Little interest here for Singapore's first electric car

Ng Jun Sen, The New Paper AsiaOne 16 Oct 16;

Think sleek electric cars and the American Tesla models come to mind.

But there are people here slaving over a made-in-Singapore electric vehicle (EV) too.

The EVA, Singapore's first electric car which was designed to be a taxi, took four years of toil and innovation to create.

When the prototype was launched in 2015, talks to commercialise the vehicle began.

It's a dream come true for Singaporean researcher Raymond Khoo, 30, who describes the EVA as his proudest achievement.

He remembers when it existed only as a pen-drawn concept on paper in 2012.

The mechanical engineering masters graduate says: "With no automobile courses in Singapore, creating the EVA has been very difficult.

"I had to read books outside of my field and teach myself about automotive design online.

"It is simply the biggest project that I've ever worked on. This is our flagship product."

There is growing global interest in EVs and a growing market led by companies like Tesla and BMW.

In Singapore, a local electric car manufacturer is currently pumping in millions to create an EV, but not for the Singapore market. (See report, below.)

For all the hard work Mr Khoo and his team of 120 researchers put into EVA, there are still no takers - taxi companies, car manufacturers or budding entrepreneurs with the means - to put it into mass production.

This despite Singapore being touted by transport experts as the "perfect test bed" for EVs due to its small size and tech-savvy people.


Today, the EVA sits idle in the TUM Create's Automotive Lab at the National University of Singapore's University Town.

TUM Create is a collaborative research platform between Nanyang Technological University and Germany's Technische Universitat Munchen, and is funded by the National Research Foundation Singapore.

Occasionally, Mr Khoo will show interested visitors or researchers the EVA and demonstrate its capabilities as an electric taxi.

Essentially, it is designed in Singapore, built in Singapore and meant for the local market.

The EVA is by no means a failed project for its creators - it is still a platform for further research and development work.

A TUM Create spokesman says: "The EVA taxi is primarily conceived as a research outcome and a platform for testing and showcasing technology and new ideas. EVA has impressed and attracted a lot of automotive interest around the world.

"It is important to understand that starting automotive manufacturing and commercialisation of an electric taxi like EVA in Singapore is a complex issue, involving a large investment with an uncertain sale volume."

Taxi operator uses only electric vehicles

HDT Singapore launched its initial fleet of 10 electric taxis last week, becoming the newest taxi operator in Singapore and the first to use only electric vehicles (EVs), despite their higher initial costs.

The company hopes to launch its full implementation next January, with more cars and charging stations around the island.

HDT's managing director James Ng, 44, says the journey has not been easy.

For now, the company can charge its vehicles at any of the 26 charging stations located near HDT's office in Jalan Pemimpin in Bishan.

These stations are not locked away in a private compound but are placed beside public roads.

Mr Ng tells TNPS: "Part of the agreement was to build these stations in public so that anybody can use them."

A pricing and payment model is still being worked out, so only HDT vehicles can use these stations for now.

HDT bore the full cost of building these stations, paying around $20,000 for each station.

While the Government could have paid for what would become a publicly-used service, Mr Ng says the company had no time to wait for it to happen.

"We needed the charging stations so that our taxi operations can work," says Mr Ng.

HDT intends to have one charging station for every three to four EVs. Each full charge takes about 1.5 hours and gives the taxis a 300km range.

The company is affiliated with Shenzhen-based battery and automaker BYD and HDT's fleet of 10 taxis are all made by the Chinese manufacturer.

HDT also has a fleet of 30 BYD e6 saloon cars - the same model used by the HDT taxis - meant for car rentals primarily for Grab drivers.

Mr Ng declines to share how much has been invested into HDT's taxi operations so far, except that it is a large sum.

"It is an expensive ongoing experiment, but we are confident that it will work," says Mr Ng.

HDT is still looking for drivers to join them and interested parties can call 6258-8888.

Take-up rate here still low

As of June, there were only 120 electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles here, according to data from the Land Transport Authority.

It is a paltry figure compared to other nations like Norway, the Netherlands, US and China. In Norway, there are 21.5 electric cars per 1,000 people - the highest in the world.

Some may see the figures as an indication that there is little interest or viability in electric vehicles (EVs), but HDT Singapore's James Ng, disagrees.

Mr Ng, who is the company's managing director, says: "The world's crude oil will eventually run out. Ultimately, we hope that one day, every vehicle in Singapore will be electric."

HDT's concept is similar to EVA as both vehicles target the taxi industry instead of private car ownership. It makes more financial sense as taxis typically have high daily mileage.

Currently, EVs are comparatively more expensive than their internal combustion engine counterparts because of the formulae used to calculate the carbon emission-based vehicle scheme rebates and road taxes.

More returns

Mr Ng says: "While the initial cost of an EV is high, the running cost of a taxi is really just the cost of electricity. The longer the taxi runs, the more returns we get.

"We believe that this model is viable in Singapore."

Each HDT taxi saves an average of $15 per day compared to a normal taxi, he adds.

Ms Larissa Tan, CEO of Vanda Electrics, also believes that the future is electric.

Ms Tan says: "Whether Singapore is ready or not for EVs depends greatly on the infrastructure. The Government is doing its part and there has been a large effort to push out more EV charging stations, which does help.

"But we are still slow on the uptake. Singapore has a very conservative approach when it comes to adopting EVs."

During a Parliament sitting in May, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said that the Government plans to set up 2,000 EV charging points across Singapore.

The TUM Create spokesman says: "We believe we are approaching a turning point between electric and internal combustion engine vehicles, especially for high-use public vehicles.

"The Government is moving briskly to explore electric car sharing schemes and EV fleet operations."

This locally-made car is headed overseas

Singapore's first supercar, the electrically-powered Dendrobium, is designed by local firm Vanda Electrics and looks set to steal the show at next year's Geneva Motor Show.

But it is meant for the global market, not Singapore.

Singapore is still not ready for electric cars, says Vanda Electrics CEO Larissa Tan, 41.

"We are very proud of our Singaporean heritage, and no, we do not want to shy away from that identity," she tells TNPS at the company's Joo Koon office.

"But to market it here is a different situation altogether. When you look at electric vehicle figures in US, China or Europe, Singapore is nowhere near."

The company has around 20 staff members and is part of Wong Fong Engineering, a Singaporean family-run producer of truck-mounted cranes and other heavy machinery.

It has invested $10 million in the Dendrobium project so far and has been collaborating with Williams Advanced Engineering in the UK to produce the two-door, two-seater car by next March.

The Williams group of companies also has a Formula One team.

Vanda Electrics also produces the Motochimp bike and the Ant Truck utility vehicle, both of which are also powered by electricity.

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