S'pore turns to eco-vehicles, faces obstacles

Government taskforce aims to introduce electric vehicles next year, but industry watchers voice concerns about consumer mindset and suggest alternative solutions.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

SINGAPORE--The local government, through its various ministries and taskforces, is keen to expand the population of green or eco-friendly cars, particularly electric vehicles (EVs), cruising on Singapore roads.

Hybrids and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) vehicles are currently the preferred choices for green vehicles in the country, with 2,462 hybrids, 4,473 bi-fuel CNG and 26 pure CNG vehicles registered with the Singapore Land Transport Authority (LTA), according to the statutory board's September 2009 figures.

The Green Vehicle Rebate (GVR) scheme allows buyers here to enjoy a 40 percent rebate of the vehicle's Open Market Value (OMV) when they purchase an electric, hybrid or CNG car, and this has played a key role in urging many to convert to greener vehicles, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA). In an e-mail interview, a spokesperson from the government body added that the scheme has "facilitated the initial adoption of CNG vehicles as a cleaner alternative to diesel vehicles".

With regard to cost savings, Associate Professor Lee Der-Horng, a transport researcher at the National University of Singapore's Department of Civil Engineering, said: "The GVR scheme, while not ensuring price parity between green and conventional petrol cars, helps lower car cost and, when added to other savings like lower petrol consumption, would sway some car buyers to go for the eco-friendly cars."

Despite the rebates, however, such vehicles still make up less than 1 percent of the 900,727 vehicles on Singapore roads today.

In the local green vehicles spectrum, EVs are even further behind hybrids and CNG vehicles in terms of adoption. In fact, the technology is still being researched for use here. Based on the LTA's September 2009 figures, just five electric motorbikes are registered for use on local roads.

In addition, only one company has started making EVs available commercially in the Republic, where Singapore-based Zeco Systems distributes the German-made E-max electric scooters here. According to the vehicle's specifications, the higher capacity 110S is able to travel a distance of 70 to 90 kilometers on full charge, which takes two to four hours. Charging can be done at the company's five solar-powered EV charging stations known as Solar Greenlots.

Betting on EVs
To develop this technology further, the government set up a multi-agency taskforce, which was launched in May 2009 and is under the charge of the Energy Market Authority (EMA) and LTA. The taskforce oversees a testbed program for EVs to "examine infrastructure requirements and new business models arising from EVs". The initiative includes a US$14.3 million (S$20 million) funding scheme that is open to all interested car manufacturers and technology companies, where the monies can be used to support infrastructure development and testbeds.

Renault-Nissan, for one, has signed up to participate in the program. The auto manufacturer said it will supply EVs to the local market and share its knowledge of EVs to develop common standards.

"Singapore is a key priority as the geography of the country and the focus on environment issues can enable fast and strong development of electric cars," said Thierry Koskas, Renault's EV program director.

Asked about the timeframe for launching EVs in Singapore on a larger scale, the EMA taskforce said it is working closely with industry partners to develop the testbed program and plans to have the first batch of EVs on Singapore roads next year.

EVs face challenge to enter market
Lee, though, said he is "not very optimistic" about EV growth in the country, compared to hybrids and CNG-powered vehicles.

While Singapore's small land size, which leads to relatively short travelling distances, means the country has "the soil for growing EV usage", he noted that "consumer behavior and mindset" need to be changed before EVs are embraced locally. The country has a surface area of some 710.2 square kilometer.

"For example, when people buy cars, they don't just buy them to drive in Singapore. Many would want to drive up to Malaysia, too, and if they do not have the infrastructure to charge the EV, you'll only end up calling for the tow truck," he explained. "This is not the case for hybrids or CNG vehicles," said Lee, noting drivers would "experience little or no change to their driving habits" when using a hybrid or CNG vehicle.

This is echoed by car owner, Khim Yap, who would choose a hybrid over the other two options because "CNG pump stations are too far" and "it's not feasible to run a charging cable down from my 24-storey flat". He also called for there to be tax incentives on road tax for green vehicle owners and more attractive rebates when purchasing eco-friendly vehicles.

Road tax is currently charged according to engine capacity. So, for vehicles with both the internal combustion engine (ICE) and electric engines, they are viewed as more powerful than convention ICE cars, and are taxed above its stated capacity.

According to Lee, this method of calculation is flawed as he now has to pay "30 per cent more" road tax for his 2.4-liter Toyota Estima hybrid, compared to a similar capacity ICE version.

Car buyers need eco-education
Besides cost and regulatory policies, environmental awareness is a key factor hindering the push for green vehicles here.

Lee views Singapore as a "regulated market" and this has caused "car buyers to link ownership only with money". To break away from this consumer mindset, he called for "more education on the importance of preserving the environment "through the cars we use".

Echoing his sentiments, Zeno Kerschbaumer, managing director of Volkswagen Group Singapore, said in an e-mail interview: "There is limited awareness about the environmental credentials of cars and car manufacturers in Singapore. The mandatory Fuel Economy Labelling Scheme, initiated by the NEA, is definitely a step in the right direction, but even more can be done to increase consumers' understanding in this area."

Kerschbaumer also called for the GVR scheme to be extended to include cars with particularly low fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, independent of the vehicle's drive technologies. He said this would encourage consumers to make "educated choices" when looking for a vehicle that is environment-friendly.

In an e-mail response, the NEA said: "Awareness of green cars is raised through platforms such as Clean and Green Singapore and Green Transport Week."

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