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How government can help expedite entry of electric cars

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Last week, I attended the global launch of the second-generation Nissan Leaf in Japan. As Filipino journalists were invited to the event, I won’t fault you for assuming that the world’s best-selling all-electric car is on the way to our market. I hate to burst that bubble, but no, it isn’t.

As you read this, there isn’t even an official facility to accommodate fully electric private cars. Electric public-utility transport vehicles have been allowed on our roads, but we have yet to see a single legitimately registered private EV. Save for Manuel V. Pangilinan’s Tesla Model S and perhaps a handful of demo units used by industry players, these environment-friendly movers remain an electric dream in a country notorious for expensive electricity.

So, when might Nissan Philippines bring in the Leaf? The company’s president and managing director, Ramesh Narasimhan, allowed an almost imperceptible smile that looked like both optimism and despondence. “Before we could even think of selling the Leaf, the country needs to first address the basic challenges of motoring,” he pointed out.

Those challenges — typical observations in the eyes of an expatriate living in Metro Manila — are the lack of driver education, overpopulation (in the National Capital Region) and the abysmal infrastructure. I gather that what Mr. Narasimhan was saying is this: Until the Philippines fixes these motoring problems, car companies won’t even entertain inquiries about their electric offerings.

Not that Nissan Philippines has any to begin with. The executive answered in the negative when asked if his dealership network had relayed to him any customer interest in the Leaf. “No, not really,” he replied matter-of-factly. “But our desire to bring the car in doesn’t depend on market demand, but on our belief that it’s truly good for everyone.”

It’s easy to see why electric cars fail to stir any excitement in a nation obsessed with digital and wireless devices. The Philippines still doesn’t have the two crucial requirements needed to make EV models moderately accepted in any market. “For an electric car to be viable, you need government incentives and infrastructure,” stressed Nissan Thailand president Antoine Barthes, who made Filipino journalists drool (and their Thai counterparts rejoice) by announcing that the all-new Leaf was coming to Thailand.

Without incentives or tax breaks from government, green vehicles will be unreasonably prohibitive alongside conventionally powered cars. A smallish Toyota Prius C hybrid hatchback already costs P1.65 million, and it doesn’t even have fully electric propulsion. For that price, I’d get two units of the Nissan Juke instead. To hell with hydrocarbons.

Also, we still don’t have accessible charging stations for EVs. Meralco showed off a prototype four years ago, and Bonifacio Global City has installed a couple of EV charging slots in one of its green buildings, but that’s about it. Sure, the new Leaf now has a single-charge driving range of 400 kilometers, but with the kind of traffic gridlock we have in Metro Manila, we will need charging stations located at Jollibee parking lots to make it through a workweek.

But even without these two requirements for now, government can already start preparing Filipinos for the arrival of electric cars with something as simple as an awareness campaign. There already exists a group called Electric Vehicle Association of the Philippines, which has been relentlessly lobbying government agencies for a concrete EV framework, but lawmakers need to match the group’s enthusiasm.

“The government has to show the way,” Mr. Narasimhan told me. “They can begin with the airport, for instance. Make the airport fleet all-electric. Make it an EV showcase for everyone to see. Or the President can make Davao City an EV hub. You can’t accomplish anything with just 10 units or so running around here and there. People want to see real-world results in concentrated areas.”

To be fair to the Philippine government, overall global EV acceptance isn’t that high either. With the exception of the United States, Japan and some European countries, electric vehicles continue to struggle popularity-wise next to regular cars equipped with internal-combustion engines. I asked Nissan Motor Company executive Daniele Schillaci, in charge of global marketing and sales for the automaker’s zero-emission vehicles, how many more years before EVs are widely embraced by car buyers around the world. “The tipping point will be around 2025,” he estimated.

That’s still eight years from now. Plenty of time for our politicians to stop their petty squabbles and start laying the groundwork for an EV future.

You may e-mail the author at vbsarne@visor.ph.

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