A plan by three east-central Ontario municipalities to launch rental pilots with electric SUVs and charging stations is the latest example of a trend that’s helping boost EV adoption
Bonnechere Valley, North Algona Wilberforce and Whitewater Region, three Renfrew County townships in east-central Ontario, are trying to launch an EV rental pilot program.
Each community is looking to get one SUV and two chargers for their municipalities with funding support from the federal Rural Transit Solutions Fund. Residents will have the opportunity to rent the EVs for daily errands, tasks and trips.
Annette Gilchrist, Bonnechere Valley’s chief administrative officer, says the idea came from trying to tackle a challenge that many rural communities face: the lack of public transportation options to help people get to where they need to be.
“We don’t have Uber out here. There are some taxi services about half an hour away. So there’s really not a lot of options coming through here other than a vehicle,” says Gilchrist in an interview with Electric Autonomy.
“If we have to have more cars on the road, we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could have one that’s shared and one that’s green.”
The municipalities are currently awaiting federal funding approval. Gilchrist expects the pilot to launch next summer.
If the program is successful, she can see it expanding. That would mean adding more EVs and charging infrastructure or extending service to other rural municipalities in the area.
“There are 17 lower-tier municipalities in Renfrew County, plus the City of Pembroke. I don’t know that we all need to have multiple EVs, but what if we all had one? Would that create a big enough transit system that we’re really making a difference?” says Gilchrist.
EV benefits for rural communities
Gilchrist highlights a number of advantages to introducing an EV rental program to the community. These include positive impacts on the environment, the economy and society.
From an economic perspective, Gilchrist says the program will foster economic development, promote community growth and raise the municipalities’ visibility on EV charging apps. This could potentially generate revenue.
As currently planned, participants who participate in the EV rental program will pay a membership fee of $1. Vehicle rental costs will range from $2 to $5 per hour, with an initial rental time limit of 24 hours.
The total costs of the project — including software installation, hydro permits and licensing and the ongoing maintenance of the vehicles — is $438,000.
Under the Capital Project stream in the federal government’s Rural Transit Solutions Fund, 80 per cent of the costs are covered to a maximum of $5 million. This means the remaining amount will need to be financed by the Renfrew County municipalities. The towns anticipate that revenue generated from the charging stations and EV rentals will contribute at least 10 per cent toward covering those costs.
The EV rental program will further benefit volunteer programs, low-income individuals and seniors by providing an affordable first or second vehicle. Simultaneously, it contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, says Gilchrist.
The fact that the vehicle is electric will also pique interest in EVs in the community, says Gilchrist. She explains that local residents are generally curious about EVs since they are not commonly seen in the area. The program provides access to an EV and the opportunity to get used to them and learn.
“I think it will be an interesting experiment. Every year, sales for EVs have gone up. I think it’s going to continue down that road anyway, but I wonder if it’ll spike in our area,” says Gilchrist.
EV test-drives make a difference
Gilchrist’s thinking resonates with says Devin Arthur, president of the Sudbury EV Society. In an interview with Electric Autonomy, Arthur says programs that facilitate opportunities to drive EVs do help with EV adoption.
“It takes people getting into the vehicle and driving it themselves for them to understand the benefits. If you’re just reading about it, it’s just words. It’s just data on a page that you may not necessarily agree with. But if as soon as they get in that seat and drive, that’s the differentiating factor,” says Arthur.
A lot of drivers want to experience an EV firsthand, especially before they spend money on the vehicles. But it can be a challenge in smaller, rural areas to get that chance, says Arthur. This is often due to the lack of dealerships, EV availability and vehicle education in those communities.
Another organization trying to make a difference in this space is Ontario-based, non-profit Plug’n Drive. It operates an electric vehicle discovery centre in Toronto and offers free test drives of EVs by appointment.
Plug’n Drive collaborates with other organizations, including the Canadian Automobile Assocation (CAA), to provide EV test drives in rural communities. They see positive results from those events.
“We have found offering the test drive leads to a lot more conversions than if there is no test drive — no matter where,” says Cara Clairman, president and CEO of Plug’n Drive, in an email to Electric Autonomy.
Hyundai also offers its EValuate program, in partnership with Turo, enabling interested EV buyers to test-drive Hyundai EVs and offering rebates if they decide to purchase after the test-driving experience.
EV infrastructure hurdle
While EV test drives help to promote adoption, rural areas still face a significant challenge: access to EV charging.
“The investment in infrastructure, I think, is one of the most important and key aspects of getting people to accept EVs and rural communities,” says Arthur.
He points out that for rural areas, especially those lacking direct links to major urban centres, the presence of infrastructure is critical. Without accessible infrastructure, the prospect of EV adoption remains just a topic of conversation rather than a practical choice.
“There needs to be a coordinated effort to plan for infrastructure on these more rural routes. Not necessarily on the Trans-Canada [Highway] but off the Trans-Canada,” says Arthur.
“We need to find all those different routes that people drive in, in more rural areas and plan out how to invest.”