My Beautiful Electric Car - GTEC Reader

Discovery is an interesting phenomenon. For a long time, you don’t know why things are the way they are and then, one day, you get the news and its all clear as can be.

Ironically my beautiful car is a Ford Focus Electric. Ironic, because I believe so strongly that Canada should have its own car, a fully electric vehicle that we could call the Canadian Arrow. Ironic, because Henry Ford is such an American icon, even though he was certifiably fascist. Ironic, because Ford’s assembly line production method made his internal combustion engine automobile plentiful and cheap. In the early 1900’s, Fords sold for $695. The competition, electric vehicles, sold for over $1000. For a while, the electric car hung on. Women liked the electric cars: quiet, so one could drive about town and not scare the horses or children and clean and easy to start. No, they did not go far or fast, but far and fast enough to go to town or to visit friends. The internal combustion engines (ICE) had to be cranked to start.
That was somewhat difficult and could be dangerous until a starter with its own motor was invented. In any case once the car was started, smelly gas fumes and noise began.

Even today ICE car manufacturers try to use the same arguments as were used then: the range, the cost, the speed. Currently the electric vehicle (EV) range is increasing more and more. As for speed, EV’s are famous for “torque” and they routinely beat ICE cars in competitions because of their quick take-off and speed.

The “cost gap” is also closing. In British Columbia, we have subsidies for EV buyers, from the current provincial government, as well as cash inducements for owners to turn in their old cars. Those factors greatly increased the possibility that we might one day own an electric car.

To do something about air quality and environmental degradation has been an aspiration for me for a very long time. When I was quite small, the motivation arrived in the form of a terrifying disease that attacked all ages but especially children. At that time, no one even knew the cause of the disease as Dr. Salk had not yet found the virus nor the vaccine. Desperate to do something to end the scourge, the town fathers – and they were all fathers in those days – decided to have insecticide sprayed throughout the town just in case polio was spread by mosquitoes, like yellow fever was. Dichloro Diphenyl Trichlorethane, commonly known as DDT, was an insecticide once commonly used to get rid of lice and bedbugs. It also worked to kill mosquitoes, the carriers of malaria as well as yellow fever. As a result of their decision, our neighborhood had regular visits by the DDT truck.

The truck with a big tank mounted on the back would lurch slowly down our street, stopping every so often to spray the insecticide into the air. The DDT billowed out in a huge white cloud and everything seemed to disappear. To us children, it was magic and we skipped through the fog, playing tag, laughing, and loving becoming invisible.

The mosquitoes and other insects died of respiratory distress. If they did not die, DDT destroyed their ability to generate eggs so they could not proliferate. Bird eggs were also compromised, the shells becoming so fragile that they burst when the mother bird sat on them.

However, DDT killed far more than mosquitoes. Years later, the manufacturer settled class action suits from many who had been children during that era and who, in adulthood, developed asthma and reproductive problems. By 1962 Rachel Carson had written Silent Spring telling us what had happened to the June bugs, fireflies and birds. Insecticide. This was my initiation, my baptism, into the world of ecology.

When I read Silent Spring, I was eighteen and on my way to university. I tried to discuss this idea that we were radically affecting the atmosphere, the environment. People fell silent when I spoke to them about it. They glazed over. Were they in a trance? Enchanted? Was it like the frog that jumps out of boiling water but if put in a pot of cool water and heated up slowly to boiling would be lulled to death? Were we all lulled?

Yes. We were lulled. The elite were lulled by almost limitless opportunity and an amazing lifestyle of new homes, new jobs and the luxury of ever bigger and better new cars. Our favorite anti-heroes, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, were On the Road. The massive V-8 engine could rev up a powerful car like a Merc or even a Chev and go across mountains, prairies, and deserts, laughably huge, gas guzzling vehicles, they could fire across the land and back. And then, after the ride, was the haze in their wake.

Gradually the soothsayers began reading the entrails. In his book, The End of Nature published in 1989, Bill McKibben predicted huge hurricanes and tornadoes like we had never experienced before, and in places where tornadoes never came. Tsunamis would become more common, as would floods. The Arctic would melt. Huge fires, whipped up by fierce winds and more extensive than ever before, would destroy the forests that are the “lungs of the world” and mitigate against the carbon in our atmosphere. Like a prophet from the Bible, he told the truth, but few had ears to hear.

The false prophets of the time, the spin doctors, even changed the name of the phenomenon from “global warming” to “climate change.” Perhaps “climate change” is not so hard to take. If climate changes, well, it can change back or change to something else. Perhaps even something better. “Global warming” seems more serious.

Indeed, it is.

Lots of folks got the picture. Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House. (Ronald Reagan ripped them off.) Green Peace took desperate measures and Al Gore made many valiant attempts to get the message across. California commissioned a zero emissions program and the car companies complied by manufacturing an electric, zero-emissions vehicle, the EV-1, that was leased to several Californians. At the same time, gas and oil lobbyists, along with car companies, worked hard and got the zero-emission program off the books, whereupon the EV-1 was promptly recalled and crushed.

For a while, we all had to get our cars “air cared”. Trucks, however, did not have to pass air care. Enter the sports utility vehicle – a truck.

By 2007 it was a hundred years since cars of any type had been invented. At the time I was researching environmental policy for a federal political campaign in Canada and also, like most ordinary people who care about the environment, I had been wondering what on earth one person or even one family could do to make a difference in the pollution of the atmosphere, most notably by the exhaust from the internal combustion engine. At the time, the cutting edge book about environmental issues was Hot Air: Meeting Canada’s Climate Change Challenge by Jeffrey Simpson, Mark Jaccard and Nic Rivers.

Reading Hot Air gave me an answer. If one could stop driving an ICE vehicle altogether and either find alternative transportation like walking or biking or drive only a zero-emission vehicle, one could eliminate the dumping of seven tons of green house gases into the atmosphere.

This was the news and I got it.

I rushed out to see if I could possibly afford to buy an electric car. But, alas. I could find no new electric cars for sale in Vancouver, B.C.I kept reading and exploring the internet and talking to people. Some members of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association (VEVA) had converted their internal combustion engine vehicles into electric vehicles. Here was a possible solution. Conversion. We owned a 1987 Volvo sedan that we loved. Since the car was gray, we called it the Silver Bird. That car had a heart of gold and ran like a thoroughbred. I got a sticker from VEVA that said: “My next car will be electric” and put it on Bird’s bumper.

The reality sank in that converting the Silver Bird was not going to work. I had watched the video, Who Killed the Electric Car? about that electric car, the EV-1, built in 1997 to comply with California’s Zero Emission Vehicle Program. So, like it or not the car manufacturers had proven that an electric car could be built. But where could I find one?

In Delta, B.C. there was an electric car company run by friendly, nice people. The difficulty was: they only had two electric vehicles. Since one did not work, they loaned me the other one for the whole summer before they took off for India, where they could manufacture their version of electric cars cheaper. Just as well, I thought. The vehicle they gave, me, quite frankly, seemed to be a golf cart with a mini-truck upper body. Weird? Yes. Dangerous? Definitely.

I drove it to the VEVA summer festivals around the Lower Mainland. The range was about twenty-five miles. Driving on Marine Drive near the Fraser River was scary, especially when large dump trucks blew by me, honking all the way, of course. I was glad when that adventure in my search for an EV ended.

VEVA members told me of a garage on Vancouver Island that did conversions. But only on trucks. Other VEVA members let me know they felt these vehicles were “unreliable.”

I refused to be discouraged. After all, while in action, the EV-1 had been a wonderful car. Even Tom Hanks liked it. Back to the internet. I found a whole fleet of electric cars in London, England. Taxis! Smith Cars built fleets of electric taxis. I wrote them. Nope. Only if I wanted a fleet of cars, and they did not export. I would have to be responsible for getting the fleet to Vancouver.

Next, I found a rather strange looking car for one person which was not my cup of tea, and given my covered golf cart experience, not safe enough. A woman in Texas bought the rights to an amazing electric car that opened from the back so that a handicapped person could drive their wheelchair into the car and up to the steering wheel. A tremendous development, I thought, but I am not handicapped. Now, I really was out of ideas.

Finally, in 2010 Nissan put the Leaf on the market. Teslas were for sale in 2003, but I could never afford one, cool as it was. Even the Leaf was just a bit beyond our reach – around $46,000 as I recall and the Leaf could only go 75 km without a charge. Not far.

On the other hand, as far as we knew, the Nissan Leaf was the first real electric car to appear in Vancouver, so off we went in the Silver Bird to test drive it. I wanted to buy it but I just could not. Aptly named “Leaf”, the car felt as though it were made of tinfoil. To be fair, Nissan made a much better electric car by 2015. Perhaps part of that “driving a tinfoil car” sensation was because I had been driving the Volvo which was a bit like driving a 1987 tank. But still…

So that’s how it stood. I could not buy the Leaf. I could not buy an unreliable conversion vehicle. I could not buy an enclosed golf-cart or a strange-looking one person EV and I could not buy and import a fleet of electric taxis.

Enter Funda. Funda is my daughter-in-law’s sister. My son went to Istanbul fifteen years ago to teach English, fell in love with Banu, now his wife, and Istanbul became, as my spouse likes to say, “our second home.” Eventually Funda moved to Vancouver with her spouse, Ahmet, and their son, Kivanc. As kismet would have it, Ahmet and Funda have friends who live in Seattle and these friends have an electric car. Funda mentioned one evening that these friends in Seattle own a Ford Focus Electric! Ford makes an electric car!? Who knew? They do, and the power train is designed and manufactured by Magma International of Aurora, Ontario. Another reason Canada could make its own car.

We immediately phoned all over and found a Ford Focus Electric in North Vancouver at Cam-Clark Ford. Imagine! With the B.C. rebates for buying an electric car and cash for your old junker… Okay. I have to admit it. That was a hard moment, giving up the Silver Bird to be crushed. But, it was for a good cause. Seven tons of greenhouse gases, remember.

We drove a hard bargain with old Cam-Clark and all totalled, we came in at $26,000. Then, we switched from buying to leasing and the lease was based on the $26,000. Leasing is expensive but better than the outlay of cash or greater debt service.

We have had our beautiful electric car for two wonderful years. The range is said by Ford to be 178 km but we have gotten up to 200 km with the regenerative braking and low power consumption on heat, other electronics such as radio, GPS, etc. We have never run out of power and we have driven to White Rock and to Harrison Hot Springs with virtually no charge. Every so often at night, we simply plug the car into the wall socket. By morning, we have a full charge and we are ready to go.

Our new license plate begins with the letters FD. I wanted to use a mnemonic in order to remember the license plate number. Our beautiful electric car is affectionately called “Fat Dog”. Other than car washes and summer to winter tire exchanges, we’ve had no maintenance costs. We do find the winter tires cost the car some power, perhaps because they are heavy; and air conditioning as well as heat can eat up electricity. These are very small issues for us.
Our friend who has an electric BMW did the math and he figures the cost of the electricity to charge his car puts about $400/year more on his Hydro bill.

And what did you say you spent on gas last year?