The Northwest Territories is trying to balance a short-term economic need for new highways with a plan to accommodate radical change in the vehicles that use them.

At the back end of January, Canada’s various transport ministers released a joint statement pledging a strategy on automated vehicles and a drive to make owning electric cars easier.

Both are simple promises to put on paper, but significantly more difficult to execute in the north of Canada – where conditions, distances, and cost often make twentieth-century infrastructure prohibitive, never mind preparing for the future.

Automated vehicles have not yet been seen in the territory. So far, only one person is known to have operated a purely electric vehicle for any length of time in the NWT – but the man in question, Hay River businessman James Locke, recently moved his two Teslas to Vancouver Island.

Despite this barely embryonic platform on which to build, NWT infrastructure minister Wally Schumann told Cabin Radio the territory is planning to promote automated and electric vehicles.

Schumann identified Ontario as the current Canadian leader in vehicle automation – otherwise known as self-driving cars, which would need to be trained to identify and cope with the rough, frequently iced-over highways of the North, where visual cues on the road are minimal and the challenges of isolation abound.

The NWT is looking at cold-weather testing for automated vehicles as a means of breaking into the market, and has contemplated approaching the consortium operating the annual winter road north to the diamond mines. However, no timeline has been identified for any form of pilot project.

‘Nothing happening’

When it comes to electric vehicles, the most obvious challenge facing the territory is the absence of charging stations.

“They are the big thing right now,” said Kevin Cull of the Arctic Energy Alliance, a not-for-profit which works to reduce the cost and environmental impact of energy use in the NWT.

“But there’s nothing happening that we’re aware of right now. We would certainly love for something like that to be in place.”

Cull’s employer recently completed a study in which it leased a Chevy Volt – an electric vehicle with a gas backup – for a year and a half, to determine how electric cars coped in the North.

“We found everything worked well in summer, but in winter it lost about half the range as batteries don’t like to work in the cold,” said Cull.

“Other than that it worked pretty-much like any car and the savings were noticeable. You will spend much less on an electric vehicle than you would a gasoline-powered one.”

However, without incentives to lure people into switching, the prospect of large-scale adoption of electric vehicles seems far off in the North.

Schumann says he’s waiting for federal funding to help build charging stations and inspire electric car use in the territory’s hydro-powered communities. In diesel communities, the financial challenge may be too great for the foreseeable future, while burning diesel to power an electric car would have a minimal – or even negative – environmental impact.

“If electric vehicles are part of the solution, we’ve got to be ready to implement that,” said Schumann. “People are going to want to take advantage of that.

“We just spent a number of days in Vancouver – when you pay attention to the amount of Teslas running around, there are a lot down there. Who’s going to be first person in NWT to do that?”

Federal money

James Locke probably was the first person in the NWT to do that. In the summer of 2016 he brought a Tesla north for the first time, claiming no significant problems other than occasionally borrowing a homeowner’s power outlet to charge while passing through towns.

Taking into account a fuel bill of zero dollars compared to his old SUV, and factoring in the additional energy cost to charge his car, Locke put the annual saving at around $10,000 when interviewed by the CBC.

Cull said the Arctic Energy Alliance Chevy Volt study concluded the car cost less than $0.07 per km to run purely on electricity and a little less than $0.08 per km to run on its gas generator, compared to the group’s figures of $0.10 per km for a Chevy Cruze and $0.16 per km for a Ford F-150. Over 70,000 km a year (the distance Locke gave CBC), the Cruze in electric mode represented a saving of more than $5,000 over the F-150.

While Locke’s Teslas are now based in BC, his business in Hay River continues and he’ll be back in the NWT in a Tesla Model S in April. He is convinced some new investment in infrastructure, like charging stations, will “encourage adoption and help save residents of the NWT money and reduce the monthly cost associated with gas and maintenance.”

But despite Schumann’s signature on that joint ministerial statement backing electric and automated vehicles, the reality is that the NWT’s biggest priority for federal cash is still the roads themselves.

The federal budget is due to be released before the end of March. Last month, Schumann spent time in Ottawa meeting as many federal faces as possible, pressing the case for two major new highways: an all-weather road into the Slave Geological Province north-east of Yellowknife toward Nunavut, and the Mackenzie Valley Highway up to the Arctic coast.

Those projects would require hundreds of millions of dollars to go ahead. Schumann and the NWT are bidding for money from Transport Canada’s National Trade Corridors fund, which Schumann believes to be worth $2 billion in total.

He has been told the total value of projects proposed to Transport Canada by provinces and territories, under the fund’s terms, is $75 billion – in other words, it is extraordinarily oversubscribed.

The territory feels it cannot go ahead with charging stations and pilot automation projects without some federal assistance. But for now, the NWT is fighting simply to find the cash for roads it believes are vital to economic growth – and charging stations may remain in the back seat.

The long-term danger of that approach is how the economy will be impacted if the NWT, in future, isn’t ready for a world where freight and tourists arrive via automated, electric vehicles.

“We’re all moving to a greener economy,” acknowledged Schumann. “This is coming, regardless.”