Charging cars at the streetside

EV Charging

The Canadian government has just passed legislation requiring that all new vehicles sold in Canada by 2035 be emissions-free, which for all practical purposes means that they must be electric. While this is not ideal (there should be much more of an emphasis on public transportation) it is necessary.

Leaving aside the climate change sceptics who think we should keep using gasoline until oil supplies run out, questions can still be raised about how, exactly, we’re supposed to make this transition. This was the subject of an interview on CBC News with Brian Kingston, president and CEO of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association.

Not surprisingly, Kingston argued that the government should pay. “The primary responsibility for this infrastructure right now does lie with the federal government, and the reason for that is they are regulating the sale of these vehicles and they’re establishing these targets,” he said.

That doesn’t follow at all. The government is regulating a harmful practice. It should probably never have been allowed in the first place. We all knew auto exhaust is poison. When governments eliminated lead from fuel, the industry adapted. When it required the use of catalytic converters, the industry adapted. Now that it’s ending the use of fossil fuels, it’s up to industry to adapt.

Auto makers themselves have dragged their heels on this, been slow to innovate, and along with the oil industry, have actively lobbied against electrification. Government didn’t build the tens of thousands of gas stations across the country, industry did. Government won’t profit from charging stations, industry will. The sale and serving of cars is a private enterprise. If it becomes too expensive, then the government response should be public transportation.

Now let me be clear: that doesn’t mean government won’t invest in electrification, nor even that I think it shouldn’t. I personally benefited from the electric car subsidy before it was eliminated by the Doug Ford government (at the request, I might add, of the auto and oil industry). I think providing incentives would be useful. But I disagree with the argument that the government has a responsibility to subsidize the auto industry.

Indeed, if the auto industry wants any government money, it should be prepared to accept it as an investment, much like venture capital, in exchange for a piece of the business, or as a loan offered at market rates, with an ownership stake held as collateral. That’s how it works in a private industry.

Finally, Kingston made a number of statements along the lines of “the auto industry might not be able to meet these targets”. I don’t accept that. The number of gas-powered cars they are allowed to sell before the cut-off date depends on the number of electric vehicles they sell. This means that the auto industry may need to reduce prices on electric vehicles themselves, in order to sell enough. If they can’t do it, others will enter the marketplace who can.

These measures, it should be understood, are the compromise we are offering to the auto industry. The alternative is to simply ban all burning of hydrocarbons. That is, in fact, what the environment needs; the signs are obvious. But the industry gets some time to build out some infrastructure and start making money in a new way.

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