Want the full comfort of a regular car, without the gas-guzzling engine? Here are the options available in B.C.
Electric commuter car
Also commonly referred to as the neighbourhood zero-emission vehicles, these cars are faster than a golf cart but slower than a regular car. To date, they can be legally driven in B.C. only in Oak Bay and Vancouver, although Burnaby recommended legalization in late October 2008 and is drafting a bylaw.
These cars are fully electric: Recharge them overnight and they’re good for about 50–80 km of driving. The only models available in B.C. are made by Global Electric Motors, a division of Chrysler, and imported by ElectricCarBC in Surrey. ZENN Motor Company in St. Jerome, Quebec, also manufactures electric commuter cars but does not have a B.C. distributor.
Chevrolet released the Volt, North America’s first plug-in hybrid, last fall. The car is propelled entirely by an electric motor, with a range of about 50 km. Like the zero-emission neighbourhood vehicles, it can be recharged at a regular electrical outlet. The big differences are that it is also equipped with a gasoline-powered internal combustion that is used to recharge the batteries on the go and it can travel at regular city and highway speeds.
Fully Electric Car
Still on the drawing board: mass-produced cars meeting all the safety requirements of motor vehicles and capable of travelling at posted city and highway speed limits, powered by nothing but an electric motor. General Motors demonstrated the viability of these cars with the EV1 prototype, leased to the general public in California from 1996 to 2003. (See the documentary film, Who Killed the Electric Car?) The only electric car available in North America today is the Tesla Roadster, made by a private company in California and selling for $200,000 apiece.
These are the Toyota Priuses, Honda Insights and others we’ve become familiar with in recent years. They are propelled by two energy sources: an internal combustion engine and an electric motor, and automatically switch to electric power under certain conditions to conserve fuel. There is a wide range of hybrid technologies, and cars advertised as hybrid achieve widely diverging fuel efficiencies. (The 2009 Cadillac Escalade hybrid, for example, boasts an efficiency of 20 mpg, much lower than most gas-powered mid-sized sedans.)
The holy grail of emission-free cars, this technology seems to remain perpetually just around the corner. Five fuel-cell-powered Ford Focuses are currently being tested in Vancouver, but all bets are off as to when we can see these cars commercially available.
Any car manufactured to run on diesel fuel can also run on biodiesel, a renewable fuel derived from vegetable oils or animal fats (See “The Alt-Fuel Club”). Biodiesel use is more widespread in Europe, where diesel cars are common. There are only four retail biodiesel outlets in the Lower Mainland.
For about $23,000, you can buy an old pickup truck and replace its internal-combustion engine with a bank of batteries and a fully electric motor. However, this is recommended only for garage hobbyists; commercial conversions are not commonly available. For information, contact the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association.