Why aren’t more people driving alternative-powered vehicles?

As gas prices rise, and environmental issues become more pressing, automakers are working to produce the most fuel-efficient vehicles possible, including those that use batteries or alternative fuels. Even so, we haven’t yet seen large numbers of these actually on the road, which could delay more high-tech cars in the future.

“I believe that all roads lead to electric, but those roads are extremely long and very winding,” says automotive industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers. “Rarely is the consumer willing to pay more to get less, and the only way you get rid of compromise is through technology.”

There are issues that have kept many alternative vehicles from becoming more popular, including lack of infrastructure. Gas stations are usually no more than a few kilometres apart, and in a pinch, you can fill a gas can and rescue a car that’s run out of fuel. By contrast, public electric-car charging stations are rare in most parts of the country. Most people who own battery-powered cars charge them at home, but those in downtown condominiums — and whose driving habits often make them the most likely candidates for these vehicles, ironically enough — may not have charging facilities in their buildings.

Other alternatives, such as biofuel, hydrogen, natural gas or propane can be even more difficult to find. These fuels suffer from a “chicken-and-egg” issue: companies don’t build more refuelling stations because there are very few cars that need them, and so people don’t buy the cars because there’s no place to fill them up.

Cost is a similarly self-perpetuating concern. New-technology vehicles are usually more expensive, primarily because they’re not produced in the large, cost-efficient volumes that help bring prices down, but their high prices mean they’re not selling in the large numbers that would help make them more affordable.

No one knows which alternatives will dominate in the future, so automakers have to stretch their research and development budgets over numerous technologies to be ready for market trends, instead of more efficiently focusing on just a few.

DesRosiers says automakers have done an impressive job of reducing critical air contaminant emissions, such as sulphur dioxide and soot, but greenhouse gases continue to be an issue. “Each time the vehicle company improves fuel efficiency, which lowers greenhouse gases, the consumer moves to a more powerful vehicle,” he says. “At some point, the government is going to have to say to consumers that if you want to address climate change, you have to change your vehicle buying habits.”

Alternative options

Electric cars have been around since the late 1800s, but their batteries have always been the key issue. A longer driving range requires a bigger, more expensive battery.

  • Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are actually electric cars that make their own electricity with their on-board hydrogen supply.

  • Fuel economy on 2015 models may seem worse, but it’s due to Natural Resources Canada introducing more realistic five-cycle vehicle testing.

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