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Why is Singapore so slow to adopt electric vehicles?

While we wait for more (and cheaper) electric cars to roll out, the road ahead is still long and bumpy. What's on the map?

When British engineering technology firm Dyson made headlines in October for picking Singapore as the location for a multi-billion dollar electric car project, it certainly raised quite a few eyebrows. After all, a company known for its bladeless fans, bagless vacuums and hairdryers has decided to manufacture cars in Singapore, a market that last produced cars in 1980 when Ford ceased operations in the city-state. Dyson is aiming to start production by 2020 with the first cars rolling out in 2021. While its move here arose largely out of business efficiencies, Dyson is one of many examples of non-traditional players investing big bucks in the electric car market.

(RELATED: Dyson has just set up a $587m technology centre in Singapore)

Yet while manufacturers old and new gear up for the mass electrification of cars and one gets the sense that the clean, green future could soon be a reality, the consumer has yet to step up. Nigel Yong, deputy editor of SGCarMart.com tells The Business Times: “There is a steady increase in adoption globally, but the same cannot be said for Singapore.”

According to Land Transport Authority (LTA) data, there were 614,937 registered private cars in Singapore as at Nov 30, of which petrol cars formed 92.7 per cent. Just 4.3 per cent of them were mild hybrids (combining a fuel engine with an electric motor), 0.06 per cent of cars (357) were plug-in hybrids (with a “spare” rechargeable battery) and 0.08 per cent (466) were pure electric.

(RELATED: Review: Is the Jaguar I-Pace the best electric car you can buy in Singapore?)

Based on data collected by electric vehicle (EV) sales database consultancy EV-volumes.com, an estimated 1.28 million EVs/plug-in hybrids were sold globally in 2017, up from 134,000 in 2013. According to online statistics portal Statista, only 5 per cent of all cars sold last year were EVs/plug-in hybrids. EV-volumes.com forecasts 2.1 million EVs/plug-in hybrids will be sold in 2018, a 64 per cent increase on last year.

First mover Tesla has started to fix its production issues, with analysts forecasting its sales will finally fire up in 2019.

A number of major marques have also made commitments to electrification, with Geely-owned Volvo Car Group choosing to release only partially and fully electric models from 2019 and only pure electric offerings from 2021.

German automaker Audi plans to offer 12 all-electric models by 2025. It will release its first full electric – the Audi e-tron sport-utility vehicle (SUV) – in Singapore next year.

Stuttgart-based Mercedes-Benz says all its cars will have either partial or full electric propulsion by 2022. The list goes on, adding to hybrids that have already been on the market for the past few years: Toyota’s Prius and Sienta, and the Honda Vezel.

The key draw of fully electric cars is, of course, that they are an environmentally friendlier alternative to the combustion engine. During their lifespan, EVs have lower emissions of harmful pollutive gases like carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, and greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

Auto makers have also touted a smoother and quieter ride, reduced running costs, and a more direct power transfer. These make EVs a compelling sell, especially to those living in densely-populated localities.

Slow pick up?

So what’s holding us back? SGCarMart’s Mr Yong points first to infrastructural issues like the current shortage of charging stations in Singapore.

Mr Yong explains: “The biggest challenge to electric car ownership in Singapore is access to a private charger, which might be the case for many Singaporeans who do not live in landed properties.” But that is not the only issue that drags on the market for EVs. He adds: “The low acceptance levels among motorists, unattractive incentives and the still higher prices for EVs compared to petrol engine equivalents serve as other reasons for the slow uptake.”

Yet, while Singapore has in the past been criticised by Tesla founder Elon Musk for not being friendly toward his EVs, the government has acknowledged electric cars are a cleaner alternative.

In January, Singapore revamped its carbon emission-based vehicle scheme (CEVS) to the broad-based vehicular emissions scheme (VES), which counts carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter as well as carbon dioxide emissions. This sees most battery electric models qualify for a maximum rebate of S$20,000 under the scheme.

Singapore is also one of a few countries in the world with both an electric car-sharing scheme and an electric taxi fleet.

Last December saw the introduction of BlueSG – Singapore’s only electric car-sharing provider. BlueSG, a subsidiary of French conglomerate Bollore Group, started with 80 cars and 32 stations but has grown more than three times in size in its first year. As of Dec 11, it has a 300-strong fleet of Bollore BlueCars and 135 stations offering 531 charging points island-wide. It hopes to have 150 stations by the end of the year.

Demand for its cars has been growing steadily. BlueSG’s commercial and network director Jenny Lim says: “Usage is steadily increasing every month thanks in part to station network development. We had 13,000 rentals in November as opposed to 6,000 rentals in May and have sold more than 20,000 subscriptions while clocking 100,000 rentals as of Dec 11.”

HDT Singapore Taxi has operated 100 electric taxis under a two-year trial under the Transport Innovation and Development Scheme in 2016. It was granted a 10-year taxi service operator licence in July, making it Singapore’s first electric-only taxi operator.

HDT plans to grow its fleet to 800 electric taxis – manufactured by Shenzhen-based battery and automaker BYD – by 2022, adding 200 taxis to its fleet yearly from now until 2022.

The LTA also awarded tenders in October for 60 electric buses to ply public bus routes by 2020.

Lower ownership costs

While EVs are not in the mainstream – Tesla’s early adopters came decisively from the premium segment of car buyers – battery technology has improved greatly in recent years. Battery costs have come down, while driving range (the distance a car can go between full charges) has extended, bringing with it growing mass-market appeal.

Audi Singapore managing director Jeff Mannering says: “Up until very recently, the state of technology on the handful of electric car models in the market meant that they had rather limited range, which places high demand on charging infrastructure.

“We are near the tipping point in terms of the variety of EVs coming to market and the availability of charging infrastructure that will come from independent suppliers and car companies offering their own solutions.”

2018 also brought more affordably priced fully electric vehicles, like the Hyundai Ioniq Electric and Renault Zoe. Both cost much less than Teslas, which are listed north of S$400,000 in Singapore. The Ioniq Electric can go for 280 kilometres (on paper) without needing a full charge, and the Zoe has a real-world range of 320km. With price tags of between S$100,000 and S$140,000, they still cost 20 to 30 per cent more than their petrol equivalents.

(RELATED: Who’s behind the mysterious electric car touted as a “Tesla-killer”?)

For Wearnes Automotive, the distributor of Renault vehicles here, the presumed higher cost of EVs is one of the biggest concerns for buyers.

But in fact, Wearnes Automotive managing director Kevin Teng says there are actually cost incentives to owning an EV in Singapore. These include the VES rebates and low cost of a full charge for pure EVs. Its Renault Zoe costs S$10.59 for a full charge for a range of up to 367km: that should last at least four to five days on the road for the average car-owner, and over a week for those who drive less frequently.

Mr Teng adds: “A comparison done by Wearnes Automotive has shown that an estimated annual savings of S$2,307.26 can be enjoyed by consumers should they switch over from a combustion engine vehicle. Servicing costs for the Renault Zoe are also lower, amounting to only one-third that of a combustion engine vehicle.”

Komoco Motors’ commercial director Ng Choon Wee says the uptake of electrified Hyundais has been encouraging. He notes that their electric Ioniq is preferred over the hybrid model.

Mr Ng says: “We offer a free electric charger and provide free use of our charging facilities to our customers. Some customers have concerns about the lifespan of the battery, which we have also addressed by offering 10-year one-for-one battery replacement. To further ease the minds of our customers, we also introduced ‘Charge Here’, Komoco Motor’s vehicle-to-vehicle electric recovery service.”

BMW Asia released its i3 model in 2014 with a full electric version and one with an electric range extender. The marque has discontinued the latter model in Singapore and will be offering a more powerful variant of the i3 as second option for car buyers here in 2019.

BMW Asia corporate affairs director Preeti Gupta says that in the beginning, uptake was slow, but steady. But things are changing. She points out: “BMW Asia witnessed nearly 80 per cent growth in the number of electrified vehicles registered in Singapore in 2018 compared to the previous year, which is very encouraging.”

“By the end of 2018, we aim to have nearly 300 electrified BMWs registered in Singapore, and we believe this number will continue to grow as the charging infrastructure grows and customers are offered more options.”

Next year, more pure electrics hit the market, with the mass-market Nissan Leaf electric a prime candidate to be launched here in 2019.

(RELATED: 4 exciting new developments from luxury car makers)

Says Ron Lim, head of sales and marketing at Nissan distributor Tan Chong Motor Sales: “We’re confident that the new Nissan Leaf will do well in Singapore, largely due to the brand’s technology leadership in this area.

“It is the first mass-market pure electric vehicle when it was launched eight years ago. Since then, Nissan has sold more than 350,000 units, making it the world’s best-selling electric vehicle to date.”

In October, Audi put out the e-tron, its first production battery electric SUV. With a range of 400km on a full charge and the capability for high-speed charging, the car does not come with the “range anxiety” that plagued earlier generations of fully-electric cars, says Mr Mannering.

In Singapore, the Audi e-tron SUV will be available in 2019. “Following that, we will have the e-tron Sportback, a high-performance flagship based on the e-tron Gran Turismo concept, as well as a compact model. So we will be moving rapidly in this area,” he adds.

(RELATED: Motoring review: Is Audi’s E-tron an electric dream come true?)

Expanding infrastructure

While acknowledging that Singapore, like many markets, lacks an extensive charging infrastructure, BMW’s Ms Gupta believes that it is only set to improve in the coming years. She says: “There are just over 50 public charging points today and by 2020 there will be nearly 1,500 as more companies such as Red Dot Power and SP Group invest in charging stations throughout Singapore.”

Mr Lim shares her sentiment. He says: “There is tremendous potential for the electric vehicle population to grow in Singapore, thanks largely in part to efforts from both the public and private sector to develop charging infrastructure across the country. As this network develops, we will see some of the key obstacles to electric vehicle adoption start to disappear and help improve both convenience and cost-effectiveness for electric vehicle owners.”

Providers of electric charging points in Singapore are working to match growing demand.

Utilities provider Singapore Power (SP) Group said in October that it will double the number of points from the 500 it pledged in June to 1,000, to be located at easy-to-access spots from malls to business parks to residential areas, with two to six charging points per location. At least 250 points will be high-powered direct current (DC) chargers, including 50 kilowatt chargers that can fully charge a car in half an hour while others will go as high as 350kW.

SP Group’s head of strategic development Goh Chee Kiong says that these extra-high-powered chargers are necessary as they will be able to support upcoming EV models which have bigger battery capacities and longer driving ranges. He adds: “This will be a game-changer for Singapore given that there are currently only three DC chargers here at present and will greatly improve the charging turnaround time for EV drivers.”

Other providers like Red Dot Power and Greenlots have also made plans to increase the number of charging points. Red Dot plans to set up at least 50 charging stations here by 2019 while Greenlots, which currently has 55 public stations island-wide, and intends to expand its reach.

By 2020, BlueSG will make 400 of its charging points available for public use. It currently has charging stations at Housing Development Board estates, private car parks, and those operated by the Urban Redevelopment Authority and JTC.

SP Group has also tied up with electric taxi operator HDT to power its fleet for the next 10 years. In August, the grid operator struck a similar partnership with ride-hailing player Grab which plans to use 200 battery-powered cars next year.

Ms Gupta says: “Just last month, ComfortDelGro introduced a fast-charging station that can provide a full charge in about 30 minutes. Once approved, it will be accessible at ComfortDelGro’s premises in Braddell for Greenlots users who own BMW electrified vehicles, fully electric Ioniqs and Zoes.”

Rapidly improving infrastructure goes a long way towards overcoming short-term obstacles to adoption. SGCarMart’s Mr Yong believes, however, that accessibility is not the sole obstacle; there’s also the need for constant maintenance of these chargers and responsible usage of them. There’s also still a risk of Singapore’s power grid struggling to cope if volume jumps significantly.

How green?

While the pluses seem to be adding up nicely, there remains one minus that eats away at the core motive for going electric.

Even though electric cars emit fewer pollutants when running, their carbon footprint varies from country to country depending on how electrical grids are powered.

Further, electric cars might not have clean energy roots. That’s due in part to the majority of lithium-ion batteries – used in plug-in hybrids and pure electrics – being produced in countries like China, Thailand and Germany, which are powered primarily by coal.

(RELATED: Could the electric vehicles of tomorrow be powered by lithium from supervolcanoes?)

According to German auto management consultancy Berylls, the production of a car battery for SUVs that would weigh upwards of 500 kilogrammes might emit up to 74 per cent more carbon dioxide, than an efficient conventional car if made in a factory powered by fossil fuels in a place like Germany.

In Singapore, where most power needs are supplied by natural gas, the environment cost of charging will be lower than vehicles charged in China or Germany but would pale in comparison to a country like France, which is powered mostly by nuclear energy, and Norway, which gets the vast majority of its power via hydro-electric means.

Adding dimension to the debate is the push by governments the world over to reduce localised pollution, and the creation of low or no emission zones has challenged automotive engineers to comply with ever-tougher legislations.

This, Audi’s Mr Mannering explains, has also meant auto manufacturers have continued to work towards making existing technologies cleaner and more efficient. “In terms of propulsion technology, the combustion engine concept continues to be refined,” he says. “New generation of engines are more efficient than ever before, while offering more performance, so we expect to see the technology around for some time.

“Even as the EVs are receiving much attention in the media, there’s still plenty of development in the world of combustion engines and they will continue to offer very strong competition in the market.”


The electric spectrum

Electrification of a mass-market production model arguably began in 1997 with the first generation of the Toyota Prius, a model synonymous with petrol-hybrid cars. Such cars – also known as mild hybrids – use more than one means of propulsion, combining a petrol or diesel engine with an electric motor, with the combustion engine charging up its electric counterpart.

In the past five years, consumers have been increasingly acquainted with mild hybrids like the Toyota Sienta and Honda Vezel, models frequently used as private hire cars for their better mileage. The Prius is equally popular among private hires and taxi companies in Singapore.

The other main variant of the hybrid engine has a plug-in feature, which is essentially an additional rechargeable battery that allows the user to charge the car separately, unlike the mild hybrid. Lastly, there is the battery-powered electric or pure electric, which uses electric motors and motor controllers instead of internal combustion engines for propulsion – no gas needed.

(RELATED: BMW launches world’s first wireless charging system for hybrid vehicles)

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: SPH