ONroute, Ontario’s largest highway service centre operator, is still a no-show when it comes to EV chargers
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Nov 9, 2021
Mehanaz Yakub

First promised five years ago, EV chargers remain notably absent at all 23 ONroute Service Centre locations on Ontario’s 401 and 400 highways, where the fuel and food provider has the exclusive right to operate

First promised five years ago, EV chargers remain notably absent at all 23 ONroute Service Centre locations on Ontario’s 401 and 400 highways, where the fuel and food provider has the exclusive right to operate

At the start of this September’s school year, like many parents of university-bound students, Tim Short drove not one but two of his sons to university.

With one going off to the University of Western Ontario in London, and the other to Queen’s University in Kingston, the journey along Ontario’s 401 Highway covered several hundred kilometres. Short knew the 444 km trip between the two schools would be punctuated with the usual bathroom and refreshment breaks, plus charging stops for the family vehicle: a Tesla.

But spotting one of the 19 ONroute Service Centres located along the highway 401 corridor between his sons’ schools (ONroute has 23 locations in total, including Highway 400 stops), Short told Electric Autonomy Canada in an interview that rather than feeling a sense of relief at a one-stop-shop breakpoint in the journey, he was reminded of his ongoing disappointment with the plaza operator.

ONroute EV chargers promised

Short remembers seeing signs up roughly five years ago notifying customers that future EV charging stations would be arriving at ONroute locations.

At the time, Short didn’t own a battery-electric car and instead drove a hybrid. But he says he was interested in getting an EV and was looking forward to charging up conveniently at the service centres during long road trips.

But despite the five years between ONroute’s public pledge and Short’s university drop-off run, there are still no ONroute EV chargers at any stops.

“This has frustrated me for a number of years,” says Short. “Not even those signs are there now— they’re gone. There’s absolutely nothing, nothing could be found at all.”

Electric Autonomy reached out to ONroute and received an email statement from spokesperson Diana MacLeod saying: The company is “actively pursuing opportunities to support EV charging at our plazas along Highways 400 and 401. However, at this time we are not in a position to comment on any details. We are hopeful to have a plan in place for 2022 and beyond.” 

ONroute got new owners in May 2019, when it was bought by UK-based Arjun Infrastructure Partners and Toronto-based Fengate Asset Management. That and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 could explain the lack of progress. But for drivers like Short, the reality is that those promised ONroute chargers aren’t already in place and the further delay into next year is not reassuring.

“There is literally nothing at the 401 ONroute service centers and that’s absolutely crazy to me,” says Short. “…For all intents and purposes, why can’t all EV drivers of today of all brands have the same level of convenient service that ONroute is famous for?”

Exclusive right to operate

ONroutes service centres began operating in 2010 when the government of Ontario gave the company — whose owners at the time were Toronto-based Kilmer van Nostrand and HMSHost Corp., an American subsidiary of Autogrill — the exclusive right to operate commercial service centres along the 401 and the southern part of the 400 highways.

Each year, around 40 million people stop at an ONroute to refuel on gas, food and drinks. What makes these locations popular is that they are strategically located alongside the highway every 80 km to 100 km so commuters don’t need to leave the corridor for a rest stop.

But surveys that show range anxiety, especially during long-distance travelling, remains one of the major barriers to large-scale adoption of EVs today. In a Canadian study published earlier this year by KPMG, for example, half of the respondents cited limited driving range (51 per cent) and lack of charging infrastructure (50 per cent) as two main reasons why they are opting out of buying an EV.

More EV chargers needed

Recently, Ontario has seen steady adoption of more public EV charging infrastructure, with the launch of the Ivy charging network in 2020 with a commitment to roll out 160 fast chargers by the end of this year and investments from the federal government.

As the number of EV sales continues to grow rapidly — Ontario saw a 210 per cent increase in zero-emission vehicles registration in the province in the second quarter of 2021 compared to the same period last year — the rollout of robust charging networks, particularly on highways, will be essential to make more of the province EV accessible.

It’s not as though ONroute’s current owners aren’t familiar with EV charging. Arjun Infrastructure’s other holdings include partial ownership of UK’s Welcome Break, a highway service area operator, similar to ONroute. Through its service provider GridServe as well as a partnership with InstaVolt , Welcome Break provides EV charging at multiple locations.

Of note, ONroute does have a long-standing partnership with Canadian Tire to supply each of its plazas with a Canadian Tire Gas+ station for diesel-engine vehicles. Last year, Canadian Tire announced an expansion of its EV charging network at its retail locations across Canada and has hinted towards larger commitments to EV charging in the coming decade.

Cause for delay

Sun Country Highways’s founder and CEO Kent Rathwell is familiar with installing EV chargers throughout Canada. His company set up free Level 2 chargers at different hotels, businesses and municipalities near highway 401 around eight years ago.

“Did we approach ONroute? Yeah. But it just wasn’t the right timing for them,” says Rathwell in an interview with Electric Autonomy.

According to Rathwell, there can be several different reasons why companies and businesses, in general, haven’t installed any EV chargers to date — from believing that EVs are only part of a current trend with an expiration date, to resisting the realities of the climate crises, to opposing giving away free Level 2 charging to users without making any substantial profit for a business. However, in this case, Rathwell thinks what has contributed to the delays in installing ONroute EV chargers is the limit of electrical capacity they hold at their location sites.

“They’re away from a lot of communities and they’re typically short of power. So it’s one of the main reasons why they haven’t installed EV charging at this time is because EV chargers obviously need electricity and if that site doesn’t have much electricity, it’s quite difficult to add charging stations,” explains Rathwell.

Market moving forward

Despite these challenges, Rathwell adds that it’s only a matter of time before solutions are found to fix these problems and by that point companies, such as ONroute, will have to figure out how to provide EV charging services to customers sooner than later.

“When people stop they want to charge their car…when they’re eating, when they’re going to the washroom…that’s the perfect time to charge their vehicles because it doesn’t waste their time… So, the less we have to go and drive out of our way to fill up our vehicle the better,” says Rathwell.  

“With or without ONroutes, we’re still moving forward in the EV space… But it would be a smart move for them to try to tie into it because otherwise, their business will be going elsewhere.”

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