The Future of Cottaging

Driverless cars on the highways, Wifi in the hammock, and buildings made from hay bales. Technology and innovation are changing the way we get to and live at the lake.
A peek into life at the cabins of tomorrow.

By Philip Preville Illustration Tavis Coburn

One year ago, Dawn and Dave Carr made a long-time wish come true: they purchased a 100 per cent electric vehicle, or EV for short. “We wanted to go electric because we are always trying to reduce our carbon footprint,” says Dawn. “But we’ve been waiting for years for the technology to catch up to our lifestyle. If a vehicle’s battery couldn’t get us to the cottage and back”—specifically, from their home in Peterborough, Ont., to their marina in Honey Harbour on Georgian Bay— “then it didn’t make sense for us.”

The biggest drawback of electric vehicles has long been that a single battery charge could only get a fraction of the mileage of a full tank of gas. That’s still the case: the best EV can squeeze just over 400 km out of its battery, compared to the 500 or more that any car can cover on hydrocarbons. But the Carrs knew that electric vehicles also recharge through what’s called regenerative braking: every time you apply the brakes, the car converts the mechanical energy of the wheels into a tiny electrical charge and stores that charge back in the battery. Which explains how Dave, an emergency physician, manages the 430 km return trip to Honey Harbour without plugging it in.

The best thing is: Dave doesn’t have to white-knuckle his way home every time. The Petro-Canada just off Hwy. 400 in Port Severn has a Level 3 charging station, known as DC Fast Charge,which can juice his battery full in about 25 minutes. And, for this season, they’ve arranged with their marina to switch parking spots, so that their EV will be just an extension cord away from a regular household electrical outlet, which charges the battery in about eight hours.

The Carrs aren’t done yet with the overhaul of their family’s mobility—but they are once again waiting for technology to improve on their current routines. Dawn says they would consider commuting to the cottage in an autonomous vehicle, provided it was proven to be safer than driving themselves. “Imagine Taking a nap on the drive,” she says, “forgetting some last-minute work done.”

When I counter that autonomous vehicles are likely to be too expensive for families to own individually, she agrees, but says that there are lots of Peterborough folks who cottage on Georgian Bay with whom she’d gladly share a car. They wouldn’t even have to travel together: an autonomous vehicle could shuttle them all back and forth on their own schedules. As someone who cares deeply about the environment—Dawn is the executive director of the Canadian Parks Council, an umbrella organization for federal, provincial, and territorial parks organizations—she does not attach any social status to car ownership. In fact, for her, it’s the opposite.“I’d consider it a huge status symbol if I could do all my travels without ever buying a drop of gasoline or owning a car at all.” ››

How do electric cars hold up against Canadian winters?

The Carrs are not unique in their desire to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. It’s one of cottaging great paradoxes: in their efforts to live closer to nature and to be more eco-conscious, cottagers depend heavily on fossil fuels. That dependency is now fading, though it’s far from gone.

The Carrs’ electric vehicle is great in the summer, but cold winter temperatures can cut the mileage of a single battery charge in half, which makes an EV impractical for a four-season property. Those with longer cottage commutes also have to be concerned about whether a single charge can get them where they need to go. This problem has a name: range anxiety, which is code for “Will there be a charging station before my battery runs out?” There are 12,000 gas stations in Canada but only a few thousand EV charging stations, though the number is growing. Most of those are concentrated in the three provinces whose governments have invested most heavily in them. Quebec has more than 1,200 charging stations, and B.C. about 1,000, making just about any cottage drive feasible, including Vancouver To Tofino. Ontario has more than 1,300 charging stations and is aggressively adding more. Unfortunately, none of them yet have the kind of ginormous and ubiquitous roadside signage that gas stations have and that would put drivers at ease.

Hybrid vehicles solve the range-anxiety problem by using their internal combustion engines as an electrical generator to recharge their batteries. Using a combination of electric power at low speeds and gasoline while cruising, hybrids offers vast improvement in mileage over traditional cars. Hybrids Have served as the testing ground for new advances in electric vehicle technology—they were the first to feature regenerative braking. Hybrid engines are also able to power larger vehicles that purely electric engines cannot, including a vehicle popular with many cottagers: the four-wheel-drive SUV.

That will soon change, as vehicle manufacturers continue to test new electric technologies on hybrid models. Last year, Mitsubishi Motors, for example, introduced a plug-in hybrid SUV with four-wheel drive, whose key innovation under the hood is twin electric motors, one in the front and one in the back. “The twin motors enable four-wheel drive even when running purely on electricity,” says Don Ulmer, the senior manager, product planning. And because you can recharge it by plugging it in, it further reduces dependency on fossil fuels. ››

Here’s what you’ll be “driving” for your future cottage commute

It’s a fair bet that range anxiety will soon be cured. Canadian sales of plug-ins grew by 68 per cent last year and are expected to keep growing at an exponential rate every year for the next decade, assisted in part by government subsidies: Ontario, for instance, offers rebates of up to $14,000 for an electric vehicle purchase. And the infrastructure shift to charging stations is well under way. The Canadian Automobile Association has a website that maps all their locations. And people tend to forget that, with electric vehicles, every home is also a charging station; once you add those in, charging stations vastly outnumber gas stations. Some believe that, before long, it’s drivers of traditional vehicles who’ll suffer range anxiety. “We are only 10 years away from the end of the gas-station industry as we know it,” says Barrie Kirk, the executive director of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence, near Ottawa.

And if we’re just a decade away from the end of gas stations, we may well be only 20 years away from the end of driving itself. Autonomous vehicle technology, known in the industry simply as AV, is the new space race. Everybody knows it can be done. The question now is who will master the technology first.

“Nearly every global automaker has made a significant commitment to developing AV technology,” says Derek Pankratz, who, as the senior research manager at Deloitte’s Center for Integrated Research in Milwaukee, is paid to think about the future of travel. Most major technology firms are also working on AVs, including Google (whose driverless cars have already logged more than 3.2 million km on city streets) and Apple (though its AV research and testing has been kept top secret). So is Uber, the urban ride-hailing service that has disrupted the taxi industry in cities worldwide. Uber operates a fleet of AV prototypes, one of which recently struck and killed a pedestrian in Phoenix. The fatality led Uber to suspend its AV testing earlier this year. Despite the accident, Kirk remains optimistic about the technology. “Most of us will be riding in autonomous vehicles by the end of the 2020s,” he says.

Once AVs are in widespread use, say observers such as Kirk and Pankratz, travel will change radically. The typical utopian prediction holds that AVs will be deployed first in dense urban centres, where people constantly make short trips in all directions. People won’t own an AV; instead, they’ll subscribe to a mobility service that operates a fleet. Vehicles will communicate with passengers and one another to sort out the most efficient pickup routes. In densely populated areas, cars will rarely have to travel more than a few blocks without a passenger, and passenger waits will always be brief, or non-existent: if someone hails a car on their phone as they leave their office-tower desk, it’ll be at the curb when the elevator hits the lobby.

The advantages of this utopia are, at this moment of conjecture, endless. It will be cheaper: Kirk projects that a two-car Canadian household will save $3,000 a year by ditching one car and replacing it with an AV service. The cars will never sit idle, so parking will be a thing of the past: picture entire lanes of roadway opened up for café patios and home driveways returned to sod. The cars will all be electric, so zero vehicle emissions. The algorithms running the system, once they are fully developed and tested, will be so efficient that we’ll need vastly fewer cars, easing congestion. They will also be so clairvoyant that the cars will get into far fewer collisions than human drivers, resulting in fewer injuries and fatalities.

This not-so-distant future will work perfectly—until Friday afternoon. That’s when hundreds of thousands of commuters, instead of making their usual 20-minute trip back to their city home, will leave work two hours early and try to strip a shared car away from the urban fleet for a two-hour drive north and keep it up there in case they need to run into town. The cottage commute, right now, is a major wrench in the gears of utopia.

Current testing of autonomous vehicle technology is focussed almost exclusively on navigating city streets. Some firms are also working on highway transportation, envisioning a world of self-driving transport trucks. Virtually no testing has been done on AVs in rural or wilderness areas, let alone trips that will include travel on all three: city streets, highways, and dirt roads.

But once AVs are able to navigate anywhere, observers envision a couple of plausible scenarios in which AVs will handle our cottage commutes. Interestingly, none involves people owning their own AVs. “One of the best advantages of AVs is that they relieve congestion because you need fewer cars for the same number of trips,” says Pankratz. “If everyone owns their own AV, that advantage is lost.”

In one possible future, cottage country will have its own AV fleets, coordinated with public transit. To use Southern Ontario as an example, there could be AV fleets serving cottage country from the end of every GO train line. Cottage in the Kawarthas? Your self-driving SUV will be there for you at the Oshawa GO station. Muskoka? Pick up your ride in Barrie. In this future, cottagers will need a second subscription for their cottage- country rides, just as they currently own a second car. The whole idea is a throwback to the “daddy train” of the mid-20th century, except that Daddy doesn’t need to be picked up at the station anymore.

The other possibility, says Pankratz, is that urban fleet operators will be happy to let city-dwellers use a car for the weekend—for a premium price, of course. “The urban fleets will be structured to manage weekday rush- hour traffic, but the number of car trips in the city plummets on weekends anyway,” he points out. The Ubers of the future will not want to have thousands of its city AVs idle on Saturdays and Sundays; better to let them keep generating revenue out of town. ››


How quickly can you charge an electric car's battery?

While this all sounds fabulous, every big, technologically driven disruption creates losers as well as winners. Some of the biggest losers could be the cottage communities closest to the city. “With less congestion, no worries about driver fatigue, and the ability to work or relax on your daily commute, one unintended effect of self-driving cars could be the expansion of urban settlement,” says Janice de Jong, a Kitchener-based consultant and researcher who helps companies prepare for uncertain futures.

She’s got a point. If AVs reduce the Gravenhurst-to-Toronto trip from two hours to 90 minutes—a workday commute time that many are already accustomed to—then Gravenhurst could become a bedroom community and bring suburbia to cottagers’ doorsteps. That could, in turn, move cottage country farther afield. The trip to Muskoka will be quicker, but if it’s overrun with bungalows, will people still want to cottage there? Those who prize nature may end up going even farther away. Weekend travel times may get longer, not shorter.

Another unintended effect could be the encroachment of work upon the cottage routine, just as smartphones have caused our work to creep into our city homes. Right now, cottagers scramble to finish their week’s work so they don’t have to bring any along for the weekend. With cars driving themselves, cottagers will be tempted to finish their workweek on the drive up, curtailing the in-car conversations that help us to shed the work week’s stresses and to unwind. ››

6 ways that self-driving cars could change your community

Which brings us to the biggest losers of all: anyone who enjoys driving their own car. The drive to the cottage, today, is an anticipatory part of the experience. Vehicle interiors are idiosyncratic; we consider it personal space. But once you’re being shuttled to the cottage by a self-driving fleet, you may commute in a different car every weekend—and the car that takes you out of town might not be the one that takes you back. The sense of control that comes from being behind the wheel, the feeling of freedom that comes with thinning traffic and greener vistas, the pride of ownership—these may all wither as the cottage commute becomes a passive rather than an active part of life.

We may have no choice but to be passengers. Back at the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence, Barrie Kirk is confident that, despite the AV fatality earlier this year, algorithms will eventually prove to be far safer drivers than people. And he predicts that, by the 2030s, we’ll be debating the ethics of letting people drive at all, except as a form of experience tourism. Kirk envisions a future theme park of sorts where you can drive yourself to places like the coffee shop, the supermarket, and the video rental store. It’s an idea that could offer new tourism potential for a cottage-country town like Huntsville: a 20th-century Driver’s Heritage Town to go with its 19th-century Muskoka Heritage Village. Experience the frustration of limited parking! The hazard of distracted drivers! Just like the good old days.


Every year, Philip Preville drives 17 hours from Ontario to a cottage rental in P.E.I.