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How Singapore And Malaysia Can Lead the World in EV Adoption


Electric vehicles (EVs) are all the rage these days, with sales going up every year and ambitious goals set by both manufacturers and governments to phase out petrol cars from production in as little as 10 years.

The United Kingdom is planning to ban all petrol and diesel cars by 2030. Chinese-owned Volvo wants to go all-electric by 2030, while Jaguar — the more ambitious one — is intending to only offer battery-powered cars by 2025.

Although it seems that the EV revolution is really just around the corner, but it is not so simple. 

In a dissenting voice, Toyota has toned down the optimism warning that before electric cars can make a meaningful dent in the market, much has to be done in terms of infrastructural investment and energy generation.

You can’t just replace millions of cars on the roads today without providing them means of recharging in a quick, reliable way — and you have to produce enough electricity to power them.

Some projections, assuming complete electrification of cars in the United States (US) as well as greater and greener electrification of the industry predict demand for power to surge by 90 per cent by 2050. In more optimistic scenarios, with lower adoption, we can expect it to go up by about 35 per cent.

US electricity demand 2050
Image credit: Quartz / qz.com

In other words, EV adoption — despite best intentions — is going to face some major obstacles, as dozens of new power generation facilities will have to be built, with both the grid and charging station network having to follow suit.

These infrastructural needs are enormously difficult to achieve in most countries, as they occupy large landmasses with car users traveling long-distances to various — often remote — locations either domestically (like in the US) or abroad (like in the EU).

Perfect Breeding Grounds For EVs

What it means is that for EVs to be really viable, there has to be sufficient coverage of necessary infrastructure; or else car-towing companies are going to have a booming business saving stranded drivers.

There are, however, a few places which are populous, developed and small enough to serve as perfect breeding grounds for the EV industry like South Korea, Taiwan as well as the Malay Peninsula, which is home to the populous Western Malaysia and the city-state of Singapore.

50 million South Koreans live, effectively, on an island, given the shut and hostile border with the North. The only travel they can undertake by car is across their own country which is 400km long and 280km wide — within the useful range of many modern EVs.

Taiwan, on the other hand, is an actual island. It is one-third the size of South Korea with 24 million inhabitants squeezed along its 350km long western coast between Taipei and Kaohsiung, and is already incentivising a switch to electricity among its largely scooter-dependent citizens.

singapore and malaysia
Woodlands Causeway to Singapore from Johor / Image Credit: Edgar Su via Reuters

Finally, an even better location may be the devoutly car-dependent Malaysia and the approximate six million city-state of Singapore at the southern tip of the peninsula. Together, they have a population of roughly 32 million people, nestled along the 700km long eastern shores of the Malacca Strait and the North-South Expressway.

Country Area Of Coverage Population
South Korea 400km long and 280km wide 50 million
Taiwan 395km long and 145km wide 24 million
West Malaysia
Singapore
748km long and 322km wide
27km long and 50km wide
26 million
5 million

EVs are technologically superior to petrol cars. With fewer moving parts, there are less to go wrong. They are also quiet, even though their motors deliver near-instant high torque allowing for quick acceleration, which is typically found in higher-end petrol vehicles. They also do not release any pollution directly, enabling quieter cities and cleaner air.

However, for all their advantages, there are a few major obstacles to their adoption:

  1. Sufficient Range – which can drop more quickly in cold or hot weather.
  2. Charging time – even with superchargers, it can take 30 minutes to an hour to get up to 80 per cent charge.
  3. Availability of quick charging points – how far you may need to drive to recharge the car.
  4. Price – EVs are typically two to three times more expensive than traditional competitors.

Unsurprisingly, three out of four of the above revolve around the primary function of a car: reliable, quick transportation.

Can We Drive EVs From Singapore To Malaysia?

Range anxiety is a real psychological phenomenon and journeys in EVs typically have to be well-planned to account for charging breaks along the way.

If you conk out away from a charging station it is, at best, a few hours wait to at least partly recharge the car if you have access to a socket somewhere, or at worst, a journey aboard a tow-truck.

Fortunately, carmakers are improving their products regularly, with many mainstream models already achieving 200 to 250 miles (or around 300 to 400 kilometres) of real-life range.

Therefore, journeys between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore or Penang could be made without the need to stop on the way. Driving about 500km to the Thai border would take one stop, which you would typically need for a meal and toilet break anyway. 

In other words, most locations in Malaysia and Singapore could be reached in a single non-stop journey in a mainstream EV.

Straight-line distance from Kuala Lumpur
Straight-line distance from Kuala Lumpur / Image Credit: Google Maps
Straight-line distance from Kuala Lumpur
Straight-line distance from Kuala Lumpur / Image Credit: Google Maps

This means that battery-powered cars can already be used for nationwide travel, provided there’s sufficient infrastructure on the way.

More Charging Stations Needed

Since carmakers have done their jobs, providing us with far more useful vehicles than a few years ago, the ball is now with the lawmakers and governments to follow up with necessary support and investments to help the technology go mainstream.

Fortunately, similarly to Taiwan, the population of the Malay peninsula is concentrated on its western coast, along the North-South Expressway leading into Singapore. There are only a few roads crossing to the much smaller cities in the east, which means infrastructural needs to provide decent coverage of charging stations in Malaysia are relatively low.

You’re rarely more than 20 to 30 kilometres from NSE, which is the logistical spine of the country, and additional charging points catering to more remote locations would not be an enormous undertaking due to the lower road density.

In other words, the choice of routes is limited, which makes it easy to place facilities at critical points to cater to many motorists. Unlike in Europe or America where you can travel hundreds of miles in every direction and find yourself in many very remote locations desperate for a socket, much of the peninsula is still covered with forests and roads are few.

As you can see on the maps below, the vast majority of population and road traffic happens along the western coast, from Singapore up to Penang and further into Kedah and Perlis. It is a relatively limited and well-connected area, which could be well-served by modernised power grid.

malaysia map
(Left) Nitrogen dioxide pollution, (indicating combustion engine use), Mar-Apr 2019 (Right) Major roads on Malay Peninsula / Source: ThinkCity.com.my

In these conditions, it is much easier to provide enough coverage of charging services to make EVs useful alternatives to traditional petrol cars. You could reliably use them from cross-country journeys without the dread of range anxiety, knowing that you can never really go far enough from the next fast charging point.

Having to wait 30 to 60 minutes is still an inconvenience of course, but it is, in many cases, doable — especially if the wait is combined with other activities.

During long journeys, it could be — as I mentioned — a necessary break. In cities, on the other hand, given the shopping mall-heavy culture of the local population, more and more parking spaces could come equipped with fast charging points.

300 to 400km range on a single charge would be more than enough in urban traffic, with stops to “refuel” at a public place once every few days, while you’re out doing your groceries. It’s hardly a painful compromise.

Eliminating compromises is necessary to drive adoption of any new technology. People understand and accept higher prices for novel solutions, but they cannot be less practical than the status quo.

Progress cannot come at a price of convenience, especially if the drawbacks hit the core function of the product. In this case: quick, reliable, long-distance travel. What good is a car if you can’t depend on it for that? And why would you pay more for something that gives you less than what you already have?

Buying an EV today is a statement of both wealth and certain moral superiority that comes with driving a vehicle that doesn’t emit pollution (at least not directly). It’s a similar effect Toyota Prius had upon its release, when it was widely purchased by rich celebrities, actors, entertainers to parade their care for the planet. However, for battery-powered cars to make sense to everybody else, they have to be — at the very least — not worse or less functional than what people drive today.

Everything Depends on Malaysia

The future of EVs on the peninsula is really dependent on decisions made in Putrajaya and KL.

Singapore has already announced its intent to phase out all petrol vehicles within the next 20 years by 2040, but it’s not going to happen if the bigger neighbour is lagging with infrastructure to charge EVs, since cross-border road traffic is very high. Malaysia is really the only destination that Singaporeans drive to.

As a result, buying a new car in the city-state is going to include consideration of possible commutes north — and if it is difficult to recharge your batteries there, more buyers are going to stick to traditional cars instead.

malaysia EV charging stations
Malaysia has over 200 charging points already, but they are not fast enough for full EVs / Image Credit: chargev.my

Malaysia started developing its EV infrastructure a few years ago, but so far, it has only provided low-wattage chargers suitable for PHEV (Plug-in Hybrids) — not complete EVs charging — which would take a few hours.

Last year, fast charging points were announced along NSE but significantly more has to be done to make EVs a viable option in the country.

Fairly straightforward political decisions can make or break the EV industry for both Malaysia and Singapore. They are very well-positioned to become rapid adopters — and even global leaders — thanks to highly favourable conditions. At the same time, however, lack of commitment — particularly on Malaysian side — can stall progress in both.

Political turmoil following the elections in 2018 and subsequent collapse of the government in 2020, coupled with the pandemic, have certainly not helped decision-making. Hesitation can cost Malaysia dearly (and hurt Singapore in the process), especially since it has a fairly large domestic car industry, which could benefit from a switch to new technologies (if not save itself from a future collapse). As it is, however, other countries — like Thailand (or even Indonesia) — are attracting more investment, even if their conditions are far less favourable for nationwide electrification of road vehicles.

It is not too late to catch up yet, but the Malaysian government has to establish clear goals first and commit to them. Otherwise, it may end up being one of the country’s (notorious for its terribly polluting traffic jams) wasted chances to benefit from the largest shift in car manufacturing since the introduction of Ford’s Model T — and make a global mark in the process.

After decades of trying to build a great national car, Malaysia has the opportunity for real impact in the global automotive industry.

Hand in hand with Singapore it could become not only a regional but a world leader in the adoption of the new technology. The window of opportunity, however, is closing fast.

Featured Image Credit: Vulcan Post





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