Panel participants on the evolution of the electric and autonomous vehicle landscape

Experts weigh in on evolution of e-mobility perceptions and see signs of an emerging mass market

If a single phrase can sum up the most important takeaway from the showcase panel discussion at Electric Mobility Canada’s EV2019VÉ conference, John Voelcker delivered it: “Welcome to the mass market.”

Voelcker, a New York-based automotive journalist and co-founder of Green Car Reports, was one of four participants in a wide-ranging session on the evolution of the electric and autonomous vehicle landscape at the Quebec City event.

The group — which also included Simon-Pierre Rioux, president of the Association des Véhicules Électriques du Québec (AVEQ), Hugo Jeanson, co-owner of Bourgeois Chevrolet, Canada’s top-selling EV dealer, and Ben Sharpe, senior researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) — swapped opinions on China’s influence on the world market, carmaker economics, growth in autonomous driving, the future of fleets, charging networks and trends in trucking. But their observations on EV buyers’ and would-be buyers’ mindsets were especially telling.

Panel on Evolution of e-Mobility Perceptions
From Left: Hugo Jeanson, General Manager, Bourgeois Chevrolet; Ben Sharpe, Senior Researcher and Canada Lead, International Council on Clean Transportation; Simon-Pierre Rioux, President, AVEQ; John Voelcker, Automotive journalist, Green Car Reports, Simon Ouellette, ChargeHub. Photo credits: Stephen Bieda

Voelker’s “mass market” comment was in response to observations from Rioux and Jeanson, who stressed how much the questions they hear from potential buyers today differ from just a year or two ago.

Rioux, fresh off the third-annual Montreal Electric Vehicle show, which drew 25,000 visitors, said attendees at the two previous Montreal shows tended to worry about EVs’ battery limitations and how much they’d need to adapt their driving habits if they bought one. But many of those coming out this year didn’t know the first thing about charging. “They were asking: ‘I want to know which car is going to be best for me. This is my next purchase,’” said Rioux.

Jeanson, who sold nearly 600 EVs last year at his dealership in Rawdon, Que., an hour northeast of Montreal, said a lot of customers this year aren’t even asking questions. They have a neighbour or a family member with an EV, are motivated by the provincial incentive and new federal incentive program and have decided it’s time to get their own. “The people come in and they’re saying, ‘OK, I want this car.’”

“We have to slow them down a little bit and make sure that the car can be used by that customer,” said Jeanson.

These anecdotes contrast with EVs’ early days, Voelcker noted, when buyers did their homework and often knew more about the cars than the showroom salespeople. “This is now more the real world.”

Another sure signal that EVs’ are verging on the mass market is the emergence of different vehicle “segments,” Voelcker said. While most EVs today are still variations on five-door hatchbacks, crossover SUVs are coming. “We will start to see compact crossover electric vehicles with 300-plus kilometres of range in about 2020 or 2021,” he said.

The Hyundai Kona EV, introduced in North America this year, is an early example, but it lacks four-wheel drive so doesn’t quite tick off all the boxes in the crossover SUV category. However, several panel members said its instant popularity is a sign of the awaiting demand.

ICCT’s Sharpe said his firm’s research shows a high statistical correlation globally between EV sales growth and model availability — which also suggests a tipping point is near.