Judging from the comments sections of recent articles about electric vehicle charging stations in the Yukon, the skepticism about whether electric cars make any sense in the North ranges from mild to violently misspelled ALL CAPS.
It reminds me of stories my grandfather told me about when the family firm Taylor & Drury sold the Yukon’s first new car way back in 1928. Cars had gone mainstream Outside years before, but the Yukon’s lack of infrastructure meant there was plenty of skepticism about dogless vehicles here. More than a few eyebrows were raised when the buyer for the first new Chevrolet turned out to be George Johnson of Teslin, a community with no road to Whitehorse.
Unfazed by the lack of infrastructure, Taylor & Drury loaded the car onto its steamboat Thistle for Teslin and George set to building himself a road around the community. Legend has it he offered tours in the new contraption, and painted it white in the winter and drove it along the lake to his trapline. Next time you’re in Teslin, you can check out the car at the local museum.
It took World War II to get a highway built, and of course the car eventually went mainstream in the Yukon. Indeed, I know more than a few households where vehicles outnumber people.
Which brings us to my recent lunch with the 21st century electric version of George Johnson, a fellow named Mike Simon who owns the Yukon’s first Tesla.
Roads exist here now, but it feels like 1927 for electric cars in terms of charging infrastructure, repair shops and so on.
Simon, like all the Tesla owners I’ve ever met, first waxed enthusiastic about the driving experience. “Best car I ever had,” he said, adding that it’s “just a great car to drive” and more fun than any fancy German vehicle he’s ever driven.
Being essentially a computer on wheels, it has lots of fun features too. You can pre-heat it from the app on your phone so you never have to sit in a cold seat. Your phone opens the door, and you just walk away when you’re done without having to worry about turning off the engine or locking the doors. You can also turn on “Valet Mode” and let your spouse or kids drive, while also setting their speed limit and tracking their location.
For fun, there’s a video game. It only works while parked, but you can use the car’s steering wheel to drive the car in the game. There’s also the car’s romantic setting, which puts a movie of a wood fire on the screen and turns the heat up in the vehicle.
That kind of thing is of no interest to economists, of course, so I immediate asked my two big questions: Does it work in the winter? And is it cheaper to run than a gasoline car?
Simon said he had no trouble this winter. The vehicle handled well, as you might expect given its computer-optimized all-wheel-drive. He keeps the Tesla in a weatherized garage with a charger connected to the same kind of 240 volt plug as your oven. His daily return commute is about 50 kilometres, and he parked outside at work. Despite initial hopes that the plug-ins at work would help warm the battery and recharge it, this didn’t work out since the plug-ins at his job have electronic controls that don’t work with the Tesla charger.
In terms of a test, this is actually good news. It meant that all through last winter, his car successfully got him to work and home with no charger in between. He figures he could do three or four days without recharging.
That’s about 200 kilometres. The battery is rated for 500 kilometres in the South, so that shows there is some range loss from having to heat the passenger and windshield. But still, it’s pretty good. He actually doesn’t have to use the charging stations that the comments section feels so violently about.
He estimated his home electricity bill went up $20 in the summer and $40 a month in the winter. He saved $300 a month in gasoline compared to his previous vehicle, and his Tesla never needs oil changes.
Of course, Teslas are not cheap in the first place. The cheapest version on sale as I wrote this column was $43,290 for the “standard range plus” Model 3, and the premium versions can cost a lot more than that. But Tesla has managed to deliver a car that is cost-competitive with premium gasoline machines, and might save you a few hundred bucks a month on fuel.
Simon also knew of some Yukoners who own the cheaper Nissan Leaf, who tell him that version of the electric car also works well here.
I also spoke to Ralf Gorichanaz, Skagway’s first Tesla owner. He described his car as “beyond amazing” and has already tested the self-driving “autopilot” feature on Skagway’s streets. The system still requires human supervision, but Gorichanaz said he sat in his Tesla as it drove itself around Skagway taking corners and stopping for pedestrians. Ralf also plans to offer tours, like George Johnson, as well as charging stations for visiting Tesla enthusiasts.
Also like George Johnson back in the day, you also run the risk that locals may not be able to repair your newfangled machine if it breaks down. At least until the Yukon gets enough Tesla owners to prompt Tesla and local businesses to get into business here. And you’ll still need that truck with the mighty gasoline engine if you want to pull your boat or take your sled to the Summit.
So far, electric cars are still a novelty in the Yukon. There are about 34,000 fossil-fuel cars and light trucks registered, while the owners of all the electric vehicles here still seem to be on a first name basis. But judging by the enthusiasm of Simon and Gorichanaz, and how Simon’s Tesla powered through the Yukon winter, I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of them.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.