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Who is winning the EV race in Asean?

POSTED BY Yamin Vong ON 30 March 2018

Photos supplied by Charnchai Petchin

There are only three contenders in the race to be an electric vehicle (EV) hub among Asean member countries. While Thailand is in the lead, Malaysia might possibly make up for lost time, whereas Singapore can snatch the prize without manufacturing a single car.

A visit to the 39th Bangkok International Motor Show (BIMS), which is on till April 8, proved Thailand has a clear lead in the race to hatch an EV industry.

The prize is the wealth and competitive advantage gained from the convergence of three global disruptors:

  1. popularity of EVs
  2. growth of ride-hailing/car-sharing services
  3. the possibility of creating autonomous vehicle

Volvo Car Sweden has made Malaysia its regional PHEV hub and it would be interesting to see how the industry grows.

A prototype of a made-and-developed in Thailand five-seater passenger battery/electric car was conspicuously positioned on the front ranks of pavilions in the Challenger Hall of BIMS. The ready-for-production prototype is the result of a joint-venture between Mine Mobility Research Co. Ltd and Energy Absolute Public Co. Ltd (EA), a public-listed company on the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET).

One of three prototypes, the C-segment passenger car with a 200-250km range will be the first to be ramped up for commercial production by next year.

“We’re planning to have a pre-launch – proof of concept – at the end of the year and ramp up one model for manufacturing by next year,” said 50-year-old Wanswad Prinyawat, technical director of Mine Mobility.

“Our price point will be one million Thai Baht (roughly RM124,000). The mass of our Thai automotive market is below the one-million-baht point and we want that mass market,” Prinyawat continued.

A mechanical engineering graduate from Chulalongkorn University, Prinyawat said that his R&D company had developed the three prototypes before teaming up with EA (a biodiesel producer, solar and wind energy utility company) for the commercialisation of Mine Mobility next year, making it the first Thai EV.

The EV for commercial launch will employ a traction motor from China and a battery pack from Taiwan that will allow it to run between 200 and 300km depending on driving condition and load.

“We know that there is a range anxiety. To overcome this, we already have about 300 charging points distributed radially within Bangkok and its suburbs. We will have 1,000 charging points by the end of the year,” said Prinyawat.

In addition to the Mine Mobility exhibition, we were surprised at the traction EVs had gained in Thailand in recent years.

There were four EV manufacturers exhibiting at BIMS – two Japanese JVs with small EVs, battery-maker turned upstart auto EV company BYD from China and EA itself.

BYD displayed its BYD e6 at THB1.89 million (RM235,000) with expected delivery within two months. The BYD e6 is a pure-electric D-segment MPV with seating for five and a maximum range of 400km.

The BYD e6 is widely adopted as a taxi in Shenzhen, China. BYD is so confident of itself that it also put a Tesla on display, confusing some people who thought that BYD had displayed a fake Tesla, or ripped off a Tesla design as its own.

Fortunately, it was a Tesla with an unmistakable Tesla badge.

In comparison, Malaysia’s EV market is somewhat of a still-born. Edaran Tan Chong had brought in a batch of EVs from Renault – the Zoe and a two-seater Twizy – and Nissan’s Leaf but the company had only managed to sell the last unit after two years.

This translates to approximately only 500 EVs sold to date in Malaysia in comparison to about one million cars sold over the same 2016-2017 period in Thailand.

The Malaysian EV market is doomed and the way forward in Industrial Revolution 4.0 looks dim unless the National Automotive Policy (NAP) is strategically revised.

The re-draft must take a bottom up approach to promote the EV industry. This means that the policy should let car buyers decide what car to buy and let the brand owners compete for the market.

The Malaysia Automotive Institute’s focus should be to convince the government that the EV market needs to be nurtured.

Fortunately for vehicle distributors in Malaysia, duty-free cars get traction amongst the upper-middle class. This can be seen with the appetite for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) from Volvo, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Brisk sales of PHEVs justified Volvo Car Sweden’s foreign direct investments to not only locally assemble the XC90 PHEV in Malaysia but make the country its PHEV hub for the region.

The new NAP should allow duty-free imports of EVs for five years, at the end of which, those that have achieved a certain degree of localisation will be allowed another five years of fiscal benefits, if not subsidies.

Therefore, the NAP should also clarify and assist in enabling metal engineering companies to build an electric vehicle and obtain vehicle-type-approval (VTA) at a rate that is competitive to Thailand’s.

The beauty of the EV industry for young companies operating in countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia is that they do not have the baggage of internal car engines.

At present, even a utility power company can build an EV from components produced by Continental AG, Bosch, Siemens, and a host of Chinese companies including BYD and yes, Zhejiang Geely.

Revising the road traffic laws with the inclusion of the Transport Ministry’s and the AG’s Chambers to open the way for autonomous driving and legal liabilities will be the third plank of the new NAP expected to be launched later this year.

Malaysian policy makers should note that Mercedes-Benz has already decided to make battery power packs for its PHEVs in Thailand.

On the autonomous vehicle narrative, Singapore has the lead with its pilot one-square-mile test with US self-driving start-up NuTonomy.

Vanda Electrics launched its super EV, Dendrobium, with a 1,000hp electric motor at last year’s Geneva Motor Show.

However, the pride of coming up with its own autonomous vehicles that will be the main prize for all the major car companies.

Despite the first fatality caused by an autonomous car, the United States, England, and just this week, China, have opened the doors to pilot testing of robo-cars in defined areas.

What if Malaysia introduced the laws that would allow autonomous car testing in upmarket areas such as Cyberjaya and Forest City in Johor?

That would certainly make Malaysia a lucrative and interesting place for manufacturers such as Geely and BYD to explore.

The key economic driver in the Southeast Asian region is the automotive industry. Among Asean member countries, Malaysia kickstarted the move for national cars with Proton in 1985 by partnering Mitsubishi Motor Corporation.

After the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997/98 when Japanese car companies bought Thai assets at firesale prices, Thailand has since surged ahead as the Detroit of Asia.

Can Malaysia retake the lead in the Asean automotive industry and should it attempt to do so?

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