Keeping mobile in a lockdown II: Karma arrives

May 18, 2020

In our last episode, we were eagerly awaiting delivery of our new (to us) electric car. With our old minivan written off, we’d been forced to buy a new vehicle, we’d settled on the Hyundai Kona EV,  a local dealer had tried and failed a bait-and-switch, we had closed a sale with a dealer in Edmonton, the car had been loaded on a train and was making its way across this vast land to our humble home, and was due to arrive any day.

The pandemic wasn’t through with us yet.

Staff scarcity, for both CN and the shipper, delayed getting the vehicle off the train in Toronto and on a flatbed truck for the last leg of the journey to Guelph. The shipper, Livingston International, was fabulous - more than once an update call came from someone with the same name as the company, convincing us that the owner had taken a personal interest in our case. The Edmonton dealer, River City Hyundai, continued the excellent service they provided during the sale process, emailing and calling to see if the car had arrived yet and offering a personal tutorial to help us learn every feature.

Since the vehicle was from another province, the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario required a mechanical inspection before they would issue the ownership. This makes perfect sense since mechanical things work totally differently in other provinces and a clean bill of health from a garage in Alberta couldn’t possibly be valid in Ontario. (It’s easier to ship a car between EU countries than Canadian provinces.) And, of course, there’s a plethora of things that can go wrong with a car that has all of 1,500 kilometres on the oedometer. Sigh. We bit the bullet, arranged drop-shipment to Guelph Hyundai for the oh-so-important inspection, and we would pick it up there.

There was more misery with the MTO. We navigated a murky world of business hours restricted by social distancing. We observed both staff and clientele ignoring the two-metre rule. We learned that the purchase of a used out-of-province vehicle happens so seldom that hardly anyone at the Ministry knew how to deal with it (or at least the instructions we were given had an alarming tendency to change completely depending on who was behind the counter or at the other end of the phone line). We found ourselves in a chicken-and-egg argument about who has the ownership certificate when the seller is a dealer, whether the physical original copy of the Alberta ownership would have to be couriered across four provinces to satisfy Ontario’s bureaucratic machine, and whether a bill of sale would suffice.

Finally all was sorted out. In one hand was our new MTO-issued ownership, and in the other was our gleaming G-prefixed and green-lettered licence plate, which had mercifully dodged the Ford government’s redesign debacle. We got the fobs (no keys in this new automotive age), affixed the plates with the help of our new Guelph Hyundai hero, Paul (also setting a high bar for excellent customer service), and were on our way home on our new wheels. My wife promptly christened her - the car was female, of course - “Karma”.

20200518 Karma arrivesIt soon became clear that this would be a new-car experience like no other.

In Part 1 I mentioned the silence of the test drive. We had missed one feature. When Karma is backing up, she makes a warning sound. Not an irritating beeping, nor an even-more-irritating sound like a crow being strangled, familiar to anyone spending time near construction vehicles. No, this warning sound is a gentle, ethereal symphony that also happens when stopped at a traffic light to ensure pedestrians with visual impairments know we’re there. My former City colleague and accessibility advocate, Leanne Warren, would be pleased.

Also when backing up, Karma warns the driver if another vehicle, or a pedestrian, is passing on a possible collision course. Or when she’s getting close to the space on our driveway occupied by my son’s barely-a-year-old-but-already-hopelessly-obsolete Honda Civic.

On the highway, or a reasonably speedy arterial, the adaptive cruise control adds more tech protection and ease. Set the speed and Karma will go that speed, but she will also sensibly slow down to keep a constant distance with the car ahead. The cruise also manages to avoid going supersonic on a downgrade. Unlike every car I’d driven before, Karma assumes that the speed I choose is the speed I want to go, rather than just a lower limit. It helps that the brake and accelerator are part of the same system, not completely different systems as in a conventional car. It’s also nice to know that, like any other time the vehicle is slowing down (or being prevented from speeding up), we get that energy back through a feature called regenerative braking.

The seats and steering wheel have heating, which makes sense given the physics of heat transfer (conduction, from direct contact, is way more efficient than convection, or indirect heating via forced air). Instead of using electric resistance - like a baseboard heater - Karma has a heat pump. With an efficiency somewhere around 300%, this places less burden on the batteries. It also provides cooling simply by running in reverse.

Then there’s fuelling. As we expected - although we won’t know for sure until after the pandemic restrictions start to relax and we’re back to a daily, if short, commute - we’ve put few enough kilometres on Karma that a regular wall outlet supplies enough juice to keep the battery in the recommended 20-80% range. So far we’ve done that less than once per week. A mobile device app tells us how full the battery is, lets us lock the doors or honk the horn, and will even preheat Karma to a comfy temp before the trip home at the end of the work day. When the doors lock, the charging port does too, preventing theft of the included cable if we’re using a public charging station. When charging, the port glows a friendly and fitting green colour, leaving the distinct impression that Karma feels happy, snug and warm and well fed in our cozy garage.

We glance sheepishly at gas stations as we pass, like a child afraid of getting caught with a hand in the cookie jar. It feels too easy, like somehow we’re cheating “The Man”.

It’s clear what not just families like ours, but corporations with entire fleets of vehicles, stand to gain from the EV transition. Gas is cheap now, but it won’t stay that way when recovery stokes demand and an inevitable slew of petro-bankruptcies pinches supply. EVs are three to five times more energy efficient than conventional cars. Storing gasoline or diesel on corporate property is a huge environmental liability in the making. EV maintenance is miniscule. Put solar panels on the roof of your building and a solar carport over your lot (like evolv1 in Waterloo), and you’re making your own fuel, offsetting the power you will draw at night when the sun is down and so are electricity rates. And then there’s the marketing mileage of running vehicles that aren’t running down the planet. It all just makes sense.

For Our Energy Guelph, the transportation transition is about four things. First, let’s design our neighbourhoods so people don’t need cars to do, well, everything. A walkable community is a friendlier, healthier, cleaner, and more prosperous community. Second, let’s make it easier to bike (or e-bike or e-scooter) to work or school instead of sentencing everyone to a car commute. Third, let’s provide clean, comprehensive, electrically-powered public transit options that make it more attractive to travel together instead of alone (pandemics notwithstanding). And finally, if we have to drive, let’s do it in vehicles that leave carbon underground instead of in the atmosphere. Together, these changes - which equate to seven of 25 actions in the Pathway to Net Zero Carbon - will deliver a third of the emissions reductions necessary to make Guelph a net zero carbon city by 2050. They will also return $1.74 per dollar invested, making them a smart economic choice regardless of environmental considerations.

We’re not out of the pandemic woods yet. But at least our family has graduated from the fossil-fuelled driving era, and that’s cause for celebration. As other families - and businesses - follow in our low-carbon footsteps, there will be celebration aplenty.


Alex Chapman