SINGAPORE (June 18): Elon Musk, the American billionaire entrepreneur who is revolutionising transport in space and on the ground through Space X and Tesla respectively, caused a minor stir here recently. In a tweet on May 26, Musk effectively accused Singapore of being unsupportive of electric vehicles (EVs). The Straits Times then published an open letter by its senior transport correspondent in defence, calling out Tesla for relying on subsidies and writing that the company should make its cars cheaper. “Even your latest Model 3 — supposedly a more affordable model — is beyond the budget of most non-millionaires after options are added,” wrote Christopher Tan on June 2.

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Musk later countered in a tweet: “The results speak for themselves. Singapore is a very prosperous city and yet has very few electric cars.” He also added: “Why have policies that promote a combustion vehicle fleet in a dense city environment?”

The tweetstorm has thrown the spotlight on a seeming paradox. As at April 30, there were 353 EVs on the roads in Singapore, out of a total of 611,939 vehicles. That is barely 0.06% of the total vehicle population. Only seven of those EVs are privately owned cars. And, three of those are Tesla Model S. Yet, the 700 sq km city state has committed itself to sustainable development, declared 2018 as the year for “climate action”, and billed itself as a test bed for technology and solutions to address urban issues of congestion and pollution, among other things.

On its part, the Land Transport Authority has stressed the objective in Singapore is to achieve a “car-lite” society. That means focusing on public transport infrastructure. “To achieve this, LTA has been working hard to build new rail lines and improve the reliability of our existing rail network, enhance bus services and strengthen our active mobility infrastructure,” says an LTA spokesperson. Walter Theseira, senior lecturer and transport economist at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), says in respect of carbon emissions, government support in the form of spending and other incentives should be towards EVs that are used as public transport such as buses, rather than subsidising private electric car ownership. He questions the effectiveness of government subsidies to stimulate demand for EVs, which tend to be priced higher than most vehicles.

See: Electric car-sharing programme hits Singapore roads

See: Freeze in COE growth leaves room for push towards shared mobility

“Let’s be frank about it. What Elon Musk and other electric vehicle entrepreneurs have benefited from is tax benefits for the rich. EVs everywhere are bought by the well-off, not the poor, and not even really the middle class,” Theseira says.

A cleaner option

The drive towards EVs stems from growing commitment to combat pollution and global warming caused by rising numbers of fossil fuel vehicles. Electric cars run on batteries, rechargeable at so-called plug-in stations, and therefore are technically emission-free and cheaper to operate than petrol vehicles. The best EVs are quiet, run smoothly and have the longest range of up to 300km before requiring a charge.

In 2009, the Singapore government set up a “task force” comprising eight government agencies to study the adoption of EVs here. A test bed was run for three years, from 2010. According to an LTA fact sheet put out in 2010, EV motors are “more than twice as efficient” as conventional petrol and diesel internal combustion engines. The EV system is also able to recover part of the energy expended during braking. LTA also states that EVs charged using electricity from renewable energy sources such as solar and wind “have virtually zero well-to-wheel carbon emissions”, referring to the total environmental impact from the extraction of the fuel to the point of use.

Importantly, analysts say, zero emissions from car tailpipes do not equate to zero carbon emissions.

The 2016 case regarding an imported, used Tesla Model S from Hong Kong illustrates this point. Its owner endured a month-long regulatory ordeal and ended up paying a $15,000 tax surcharge instead of enjoying a rebate offered under the Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS).

Under the CEVS, purchases of cars with lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, or 95g per km, could have received up to $30,000 in rebates. But LTA determined the imported Tesla to have emissions of 222g per km, to account for CO2 emissions produced by the electricity- generation process.

“Advocates of EVs’ ‘zero emissions’ unfortunately ignore that electricity generation in most countries still uses carbon-emitting sources, so it would be unrealistic to claim that the EV has zero carbon impact (although it certainly has zero emissions in other areas),” says SUSS’ Theseira. The bulk of electricity in Singapore is still generated by natural gas, although there is a growing pool of solar-generated power.

Since Jan 1, the CEVS has been replaced by the Vehicular Emissions Scheme (VES) that assesses cars on four more pollutants — hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Rebates for private cars are also capped at $20,000. LTA has also cut the carbon emission factor of electric cars by 20%, to 0.4g of CO2 per watt-hour, from 0.5g previously. The new scheme appears unfavourable, even for cars with low carbon emissions. According to examples on the National Environment Agency’s website, a Toyota Prius Hybrid enjoyed rebates of $30,000 under the CEVS, but may get nothing under VES.

The revisions do not take into account if the engines are electric or fossil-fuel. “What matters is how much effective pollution [the vehicle] generates along the measured dimensions. I think this is the right approach because it creates a level playing field,” says Theseira.

Limitations

The lack of subsidies aside, EVs have fewer parts than traditional combustion-engine cars, translating into lower maintenance costs. Furthermore, the cost of electricity is lower per kilometre relative to petrol. So, while EVs tend to be more expensive, the longer-term running costs tend to be lower, says Paul Welsford, vice-president of the Electric Vehicles Association of Singapore. But, it seems the lack of accessible chargers for EVs here could be affecting demand. Drivers are concerned their cars would run out of juice and stall in the middle of a highway before they can get to a charging station. Car owners in the US, for instance, would typically have private, individual garages in which to park and charge an electric car overnight. By contrast, the bulk of Singapore’s population lives and works in high-rise buildings, and cars are crammed into basements and multi- storey car parks.


Tesla’s supercharger network was recently updated to include planned locations, with charging stations added in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. But in Singapore, there are still no plans for a Tesla charging point.

Terence Fan, assistant professor of strategic management at the Singapore Management University (SMU), calls the charging infrastructure issue a classic chicken-and-egg situation. If there are more EVs on the road, naturally, there will be more charging points installed. Tesla’s supercharger network was recently updated to include planned locations, with charging stations added in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. But in Singapore, there are still no plans for a Tesla charging point.

There are charging facilities here, but they are mostly for the fleet of electric taxis and shared cars. HDT Singapore operates an all-electric fleet of 100 taxis, while French transport company Bollore operates an electric car sharing scheme, BlueSG.

According to HDT Singapore managing director James Ng, the taxis’ charging stations cost $20,000 each to install. There are 10 stations across the island for its fleet.

Meanwhile, when Bollore won the tender to operate an electric car sharing service here for 10 years, it agreed to take “full responsibility” for developing an islandwide public charging infrastructure with 2,000 charging points. Since its December launch, BlueSG has expanded from 80 vehicles and 32 charging stations to 120 vehicles and 54 stations as at Feb 28. It has also signed up more than 9,000 members. BlueSG’s target is to have 1,000 cars and 500 charging stations (with a total of 2,000 charging points) by 2020.

But, according to Welsford, the major gripe among car owners here is actually the lack of options. Although nearly all the major automobile manufacturers produce EVs today, there are only three EV models sold via mainstream dealers: the Hyundai Ionic, the BMW i3 and the Renault Zoe. “A lot of the EVs are coming in either via parallel import, or imported as part of fleets,” says Welsford. He agrees that some drivers buy EVs because they like to wave the green flag. Still, there are others lured by performance. Teslas, for instance, can pick up at a “ridiculous” pace like a “supercar”.

The way Theseira sees it, the government is reluctant to invest heavily in charging infrastructure before demand is clear. “Charging standards are still evolving, and market acceptance of EVs [even with charging] is unclear,” he says.

Car-lite, not car type

So, is it really the limited government support and infrastructure that is stifling growth of EVs here?

In January, Frost and Sullivan released a study commissioned by Nissan on the future of EVs in Southeast Asia. In it, only 23% of respondents in Singapore intended to buy an EV as their next car. This is lower than the Southeast Asian average of 37%. Singapore respondents still see government incentives as a key motivator for the purchase of EVs, along with better safety standards and charging flexibility and convenience, according to the authors of the study.

Is it still early days for EVs? It took a while for the earlier innovation, hybrid engines, to really take off. Toyota debuted the Prius 21 years ago, but it was only in 2006 that hybrid cars started to gain ground. In 2006, there were 379 hybrid cars here. That surged to 1,057 the next year. As at April 30, there were 21,820 hybrids, making up 3.5% of the car population. Plug-in hybrids, where the battery can be charged from an external source, are also gaining more traction, with 232 cars plying the roads as at April 30. LTA acknowledges that while EVs are not “truly emissions-free”, they tend to be quieter than conventional vehicles, and tailpipe emissions are omitted. This “makes for a better living environment in a dense city like Singapore”, a spokesperson says.

So should LTA be doing more to encourage EV usage? “The island is land-scarce and cars represent a poor utilisation of the limited roadways, compared with buses and trains,” says SMU’s Fan. “Whether a car is driven by petrol or electricity does not change the fact that it would lead to a relatively inefficient use of the limited road space here.”

SUSS’ Theseira has a similar view, saying: “If the goal is car-lite, that to me suggests that less policy thought and money should be put into shaping the car market, and more into public transport and active mobility.” However, he adds: “If cars are here to say in Singapore, they might as well be cars that are the least polluting.”

This article appeared in Issue 835 (June 18) of The Edge Singapore, which is available at newsstands now.

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