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The good, the bad and the ugly: Automotive trends we’ll see on the road this year

By Kristen Lipscombe

Like everything else in the world, the latest and greatest technology is expected to continue driving the automotive industry forward in the coming year.

Long-time automotive expert Doug Bethune of Chezzetcook, N.S., who is highly regarded as – quite literally – the voice of reason within the industry since he has been taking calls on CBC radio ranging from everyday drivers to skilled technicians for close to four decades, emphasizes that there are both pros and cons to that technology.

With newer model cars constantly adding more flashy features to lure drivers to the wheel, including those ever-improving infotainment screens front and centre, Bethune is concerned “that a lot of these technologies are a distraction… away from the attention to the road and driving the vehicle.”

“I’ve seen an increase per capita in North America and Europe in distraction accidents, and they’re becoming more and more common, and more and more serious,” said Bethune, who is not only a Certified Red Seal Auto Technician himself, with an Interstate Diesel Licence and Interprovincial Auto Technician Licence and four degrees to boot, but also leads forensic mechanical and collision reconstruction investigations for insurance and legal companies.

“You’ve got a computer screen, and you’ve got to look at that screen and look at all the information that’s popping up on that screen,” Bethune said. “I don’t think that screen should light up and come on while the vehicle is in motion.”

“And you couple that with cell phones, even if it’s hands-free,” he explained, “and it’s not the hands-free that’s the problem, it’s the mind that’s not concentrating on the driving. If you’re talking on the phone, your mind is not concentrating on the driving, it’s concentrating on the conversation.”

Growing trends such as “more connected cars,” with built-in WiFi hotspots that mean access to 4G Internet without having to use data while on the road, and more multimedia options on board, of course add to those distractions. “If it was just for the passengers, that’s fine,” Bethune said, “but I think the driver should have not access to those features when the vehicle is in motion.”

That being said, Bethune also recognizes the benefits of increased computerization of vehicles, which also includes new and improved safety features and warning systems that are “just wonderful.”

“Computers are pretty reliable,” Bethune said. “People say they don’t make cars like they used to, and I say, ‘well, thank God for that.’ ”

This improved safety technology in cars is also important because, as Bethune explained, newer vehicles are “very sleek, they’re very stylish, and what that has caused is very low roof lines with less glass.

“There’s less window area, so the newer style of cars, by their very design, have more blind spots than the old square cars did, so that’s why they’ve got back-up cameras and other safety features,” such as automated braking assistance, vehicle stability assistance with traction control, blind spot information systems and other indicators or sensors to help warn drivers of any trouble on the roads around them.

“They’re sleeker, so it makes them easier on fuel, but I know, particularly a lot of seniors that complain that they can’t see out of their cars when they back up,” Bethune said. “The styling has by its very design caused blind spots and (I believe that) all of those blind spots need to have cameras, not just the back-up camera. 

“Cameras that are peripheral with wide angles, covering the front and side view and rear angle peripheral areas so if anything comes into those areas, particularly if you’re changing lanes or backing up, or even making a turn you can get a warning of any danger.”

In the meantime, Bethune suggests adding dash cams to vehicles. Even with cell phone laws in place, and car computers not allowing drivers to use certain features while in use, “a lot of people don’t pay much attention.

“But because I’m an accident investigator, I do and I can tell you that regardless of the law, people continuously use their cell phones while they’re driving and it presents a very potential and imminent hazard,” Bethune said.

But he also emphasized the importance of cell phones, not just for convenience but for safety purposes while on the road. In an emergency situation, cell phones, of course, are most people’s lifeline to contacting help while out on the road.

Nevertheless, Bethune remains concerned about the “digital transition” within the automotive industry and is hopeful that governments, auto manufacturers and drivers alike will use common sense by building and abiding to laws and regulations that put everyone’s health and safety above selling, taxing and optimizing profits.

As for whether he expects more people to start purchasing electric vehicles (EVs), particularly with high gas prices and inflation pressure creating daily stress for average consumers, Bethune said the production and popularity of EVs are certainly increasing, but he’s not quite sure if the automotive industry is ready for a high rate of drivers making the much-debated switch from gasoline to electricity to fuel their engines.

“There is a push, mainly by government oddly enough (and) it’s part of the fight for climate change,” according to Bethune. “Canada and the U.S. governments, they want to force people to do away with internal combustion engines, and they want them off the roads and out of people’s garages, and they want to replace them with electrics with rechargeable batteries.”

But Bethune believes the EV focus may actually “shift the environment problem” from one place to another. “Matter can be created or destroyed, that is one of the laws of physics,” he pointed out.

“Electric cars, to start with, are much heavier,” Bethune explained. “They have to be to carry the batteries (and) you need more… steel aluminum in the frame and that means more greenhouse gases.” 

According to Bethune, research, and development on EVs, including the number and locations of charging stations and other required infrastructure, simply have to catch up with that increase in popularity and production. “I just think that the push to get them out there is much too early.”

“EVs are great for people who live in cities, and within suburbia in Canada, but we are so geographically dislocated; people live in rural areas,” Bethune said, “and you couple that with our (colder) temperatures here and most of the battery efficiency drops off too, so you don’t have good long range with EVs, particularly in winter.”

Nevertheless, the attraction to both hybrid and electric vehicles continues to grow for consumers across the country, including right here in Atlantic Canada. Steele Auto Group, for example, has acquired fast-growing company All EV, which has locations in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and plans to expand in more locations in the near future.

The benefits to getting behind the wheel of an electric vehicle this year? Well, according to ALL EV, there are plenty of them, from being significantly cheaper to drive since “by powering your vehicle with electricity instead of gasoline, you can save thousands of dollars a year.” The company says that “fuelling” your EV equals paying 30 cents per litre of gas.

Other EV pros? The driving experience, such as smoother handling and quieter output overall; the convenience of charging your car at home and waking “up to a full batter every morning” without having to stop for gas on your commute; several provincial government rebates and incentives available for buying new and even pre-owned EVs; and of course, letting off fewer emissions with the knowledge that you are helping reduce greenhouse gases and your own carbon footprint. 

Avoiding high gas prices and reducing your own vehicle emissions doesn’t end up sounding like such a bad deal after all. But Bethune recommends doing all of your research and due diligence before making the big jump.

The Electric Vehicle Association of Atlantic Canada (EVAAC), co-founded and chaired by Kurt Sampson, aims to educate both the automotive industry and its consumers alike about the benefits of EVs, and about what is being done to ensure research, innovation and infrastructure keep up to buyer demand and how companies are working with governments and other partners to ensure high environmental standards and a long-term plan for a smooth transition to electric transportation.

The modern “EVs are still somewhat new,” Sampson explained, pointing out that the first Tesla Model S only hit the road in 2012. He’s also fully aware that “we need to use more renewables” to ensure the right infrastructure is in place to get more electric vehicles on the road.

That’s why EVAAC has been participating in pilot projects, including the Smart Charging Pilot, which just wrapped up at the end of 2022 and involved working with Nova Scotia Power to create a “vehicle-to-grid” system that would allow those driving EVs to give and take power to the system when needed.

“Renewables are intermittent, so we need a way to store that intermittent power when it’s windy or when there’s lots of sun, or both,” Sampson explained. “We need to be able to take that and store that electricity to be able to use it when it’s not windy and dark, and the battery is ideal for that.

“So, when we have ‘V-to-G’ we will be able to use the tens of thousands of millions of batteries that are in cars on the road as a grid buffer,” he explained. “The utility would have a connection to thousands of cars, and the user would have to opt in… (but) if there was more demand on the grid, (the utility company) could send out a command to tell thousands of cars to offer load onto the grid.”

The latest pilot project for Sampson’s growing association? It’s called Smart Charging. “Nova Scotia Power can send out this mass notice to the 200-to-400 EVs in the pilot project and can tell them to charge, stop charging, etc., so that power on the grid isn’t wasted and participants are compensated financially.” 

The EV industry still has much work to do, Sampson said. “We don’t even have the standards in Canada yet approved,” but these types of pilot projects are certainly moving the reality of EVs becoming more commonplace on our roads more quickly. And he believes drivers will start seeing rapid movement of more EV infrastructure across Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) in the near future.

“When you’re looking at what the EV landscape here might look like in a couple of years, look at Europe now,” Sampson said. “If you look at the EV line-ups available right now; there’s lots that we don’t see now. They have quite a bit more selection and almost all of the legacy manufacturers have EVs in their line-up.”

“Plus, there will be a lot of names that people haven’t heard that EVs are the only brands, coming out of Europe and coming out of China,” Sampson said. “I think this is going to hit Europe, probably significantly.

“I don’t know if we’ll see a lot of it in North America that fast, I don’t know how much we’ll see in 2023,” Sampson said, but when Chinese products start coming this way, product prices will start dropping.

Sampson admits the “sticker price” of electric vehicles can be tricky, making it harder for average Canadians to finance EVs. But he believes that finance companies “should be willing to give you more money, comfortably, under the same risk profile, for an electric vehicle, because you have more ability to pay that, because you’re not going to be paying nearly as much for fuel. They haven’t gotten there yet.”

As for worry about whether EVs will be more environmentally friendly than gas-fuelled cars in future, Sampson said he hears about what he calls “FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt” pretty frequently.

It’s important to ask those questions, Sampson said, but continued innovation should help alleviate those concerns. For example, he said, “based on today’s recycling technology, about 85 per cent of an electric vehicle battery can be recycled into a new product, and that’s getting better and better all the time.”

Many of the EV pilot projects happening in Nova Scotia involve being connected via apps, he said, so those will continue to be popular within the automotive industry. Other still-growing apps include Uber, Lyft and the like, along with taxi services competing by building similar apps. Car sharing services such as Car Share Atlantic and Communauto Atlantic are also becoming a popular convenience for residents and visitors to our region alike. 

Brian Kingston is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association (CVMA), which represents powerhouse manufacturers Ford Motor Company of Canada Limited, General Motors of Canada Company and Stellantis (FCA Canada Inc.). His association and its members all agree that “the big trend moving through 2023” and far beyond “is electrification.”

“Over the past three years, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis have announced investments in Canada have $13.5 billion and the majority of that investment is dedicated to electric vehicle assembly and the associated battery supply chain. 

“So, this is a huge focus of the industry right now,” Kingston said. “It’s all part of a $1.2 trillion transition that’s underway vehicle to electrification. Virtually every auto maker has a strategy and a plan, and you’re seeing more and more EVs coming into the market.”

Last year, EV sales across the country had reached just over nine per cent by the end of the third quarter, Kingston said. That being said, the federal government’s objective is to get to 100 per cent sales by 2035. “To go from nine to 100 in 12 years is a pretty significant climb, so what’s happening now is that manufacturers are introducing EVs into the market at a record pace.

“As of today, there are 92 different models available and by the end of the year, we anticipate that there will be 130 models available,” Kingston said. “For the members of CVMA, we’re seeing electrified versions of highly popular SUVs and pick-up trucks coming into the market.”

The Ford F-150 Lightning is already on the market, while most recently announced to go electric is the Dodge Ram and the Chevy Silverado, Kingston said. “So, you’re going to see a lot of these very popular, very exciting vehicles being offered in electrified formats, which will have a big impact on overall sales of EVs across Canada.”

The higher price tags of EVs, persistent inflation, high interest rates, along with EV range and the infrastructure required to get more EVS on the road are currently our country’s biggest barriers. “We’ve got a lot of infrastructure to build in a very short amount of time.”

“The federal government is committed to building 84,500 public chargers,” Kingston said, but added that target isn’t ambitious enough. “The real challenge for Canada will be in multi-unit residential buildings. A lot of Canadians live in either apartment towers, condos, or semi-detached housing where you may not have access to a driveway and therefore to put in a charger.”

Rural Canadians in colder climates will also need accessible charging infrastructure on the roads they use to get to and from their homes and work. “It’s one thing to have a big charging parkade on the side of the 401; you can make a business case for that…

“But up on the road that connects a small rural town to another, where you don’t have the volume, you have to give people the charging infrastructure or they won’t make the switch,” Kingston said, adding that infrastructure has to be in place before government regulates electric vehicles. 

“This transition is happening. The vehicles are coming. But if consumers are turned off because they’ve made that switch, they’ve purchased an EV, and then they pull up to a station and they find it’s not operational, that’s going to be a real problem,” he pointed out. “We really need the charging infrastructure to catch up to make this happen.”

The EV batteries themselves “are highly valuable” at the end of their life spans and can either be used as a battery storage unit that will be stationary or by simply reusing and recycling its materials. “There is a very active industry-led initiative to make sure all of those batteries are brought back into the system… because the materials in them are valuable.”

As for other new automotive technologies to watch out for in 2023, “there’s a lot of rumour that Tesla’s full self-driving vehicle might actually be self-driving in 2023,” Sampson said. “I don’t think anyone is going to make promises about when something that Tesla is going to hit the road… They don’t hit their target date very often.”

We’re certainly not going to be seeing cars driving around on their own in Atlantic Canada any time soon, Sampson said.

Bethune, who always puts safety first, is of course concerned about the potential for self-driving cars and worries about what that would look like on roads and highways, so he’s keeping a close eye on that trend.

Another one he’s watching is the idea of what’s called “shared mobility,” which is most definitely on the rise.

“It’s a model that’s starting to grow in popularity and it’s an alternative to individual vehicle ownership,” Bethune explained. “Two or more people use the exact vehicle for short-term access. 

“It’s like Uber or a personal rental but four or five people actually own this car,” Bethune said. “There are new companies coming up offering shared mobility options and they’re going to create affordable, convenient alternatives to individual vehicle ownership, with the high costs and insurance and responsibilities all shared.”

 “So, my prediction is we’ll see this grown dramatically from 2023 onwards,” Bethune said. And in the post-COVID world, with more people working from home, this type of more modernized carpooling makes sense for many people who may live in the same neighbourhoods as some colleagues who are all only working in their offices on a part-time basis. 

“The only glitch is having the vehicle available for people who need it,” he said, which means companies will exist to create agreements among shared car owners.

Another concern about upcoming trends Bethune has, though, is the fact that technology for authorities to test for drug levels in individual drivers has not and did not keep up with the legalization of marijuana in Canada.

“Since Cannabis has been legalized, we’re back into driving under the influence, and right now, there isn’t sufficient technology to control the law,” Bethune said. “It’s not accurate or prolific enough to create enforcement.”

At the end of the day, though, “people in Atlantic Canada and probably everywhere else, what they want out of their vehicle is reliability, said Bethune, who is also renowned as a race car tuner and owns a company aptly named Tune Bethune. Only high-income earners can really afford the bells and whistles, he added.

“It’s no different than back in the old west,” Bethune said with a chuckle. “Everybody had to get from A to B. Well, everybody had a horse, and if you couldn’t afford a horse, you bought a mule.”

“Not everybody traded their horse in and bought a racehorse because not everybody could afford a racehorse, and the racehorses are sexy and they’re fast but they’re dangerous.”

Summing up his decades in the industry, which included moving from technician to teacher, Bethune said, “my concern and always has been, particularly the last 30 years, is that people can drive safely, and their cars can be as environmentally responsible as possible.

“And that the people that have these vehicles, that they’ll have a car that’s reliable and give the maximum amount of longevity.”

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