumes about six litres per 100 kilometres would cost about $500 for the same trip.]

[Note: I asked him the total cost for hotels and food and whether it was cheaper than flying, but he wouldn’t say].

What did you learn from this experience?

We need much more infrastructure. We should have these fast-charging stations as common as a gas station. … The money is there but the commitment [from government] isn’t.

How do you get consumers to adopt EVs when they’re so expensive? That Volvo C40 Recharge is almost $60,000.

When [Elon Musk] brought out the Tesla, people thought that’s stupid. But he brought out a sexy, really fast car and people paid top dollar for that, and with that money he was able to expand his factory and make the cheaper models. He drove electric cars into the society.

Now, every car manufacturer is bringing out electric cars. In BC, there are government subsidies for [buying] EVs, but I don’t think we’re going to need them. Those subsidies [should] be going into electrifying the grid. I think free enterprise and competition is going to drive the market and the big opportunities is cheap EVs.

And when Tesla started selling their cars, they very wisely set up their Superchargers right across the country. We would pull into Petro-Canada and we often passed Tesla Superchargers. Where we were looking for one or two chargers, Tesla had eight.

Your foundation recently released a report [Shifting Power: Zero-Emissions Electricity Across Canada by 2035] showing that by 2035, a clean electricity grid in Canada, powered by renewable energy, is possible. Are EVs the solution to reach carbon neutrality?

The EV is not the solution. The EV is simply the replacement for internal combustion engine cars. Even an EV produces a lot of greenhouse gas: You have to dig up the minerals, you have to manufacture it, then send those cars all over the place, and then when you’re done, get rid of them. All you’re doing is removing the gasoline portion of the car fleet.

So what’s the solution?

We can’t have everybody aspiring to own their own electric vehicle. EVs are going to get cheaper and cheaper because of the competition, but we can’t just have everybody seeing that as the answer to climate change. Public transit in cities ought to be free and private individual cars ought to be prohibited. People have to find other ways of traveling within short distances. Long distance – electric vehicles [should be] rented, and buses or trains have to be part of that solution.

How are you getting home?

I have to fly, economy. That’s the challenge. I have to go back for my grandson’s graduation. Our problem today is the enemy we’ve created is time. We don’t have time for anything; everything has to be done faster and faster. At my age, why am I having to rush anywhere? But I do have this unfortunate deadline.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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