Sorry, You Can't Drive That Canadian Car in Canada

zenn1.jpgAfter a lengthy red-tape runaround, the Canadian government has finally approved Canadian-made Zenn electric cars. But you still can’t drive them in their home country.

Although there’s been a lot of coverage of Tesla and other high-profile electric vehicles, a different class of cars — dubbed low-speed vehicles (LSVs) – already popular in Europe, are gaining traction in the U.S. market as well. These cars, which are licensed in a manner similar to scooters, offer yet another viable option for urban commuters.

Despite their growing availability, electric cars face several important challenges:

  • Many use nickel-metal-hydride batteries, which take a long time to charge. Others use lead-acid batteries, which are difficult to dispose of in any kind of sustainable way. And lithium ion batteries (the same ones used in many laptops) have a nasty habit of bursting into flames when pierced, as evidenced by recent laptop battery recalls.
  • The power behind home-charged cars often comes from coal or other unsustainable sources, and the transmission of power over the grid to the home is extremely inefficient. This is one reason Chevrolet’s Volt concept car has an internal combustion engine that’s not attached to the drivetrain — it’s more efficient to produce power from gasoline within the car itself than it is to generate it in a power plant and send it over miles of wires.
  • The replacement cost of all those batteries is prohibitively high. The Tesla Roadster is powered by 6,831 lithium-ion batteries, the total replacement cost of which is around $25,000. And the world’s supply of lithium is limited to the Andes and Tibet (with minor reserves in Nevada and Australia); Meridian International Research speculates that we may simply not have enough raw materials to satisfy an electric vehicle boom.

Despite this, demand for plug-in electric cars is growing.

Plug-ins offer reduced emissions, lower ownership costs and a smaller environmental footprint. Proponents of plug-in vehicles cite a Department of Energy study that estimates hybrid vehicles reduce greenhouse gases by 22 percent, and plug-in hybrids by 36 percent. And if they’re recharged overnight (allowing energy providers to smooth out load) the efficiency of plug-in cars is even greater.

In the hydroelectric-rich Canadian province of Quebec, plug-in cars make even more sense. But until recently, a plug-in LSV made there had still not been approved for sale in the country.

Zenn — whose name is short for short for zero-emissions and no noise — makes an all-electric LSV that can charge from a normal 110V outlet. In recent months, a strong Canadian dollar has hurt exports, making domestic sales even more important. In fact, British Columbia’s Dynasty Electric Car Co, which makes a variety of electric vehicles under the brand name “It,” announced it was shutting down domestic operations.

Canada’s national news channel, the CBC, brought the story of the Zenn to light in an October report, noting that the vehicle is already on the road in the U.S. and Mexico and has even won awards in Europe. Finally, last month, the Canadian Minister of Transport pushed the federal certification through.

But you still can’t drive a Zenn in Canada – the vehicle has to be approved in each of the country’s provinces.