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Hazard ahead: Are cuts at Tesla a warning sign for the EV market in Canada?

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To many Tesla drivers, their electric vehicles are still ahead of the curve.

Eric Rondeau is the vice-president of government affairs at Club Tesla Quebec, a group of owners and enthusiasts aiming to boost electrification and raise awareness about the benefits of electric vehicles (EVs). He bought his first Tesla more than a decade ago.

"Even the car itself keeps evolving by software updates," Rondeau said in an interview with CTV News. "This is quite unique. Some other manufacturers still haven't gotten there."

The EV maker, though, is facing some headwinds, along with the industry as a whole.

Tesla announced Monday it is slashing 10 per cent of its global workforce, a deep cut for what once seemed like an unstoppable company. 

"Cost cutting is one thing; the magnitude of the cuts is troubling," says analyst Daniel Ives of Wedbush Securities, a wealth management, brokerage and advisory firm.

'A sobering moment'

Tesla has hit a series of roadblocks, including increased competition and declining sales. It delivered 387,000 cars worldwide in the first quarter of 2024, marking an 8.5 per cent drop compared to the same period last year.

Some rival EV makers, like China's BYD, reported an increase in sales, but Tesla's troubles come as overall demand for battery-powered vehicles has slowed.

"This has really been a sobering moment for the EV industry," Ives said. "I think many thought conversion was going to be a lot quicker, including Tesla."

To be clear, the sector is still growing, but the pace of sales, including in Canada, is now more sluggish.

"If we don't address the barriers to electrification, it will be hard to reach the targets that have been established by the federal government," said Brian Kingston, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers' Association.

Ottawa has set a target that by 2026, at least 20 per cent of new vehicles sold in this country should be EVs or other zero-emission vehicles.

Barriers to EVs

Kingston says one of the key barriers to electrification is access to public charging infrastructure.

"Right now there are 27,000 public chargers available to Canadians, and according to the federal government, we will need to have 442,000 public chargers ready in the next 11 years," he says. "That requires building over 100 chargers every single day for the next 11 years, so there needs to be a plan to do that."

The issue of particular concern to some would-be buyers surrounds reliability and battery life. Manufacturers say they are investing in new technology, but that in a country with unique challenges, such as a vast highway network and cold weather, there is an even greater need to build a reliable and extensive charging network.

Another barrier is the price gap.

A large share of EV buyers have been early adopters – those keen to embrace the technology, despite higher price points. But for sales to keep accelerating, manufacturers have to entice a more budget-conscious mass market.

On average, EVs are $14,000 more expensive than gas-powered vehicles, and the gap is exacerbated by higher interest rates.

Government incentives have boosted sales, but some are now set to run out.

Rondeau, of the Club Tesla Quebec, says a system of bonuses for those adopting EVs and restrictions for drivers still running on fossil fuels would help the government reach its electrification targets.

But he also says while the pace of growth has slowed, it is important to focus on the fact that sales are still growing globally, and that the focus now is to continue to scale up production.

He said he believes Tesla's troubles are likely just a bump in the road.

"The whole industry is following Tesla," he says. "So they are still ahead and it will take a long time until they are totally displaced."

And down the road, say analysts, competition will drive down prices and drive up demand.

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