The Future of Mobility: These innovative B.C. companies are showing the world better, greener ways to get around

B.C. companies and researchers keep churning out innovative ways for us to get around while reducing congestion and carbon emissions.

Credit: Urban Machina

Vancouver’s Urban Machina specializes in electric scooters

From bikes to trucks to scooters, local businesses and researchers keep churning out new transportation options that also help fight congestion and carbon emissions. Here’s what’s on the road—and what’s coming

Mobility is looking different these days. Everywhere you turn, it seems, there’s a new mode of transport whizzing past you, whether it’s an electric car on the street or an e-scooter on the sidewalk. But where are things headed?

“It’s an interesting time in transportation,” says Alex Bigazzi, an associate professor at UBC with a joint appointment in the department of civil engineering and the school of community and regional planning. “We’re seeing a lot more creativity from the private sector than we’ve seen in the past.”

Bigazzi’s research includes active travel (walking and bicycling), micromobility—think small personal-use vehicles ranking from bikes to electric scooters—and emerging human-electric hybrid vehicles such as e-bikes. “The trends in micromobility started to appear five-plus years ago, coming largely out of tech companies in Silicon Valley and the U.S.,” he says. “A few European cities have been faster adopters of this than most Canadian cities.”

When it comes to micromobility, Canada has been slower on the uptake, partly thanks to safety concerns about e-scooters. For example, Toronto banned the futuristic two-wheelers.

Climate change is arguably a major driver of mobility innovation, as highlighted by the global shift to electric vehicles. The City of Vancouver, which declared a climate emergency in 2019, approved its Climate Emergency Action Plan last year. One of the plan’s goals is to have zero-emission vehicles account for 50 percent of the kilometres driven on local roads by 2030.

In Vancouver, access to charging stations has been an obstacle for electric cars, with most units located in private residential buildings. But a policy passed this June requires developers to install charging infrastructure in 45 percent of the parking stalls for new non-residential properties, as well as in all car-share stalls.

The provincial government is also encouraging the use of electric vehicles, having mandated that, by 2040, every new car sold in B.C. will be zero-emission. To help make that happen, the CleanBC plan offers EV rebates for consumers and businesses.

At the same time, the province aims to capitalize on B.C.’s 25-year history as a centre for hydrogen fuel-cell innovation. This past summer, it unveiled a strategy for the sector whose early goals include scaling up production of renewable hydrogen, creating regional hydrogen hubs, and deploying medium- and heavy-duty fuel-cell vehicles.

Moving toward micromobility

Micromobility is a key piece of the move toward multimodal, greener cities. Electric bikes and scooters offer a zero-emission option for shorter commutes, but it might be a while before we can share e-scooters, given that the B.C. Motor Vehicle Act forbids them on roads and sidewalks. However, several municipalities recently started working with Victoria on pilot projects.

The pandemic shifted mobility trends away from public transit, with ridership dropping by 78 percent in Metro Vancouver in June 2021 compared to before COVID, according to a report by Movmi Shared Transportation Services, a consulting firm that provides organizations with mobility solutions. Instead, people opted for more individual modes of transport, such as car-shares Evo and Modo.

But things are evening out. “I think in the early months, it was a 70-percent drop in ridership for everybody,” says Sandra Phillips, founder and CEO of Vancouver-based Movmi. “Most of them have come back, if not to pre-COVID levels, close to pre-COVID levels, with the exception of public transport. They’re still catching up.”

With public transit still feeling COVID’s fallout, Phillips believes the big takeaway should be to further integrate alternate forms of transportation such as bike- and car-shares. “Because then, if something else happens, and maybe we have another wave of pandemic, people still can stay within that ecosystem even if they don’t feel safe going on a bus anymore,” she explains. “But they will stay within, rather than going to buy a vehicle,” Phillips reckons. “Because if they buy a vehicle, they are out of your ecosystem for the next 10 years, or five years at minimum.”

As these changes unfold, B.C. companies and researchers keep churning out innovative ways for us to get around while reducing congestion and carbon emissions. Here’s a look at what’s currently on the road—and what’s coming. –Saphiya Zerrouk

Credit: Rocky Mountain Bicycles

A Rocky Mountain e-bike in action

Power Move

Rather than rely on a third-party vendor to provide motors for its performance e-bikes, Rocky Mountain Bicycles has designed and built its own unique powertrains since 2017. “The architecture of our motor is completely different from everyone else’s,” says chief product officer Alex Cogger.

Starting with just three models, the Vancouver-headquartered company saw total sales increase 25 percent overnight. It now offers 14 different e-bikes that represent 40 percent of revenue. Rocky Mountain’s Taiwan-made motor is also more powerful than most other brands’, providing 108 newton-metres of torque versus the typical 85 to 90, so riders can climb steeper hills and accelerate faster.

“We decided to go all out with a really powerful motor,” Cogger says. “The first generation of mountain bikers–because mountain biking has been around since the early ’80s–is getting to the point where they could definitely use a helping hand.” –S.Z.

All Encompassing

One Compass Card to rule them all–TransLink, Evo Car Share, Mobi by ShawGo and Modo Co-operative. That’s what the Shared Mobility Pilot tested for almost a year starting in October 2019. The partnership between TransLink and the three private companies began when they won its first Open Call for Innovation, whose theme was Seamless Mobility.

The four transport providers then launched a pilot that saw 160 employees from 12 businesses get a Shared Mobility Compass Card for work-related travel, with employers billed monthly. The result: 60 percent of participants replaced the use of their own car with transit, car share or bike share.

“The next pilot is going to be much broader,” says Sandra Phillips, founder and CEO of consulting firm Movmi, which helped organize the project. “It’s targeted to the everyday consumer.” The partners plan to start the next phase this fall, but there are still some kinks to work out. “It will be the first time we have seen anything in this region that is combining so many different modes of transport in this way,” says Niklas Kviselius, manager, new mobility, at TransLink. –S.Z.

Credit: Damon Motorcycles

Damon’s HyperSport, the first AI-enhanced electric motorcycle

EV Rider

“No one gets in a car wondering when they’re going to have an accident,” Jay Giraud says. “But statistically, every motorcycle has one.” Giraud, who founded Vancouver-based Damon Motorcycles in 2017 with Dom Kwong, wants to leave that problem in the dust.

Damon’s HyperSport is the first artificial intelligence-enhanced electric motorcycle with collision warning. Powering the bike is the HyperDrive, a chassis that integrates the battery pack, frame, motor, gearbox, electronics, collision warning, cloud computing, AI–and Shift, which lets a rider adjust the ergonomics to suit different terrain. Unlike other motorcycle makers, Damon can build whatever bike it wants around that core without having to design a whole new machine each time.

To encourage adoption, the company is taking a page from Tesla by offering a premium product first, Giraud explains. As of August, it had received some $30 million in pre-orders for the HyperSport, which is due to hit the market next year. By 2023 and 2030, respectively, Damon plans to achieve accident prediction and accident avoidance–so a bike can take over steering or braking when its rider doesn’t react fast enough. “That’s the road map from a safety perspective, to get a motorcycle to the point of being as safe as a car,” Giraud says. –Nick Rockel

Got You Covered

Electric bicycles give the rider power on hills or long rides, but this one takes that luxury one step further. Similar to a car in many ways, VeloMetro Mobility’s Veemo SE has a cover for wind and rain protection, side mirrors, indicators, a carlike backseat and full suspension. As a sustainable mobility startup, Vancouver-based VeloMetro created the three-wheeled, electric-assist vehicle to get more people onto bikes so they can enjoy the health benefits while also reducing carbon emissions.

The Veemo, which charges via rooftop solar panels, has its own navigation screen and plenty of on-board storage. It also meets Class 1 bicycle regulations, so it’s legal to ride in bike lanes or along a road shoulder.

To see if the Veemo could be used for sharing, VeloMetro teamed up with Movmi and UBC Parking to run an on-campus commuting pilot for UBC students and faculty. Over six months, some 1,200 users rode a total of 2,000 kilometres. –S.Z.

Credit: GreenPower Motor Co.

A GreenPower Motor shuttle

Robo Drop

In the crowded electric vehicle market, Vancouver-based GreenPower Motor Co. aims to stand out by focusing on medium- to heavy-duty EVs, including buses, shuttles and cargo vans. The company has also joined the autonomous driving camp with the 2020 launch of its AV Star, a Class 4 EV that charges wirelessly and will also drive itself. “I’ve now defined a system where there’s no humans involved at all,” chair and CEO Fraser Atkinson says of the vehicle’s role in fully automated delivery.

GreenPower has partnered with First Transit, a U.S.-headquartered provider of public transport services. With the first AV Star doing test runs at Florida’s Jacksonville Transit, the company plans to build a second unit and do a stateside promotional tour. The transport sector is at the “iPod stage” of innovation, Atkinson says. “There’s so much more to come.” –Pallavi Rao

Mobile App

Looking to build your own mobility business? Spare has all the tools you need. The Vancouver company bills itself as a platform where entrepreneurs, private businesses and transit organizations can create mobility apps. Co-founder and COO Josh Andrews says it’s “providing an operating system” for such services, with coding-free options that let users simulate operations for planning and test runs, all with real-time analytics. You can set up a new ride-share service in days on Spare, he adds.

Operating in three core markets–North America, Japan and Europe–the 50-employee company has seen revenue triple in the past year. “Making sure that we continue to grow our business in a way that we can innovate quickly, that’s probably the No. 1 priority for me,” Andrews says. –P.R.

Credit: Portable Electric

Portable Electric’s mobile EV charger

Top and Go

Electric cars are brilliant–until you run out of juice on a deserted highway. Portable Electric has a solution to range anxiety. Through an alliance with B.C. mining titan Teck Resources and local nonprofit the Community Energy Association, the Vancouver-based company has developed Canada’s biggest clean-energy mobile EV charger. The partners rolled out the first unit this summer in the East Kootenays.

Capable of charging two EVs at once, the VOLTstack battery electric unit is mostly for top-ups. “We can add 25 kilometres or 50 kilometres to the car so it can get to a proper fast charger,” says Portable Electric founder and CEO Mark Rabin. Although you can replenish the device via an EV charging station or a standard wall outlet, it works with a variety of energy sources, Rabin adds. “We could also charge it from a hydrogen fuel cell or another type of generator, and we can also pair it with a mobile solar array.” Bright idea. –N.R.

H to Oh!

Hydrogen fuel cell pioneer Ballard Power Systems has branches (and markets) worldwide, in the U.S., Europe and China. Burnaby-headquartered Ballard’s focus is the proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell, which combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, with only water and heat as byproducts.

These fuel cells work for a variety of transport modes–passenger vehicles, trucks, trains and even drones–as well as power backups for critical infrastructure like radio towers. In Ballard’s financial statement for the first quarter, president and CEO Randy MacEwen said the company has “a clearer line of sight on long-term growth in core mediums,” of “bus, truck, rail and marine.” –P.R.

Credit: Urban Racks

Rack ’Em Up

Bicycle theft is a major industry in B.C., but Urban Racks has your back. Founded in 2007, the Langley company sells racks, lockers and electric charging stations for e-bikes as well as e-scooters to organizations in Canada and the U.S. “You can use the app to lock and unlock [your bike],” president and CEO Kosta ChatziSpiros says of Urban Racks’ accompanying online platform. “You can become a subscriber to a locker and have it ready for you. You can also check with the app to see if parking is available before you plan your trip.”

ChatziSpiros, whose company saw 30-percent growth in 2021, is betting on the demand for last-mile-connectivity between public transit and destinations as the niche where it will flourish. –P.R.

Electrify Everything

Jarvis Shaver was pushed to launch EcoWest Driven in 2015, when his daughter looked at the haze of wildfire smoke and said, “I guess it will be like this all the time when I grow up.” The Parksville-based company, which maintains that electric vehicles have the highest fuel efficiency and lowest environmental impact compared to hydrogen and diesel, offers practical options for businesses looking to switch their transport operations. That includes offering EV trucks on lease, converting diesel trucks to electric-powered engines and setting up charging station hubs. –P.R.

Credit: UBC

A rendering of the UBC Renewable Energy Hub

Charging Block

Turning buildings into big rechargeable batteries isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. In fact, it’s underway at UBC, through a project led by mechanical engineering professor Walter Mérida, founder of Mérida Labs. Scheduled to be fully operational by the end of next year, the Renewable Energy Hub will see a city-sized campus block become a smart energy district. The hub includes a solar array atop a parkade retrofitted with bidirectional EV charging stations. It will also house B.C.’s first refuelling station for light- and heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cell vehicles–supplied by an electrolyzer that creates 100-percent renewable hydrogen from water and surplus electricity. 

As people charge their cars in the solar parkade, 5 to 10 percent of the total battery capacity becomes available to send power back to the grid, Mérida explains. “In this way, assets that otherwise would sit there doing nothing for eight or nine hours a day all of a sudden become active participants in energy management systems at the city scale.” In turn, drivers could get a lower parking rate or receive payment for the use of their battery. Mérida hopes to replicate the Renewable Energy Hub in other cities worldwide, at locations such as ports, airports, shopping centres and warehouses. –N.R.

Hail B.C.

Not all ride-hailing companies are run by Silicon Valley bros. In fact, B.C. has several of its own. Whistle!, operated by Tofino-headquartered Green Coast Ventures, offers service between the Whistler area and Vancouver International Airport, and between its backyard and Tofino-Long Beach Airport. Vancouver-based Poparide lets users carpool to cities across Canada. Ride-hailing outfit Lucky to Go serves almost 20 B.C. urban centres from its hometown of Victoria, while Richmond rival Kabu Ride covers Metro Vancouver, the Fraser Valley, Victoria, Kelowna and Kamloops. Wait, there’s more: Coastal Rides focuses on the Sunshine Coast, the Comox Valley and Powell River. –N.R.

Credit: Hydra Energy

Hydra Energy and CEO Jessica Verhagen (right) recently announced the delivery of its first hydrogen-converted heavy-duty truck to a paying fleet customer: Prince George–based Lodgewood Enterprises, led by president Arlene Gagne (left)

At Your Service

As consumers embrace low- and zero-emission vehicles, the trucking industry lags behind, and its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions keep growing. Vancouver-based Hydra Energy aims to change that by becoming the first hydrogen-as-a-service (HaaS) provider for commercial trucking fleets. Hydra, which says it can reduce semi-trucks’ GHG emissions by up to 40 percent and save money on fuel by offering a fixed discount versus diesel, sources waste hydrogen from partner Chemtrade Logistics. “We compress it and clean it up, and then use it in a refuelling station where we fuel up 65 trucks,” says CEO Jessica Verhagen.

Hydra targets fleets that return each day to their base, installing the refuelling station there at its own expense as long as the client signs a long-term contract. It also converts trucks for hydrogen refuelling with an engine retrofit that doesn’t void the warranty. Looking ahead, Hydra plans to keep driving down trucks’ emissions. “We want to continue moving toward 100 percent so it would be considered a zero-emission vehicle,” Verhagen says. –N.R.

Paving the Way

If you’re ready to step into the future, Solar Earth is waiting. The Vancouver company wants to install solar panels on pavements, rooftops, walls–any flat surface, really–to power tomorrow’s economy. It sees an opportunity for municipalities to make transport infrastructure such as roads, bike paths and parking lots pay for itself instead of becoming a money pit.

As CTO Michael Whitwick points out, generating solar energy (typically from farms) takes up a lot of room. By using available spaces, Solar Earth aims to turn “passive transportation infrastructure into active transportation infrastructure that also generates clean, renewable energy.” That means the solar panels must be durable, so the company designed its Amber II module to absorb vehicles’ weight and extreme weather as well as sunlight. Whitwick says Solar Earth is also looking into wireless charging so an EV can fuel up while driving along a road outfitted with its panels. –P.R.

Credit: OpenRoad Auto Group

Portfolio by OpenRoad offers car subscriptions

Open Season

Want to feel what it’s like to have a Porsche in your garage one day and a Jaguar the next? Car-shares may be common in Vancouver, but Portfolio by OpenRoad is the new shiny elite version. The brainchild of Christian Chia, CEO of dealer OpenRoad Auto Group, Canada’s first such service offers members monthly and daily car subscriptions to a 12-brand fleet.

The option to pause at any time is a draw for frequent fliers and snowbirds alike. “We are currently the only vehicle subscription company in Vancouver that offers multiple brands,” says manager Adam Isman. With two electric vehicles in its fleet, Portfolio is looking to add more. It also plans to move beyond Metro Vancouver as OpenRoad expands to the Toronto area. –S.Z.

Moto Heads

With 15 years’ experience in the electric two-wheeler business, Motorino joined the race early. The company, which specializes in light electric vehicles (LEVs)–bikes, scooters and motorcycles–has a wide network of manufacturers based in Asia. Early this year, Vancouver-headquartered Motorino became the sole Canadian distributor and seller of the Super Soco e-motorcycle, popular in Europe. –P.R.

Credit: Canadian Electric Vehicles

A Might-E Truck from Canadian Electric Vehicles

Might-E Fine

Canadian Electric Vehicles (CANEV) has a variety of rides to show for its two decades in the EV game. The Parksville outfit makes airport service vehicles, industrial and commercial vehicles, and even an ice resurfacer for your next hockey game.  But its flagship offering is the Might-E line, which includes the marquee Might-E Truck.

Sales manager Jeff Christopherson calls it “one of the most rugged trucks of its class available in the world,” capable of hauling 1,500 pounds. That makes it ideal for industrial work but also useful at orchards and wineries, where it can pull its weight without roughing up the flora. CANEV also offers EV conversion kits that let consumers change their internal combustion engine to an electric one. –P.R.

City Slicker

Love them or hate them, it’s tough to ignore the new two-wheelers on the block. E-scooters have come to town, and they could be here to stay. If so, that’s good news for e-scooter maker Urban Machina, launched in 2016. While on holiday in Singapore, co-founder Olivia Yau had noticed the eco-friendly zoomers everywhere as an alternative to owning a car–and reckoned e-scooters could fill a similar gap in her hometown of Vancouver. “Biking is great, buses and SkyTrain and walking is great, but then there’s a whole different category of people who don’t live near transit,” she says. “Or they have a physical limitation where biking is not an option.”

With Urban Machina’s sales up 30 percent in the past year, thanks to COVID restrictions, Yau hopes Vancouver will officially permit safe riding of e-scooters for their environmental benefits. “Because whether or not they allow it, you still see people use it.” –S.Z.

Credit: ElectraMeccanica Vehicles Corp.

A Solo three-wheeler from ElectraMeccanica

Triple Threat

Now, this is a vehicle that will make you do a double take. Solo, by Vancouver-based ElectraMeccanica Vehicles Corp., is a three-wheeled, all-electric single-seater that’s much smaller than a typical car. But it holds its own on the road, with a full-charge range of 160 kilometres and a top speed of 130 km/h. Solo is the company’s flagship vehicle, designed to revolutionize commuting, delivery and shared mobility while being eco-friendly.

ElectricaMeccanica makes the Solo in China, but this spring it announced that Mesa, Arizona, will be its U.S. base of operations, with plans for an engineering technical centre as well as manufacturing facility. The new plant will be able to produce up to 20,000 Solos a year, according to the company. –S.Z.

Making Connections

The move toward connected cars gets much of its drive from a Vancouver-headquartered business. In North America and Europe, Mojio has linked more than 1.25 million vehicles to the Internet via its channel partners, which include Telus Corp., Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile and smart-home specialist Vivint; and Force, its new subscription service for small-business fleets. The company, founded in 2012 by Jay Giraud (see above), helps drivers save time and money by analyzing the data it collects from vehicles. For example, Mojio might recommend the cheapest and most convenient place to buy gas or catch engine trouble before it becomes serious.

 “It’s an easy-to-buy, easy-to-use fleet product for businesses that have five, 10, 15 vehicles,” CEO Kenny Hawk says of Force. Small companies might not think of themselves as fleet operators, but they need to know where their drivers are, how they’re taking care of the vehicles and if there are any problems, Hawk maintains. “By using our product, it helps make them more efficient.” –N.R.