The Little Yellow Electric Car That 'Doesn't Exist'

By Bill Moore

Posted: 10 Mar 2011

I first met Toronto businessman Steve Dallas in September 2009 when he brought his just-finished A2B electric car to the PHEV '09 conference in Montreal []. The little yellow, designed-from-the-ground-up electric car caused a sensation, though at the time, Dallas had no plans for it beyond owning "the most expensive car on the block."

So, when Olav Svela, the investor relations manager for Canadian Lithium invited me late last year to not only speak at a company-hosted forum during the PDAC mining conference in Toronto -- the world's largest -- but also to help him find an electric car that could be put on display during the after-hours event, Steve was one of the first people I thought of and I arranged for Svela and him to meet up.

As I walked into Ballroom B at the Intercontinental hotel in downtown Toronto with Svela (pictured above this the car), there it sat, now dubbed the "A2B." While it looked pretty much unchanged since the last time I'd seen it, Steve, who showed up a short time later, assured me that there were a lot of changes, most related to improving the software that controls the car and networks it to the larger world around it.

One of the first small changes I noticed on the exterior was a tiny "ProjectEVE" decal on the rear corner of the hatchback. I asked John Scott and Paul Duffy, who are working with Dallas on moving the car toward limited production, about it.

They informed me that ProjectEVE is a small, but growing consortium of Canadian companies who are using Dallas' Little Yellow Car as the catalyst around which to develop home-grown smart mobility technologies. One of the newer participants is MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates. One their business units, MD Robitics, developed the Canadarm for the NASA's Space Shuttle; and according to Dallas also helped develop the Mars Rovers. With the exception of the 29.2 kWh of US-based Valance lithium ion batteries that power the car for more than 200 km (125 miles), all over components in the car and its critical software are Canadian in origin.

The commercialization strategy Dallas, Scott and Duffy are pursuing is contracting with a select number of fleets in Ontario and other provinces to provide them with a demonstration vehicle through which each fleet can gain experience and performance data, collected via the car's networked communication capabilities. The trio initially want to stimulate order for ten vehicles, with Dallas' one-off prototype eventually evolving into two other models: a four passenger sedan and crew cab-type pickup; offering three model options from which fleet managers can choose.

After the forum, which included an informative presentation by Electrovaya's Gitanjali Das Gupta, with introductions from Kerry Knoll, the Chairman of Canadian Lithium, Dallas offered to not only drive me back to my hotel across the street from the University of Toronto campus, but to also buy me dinner. It was an offer I couldn't refuse.

The drive over Toronto's winter battered streets demonstrated that there's a lot of room for improvement in the suspension. The car is short coupled, so the ride naturally is stiff and jarring, but the most noticeable aspect of the car are the neoprene bushings, used at the recommendation of a local speed shop. Bluntly, the car "squeaks"… a lot, made even more noticeable by the frost heaved pavement and potholes in downtown Toronto.

Dallas good-naturedly explained that when he brought up the problem with the racing gurus, they replied, "Steve, when you've got 800 horsepower rumbling under the hood of a dragster or race car, you don't hear any squeaking."

Ah, you do in an electric, fellas. Dallas isn't likely to make that mistake again.

The Little Yellow Car, as he likes to refer to it, has plenty of power and range, but what I wanted to know this night is how does it perform in the bitter, sub-zero winters in Ontario? We're hearing complaints this winter about the Volt not providing enough cabin warmth, for example. What's Dallas use for heat, I asked Duffy? He pointed to a tiny box up under the hood: a diesel-fueled heater; actually a small turbine, either an Eberspacher unit or something akin to it. Steve estimates that this winter he'll burn between six and eight liters of diesel fuel, less than 2 gallons for under $9 at current pump prices in Ontario ($1.40/liter). One of his associates also thought it would run on blended biofuel, making the whole arrangement even greener, especially if you live in neighboring Quebec or British Ontario where nearly all electric power is generated from hydro. Once fired up, the heater seems to provide plenty of warm, though the lack of firewall insulation, admits Dallas, does make it a bit noisy, though nowhere near as distracting as those chirping bushings.

So, as you'd expect with any first-off prototype, the car needs ongoing refinement, but even at this point, it's an attention getter. As we drove north on University Avenue, just before the Provincial Legislature building, we paused at a stop light. A young man in a Porsche Carrera next to us rolled down his window and asked Steve what kind of car it was.

"It's electric," he replied.

"Oh wow. You're that electric car guy! I saw you on television." And then the inevitable next question. "How much is it?"

"How much money do you have?" Steve replied.

The light changed to green, the Porsche driver laughed and raced away, clearly seeking to impress us. Steve commented that he's raced similar performance cars in the past and beat them. Tonight, with me on board, here in the heart of Toronto, he wasn't going to prove it.

One positive spin-off from having invested a sizable, but secret sum of his personal wealth in the car -- likely well over a million dollars, I am guessing from various comments made by him and others during the event and after -- is that his engineering and fabrication business is booming because of the public exposure the car has brought him; and he intends to invest more of his money in it to keep control of the project.

We concluded the night at the Fox and Fiddler pub in the Holiday Inn, with Steve sharing various anecdotes about his car, his business -- Toronto Electric -- and the frustrations of dealing with Ontario's very Provincial government, noting that according to province bureaucrats, electric cars like his "don't exist." But then, apparently, neither does the Volt or the Leaf. This is a story I'll have to look into in more detail.

The good news is the Little Yellow Car now has a clear strategy for moving forward; it will not be a one-off hit. Yet, as ProjectEVE gathers momentum Dallas, Duffy, Scott and their allied consortium members not only need to continue to refine the technology, but also convince regulators that electric cars do, in fact, exist, and that Canadians can build them.

Photos of Steve's car can be found on Flickr.

Download 5.12 MB PDF version of Bill Moore's Canadian Lithium EV Forum presentation:

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