In a nondescript workshop next to a giant service garage in Burnaby, B.C., the next generation of students and instructors is learning the ins and outs of servicing and repairing electric vehicles.
You might associate automotive work with grease, spare parts and noise. But here, the work is quiet – and clean.
Enter the EV economy, built around solving some of the various problems, challenges and opportunities associated with electric cars.
This includes upending the entire idea of what it means to be an automotive service technician in the 21st century. These days, it’s all about integrating the ‘traditional’ – oil, spare parts, fluids – with a ‘knowledge economy’ built around computers, software and circuits.
“Technologists rather than mechanics,” is how Mubasher Faruki, the associate dean of the automotive program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, characterizes the work they do in these high-tech, data-oriented labs.
Supercharging the auto repair shop
In the specialized EV lab, an instructor, Jim Berladyn, opens up a giant vehicle battery containing 400 volts of electricity, enough to instantly electrocute a person if the pack is not handled carefully.
The whole thing looks more like a physics class than an auto repair shop.
The students are third- and fourth-year apprentices, but also existing technicians looking to upgrade their skills.
Berladyn helps them perform what’s called a “live-dead-live” test to ensure there is no voltage coming out of the battery. They then detach the battery from the underside of the car. They attach monitors to these powerful energy sources to see how they’re working, and to diagnose potential problems in their circuitry.
The students and their instructors get help and support from the vehicle manufacturers, but because the technology is changing so rapidly – “the manufacturers are building the plane as they fly it,” Faruki says – sometimes the class even stumbles across its own little discoveries as they dig into the car’s internal systems.
Some of the newer students, Faruki says, are “a little intimidated” by it, not having expected to be working with computers and data to the extent that they do right from the get-go.
But, he adds, “if the manufacturers are producing these vehicles, then it makes no sense not to teach our students on this.”
EV economic opportunities
Gas-powered cars aren’t going anywhere any time soon, and most EVs are still out of reach for the vast majority of Canadians.
Still, across the country, a range of different economic opportunities are springing up around EVs, as both federal and some provincial governments drastically ramp up their commitments to getting more battery-powered cars on the road.
Figuring out how to service them is, in many ways, the easy part. Technicians, Faruki says, are used to constant change, as technology is constantly evolving in cars – now, with EVs.
But what about improving how you extract the minerals and elements required to make car batteries? Mining done without clear environmental safeguards can have lasting environmental consequences, to say nothing of impacts on people working in the mines.
And what about the perennial problem of charging?
Canadian entrepreneurs are filling a growing need to solve these challenges.
Charging stations are popping up all over the country, but what happens if you live in a condo, and need a reliable supply of power without unfairly penalizing all the owners of gas-powered cars?
That’s where Zak Lefevre and his startup, ChargeLab, come in.
With a background in software, Lefevre set out to make EV charging seamless.
In condos, for example, car owners don’t want to be subsidizing the power used by a handful of EV owners in the building, much less have their power systems overwhelmed when more EVs start to plug in.
“So what the condo building needs is a software system to know who’s charging, when they’re charging, and bill them fees” for the electricity they are using.
“When the first guy gets a Tesla, that’s OK. When the second girl gets a Tesla, that’s OK. When you have 10 or 20 or 30 people trying to drive electric vehicles, there’s not enough electricity in the building.”
ChargeLab has raised about $21 million USD so far. Lefevre, like many entrepreneurs, isn’t unfamiliar with the experience of knocking on doors trying to raise money only to have them slam shut in your face, especially in Canada.
That, too, was the experience that Amanda Hall faced early on.
Looking for lithium
Her startup, Summit Nanotech, is solving the problem of extracting lithium from the ground in ways that aren’t as harmful to the surrounding environment. That means using less water and producing less waste.
Lithium is a soft, whitish metal that’s an essential component for EV batteries.
There is lithium in Alberta, but it’s mixed in the ground with oil, which makes it costlier to separate and extract. Instead, Summit is eyeing the Atacama Desert in Chile, the site of some of the world’s most highly concentrated and accessible lithium reserves.
The company’s engineers developed the technology at a lab in Calgary. Then, they shipped the equipment needed to do the actual mining and extraction work to Chile in giant sea containers.
Their proprietary technology is still in the research stage, which means they’re not selling the lithium they’re mining out of the ground, at least not yet.
But, says Hall, investors are increasingly seeing the value of diversifying beyond oil and gas, and that includes Canadian investors who weren’t “really up for the risk” of backing a cleantech company.
The startup has raised nearly $65 million USD, and has gone from 10 staff members in 2020 to 70, says VP of human resources Colleen Ham.
“The price of lithium and the demand for lithium has just continuously chugged uphill,” Hall says.
“Which means that it’s a stable place to sink your money and invest.”
There isn’t a lot of data so far on the direct or indirect economic impacts of electric vehicles.
For example, Statistics Canada has not published any information on how much EVs contribute to Canada’s GDP. What we do know, however, is how many EVs are hitting the road each year, numbers that are fast growing.
The vast majority of new EVs are being sold in Canada’s three largest provinces, Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. In Ontario, EVs represented 7.2 per cent of all new vehicle registrations in the third quarter of 2022. In Quebec, it was 12.5 per cent, and in B.C., nearly one out of every five new cars sold (17.6 per cent) is an EV.
There’s still a long way to go before EVs become the norm, though. Countrywide, they still represent less than 10 per cent of all new car registrations, and EVs are still out of reach from a price perspective for many customers.
But things are changing rapidly, with governments, electrical utilities and even major oil companies like Petro Canada, Irving Oil and Parkland all investing in charging infrastructure.
That bodes well for entrepreneurs like Zak Lefevre who’ve made big bets on an all-electric future. His company, he says, is “still a small startup.”
But, he adds, “we’re going to wake up one day and find that half of all vehicles being sold are electric.”