Vancouver welcomes electric cars, but is it too little, too late?

It’s a hot sunny day in late September and Danny Epp is standing in his backyard in Tsawwassen with a hose and sponge, wiping down the rear panel of his wife’s car. He steps back to admire his handiwork, watching the water bead on the gleaming surface of the bubble-shaped Dynasty IT.

I introduce myself, and he takes me around to the front of the car. He lifts the hood, and there’s virtually nothing inside: six car batteries, and behind them a simple electric motor—like what you might find if you took apart the electric fan in your bathroom, only a bit bigger. No hoses, no sparkplugs; no coolant, filters or dipsticks. The fully electric car is the model of simplicity: just plug it in overnight, and it’s good for about 60 km—well within the average daily commute.

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“Want to go for a spin?” Epp asks. He slides into the driver’s seat and I join him on the passenger side. When he turns the key a green light flashes on the steering column, the only indication that the motor is engaged. A knob on the dashboard marks the car’s two gears: forward and backward. Epp turns the knob to the right, and the car inches forward.

As we glide down the driveway, the only sound is the crunch of gravel beneath the wheels. Epp turns onto the steep, windy road that will take us up the Tsawwassen bluff, and with a touch of the accelerator the car climbs the hill easily.

Epp’s little car would seem an obvious solution to Lower Mainland streets clogged with emission-spewing gas guzzlers. The Dynasty IT belongs to a class of car that was introduced to Canada in 2000, when Transport Canada defined a new vehicle category: low-speed electric cars that don’t have to meet all the safety requirements of bigger cars—no airbags, impact-absorbing bumpers or highway crash-testing. With a top legal speed of 40 km/h and a range limited to about 60 km, the low-speed electric car isn’t going to solve our oil dependence, but unlike fuel-cell or fully electric production-line cars from the big automakers, it’s here today. At about $19,000, it’s affordable, and it’s capable of instantly making a dramatic impact on urban environments.

Just don’t expect to see them on Lower Mainland streets in significant numbers anytime soon. While Epp happily cruises the streets of Tsawwassen, low-speed electric cars like his IT remain illegal in that municipality, as in all but two of the province’s 150 municipalities. Epp’s is one of only about 20 Dynasty ITs that were grandfathered when the province effectively banned the cars provincewide in June 2008, leaving it to individual municipalities to make exceptions if they choose to. And even though the City of Vancouver passed a bylaw on September 30 allowing the cars on city streets—joining Oak Bay on Vancouver Island—nobody’s celebrating. Not Epp, nor the community of advocates—many verging on fanatics—who have been fighting for more than a decade to bring the low-speed electric car to our streets.

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While Vancouverites are now free to zip around their neighbourhoods, they can’t cross municipal boundaries. And because the Vancouver bylaw allows the cars to travel only on roads with speed limits up to 50 km/h, they can’t drive to or from downtown Vancouver, which is cut off from its surrounding neighbourhoods by bridges with speed limits of at least 60 km/h. (There’s talk of lowering the speed limit on the Burrard Bridge to 50 km/h just to accommodate low-speed electric cars, but that’s about as likely to win public approval as the failed 2005 motion to set one lane of the bridge aside for bicycle traffic.)