The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Why Electric Cars Aren’t Selling

by Christopher Shay

Hong Kong had its worst-ever year in terms of roadside pollution in 2010, according to government data. It also hosts the world’s highest traffic density, says the Clear the Air, a local antipollution organization. But despite rising concern over roadside pollution levels and a government campaign to get consumers and companies to adopt zero-emissions vehicles, electric cars aren’t yet creating much spark.

Mitsubishi, EuAuto and Tesla each offer an electric car to Hong Kong consumers to replace gasoline-powered ones, but so far, there have been few takers. As of Dec. 31, just 70 electric cars were registered in Hong Kong. Twenty-two of those are part of the government fleet and include electric golf cart-like vehicles. The other about 600,000 automobiles emit hazardous pollutants.

The government’s Environmental Protection Department says transport pollution accounts for 82% of Hong Kong’s carbon monoxide emissions. Furthermore, the University of Hong Kong released a Jan. 19 study linking low visibility due to air pollution to risk of mortality.

Charged Up

Even with record roadside pollution in 2010, only 70 electric cars were registered in Hong Kong as of Dec. 31. A look at some electric-vehicle options already on sale and some that are expected to hit mrakets.

Given Hong Kong’s escalating pollution problem, why aren’t people buying zero-emissions cars?

Even with tax breaks, an electric car costs two to three times as much as a comparable gasoline-powered car, says K.T. Chau, director of the University of Hong Kong’s International Research Centre for Electric Vehicles. Plus, the batteries need to be replaced after about four years, he says, and some estimates put the costs of a replacement battery pack at around US$15,000. The i-MiEV manufacturer hasn’t priced its replacement battery pack yet, so if something happens to it one is likely to get a whole new car, Mr. Lee says.

Peter Hills, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Kadoorie Institute, which promotes sustainability, and a member of the government’s Steering Committee on the Promotion of Electric Vehicles, says a mass switch from gasoline to electric cars isn’t likely to happen soon. “There’s not a great deal of evidence that Hong Kong consumers are willing to shift on a large scale to electric vehicles,” he says. “It’s going to take time.”

Hong Kong’s steep hills add to what Mr. Chau calls a “range anxiety problem.” Though many electric cars advertise being able to drive up to 160 kilometers on a full charge, Mr. Chau says Hong Kong’s mountains along with the use of air conditioning makes that range closer to about 100 kilometers, and “people won’t use the last 20 [kilometers],” he says. Until battery technology improves and people can drive further, “I don’t see significant growth in electric vehicles,” Mr. Chau says.

Indeed, electric vehicles are a nascent market across the globe. Plug-in America, a nonprofit advocacy group, estimates there are only about 3,000 highway-capable electric vehicles from major auto makers in the U.S. To encourage the adoption of plug-in cars, the White House proposed on Jan. 26 to change a tax credit to a US$7,500 cash rebate for electric cars and plug-in hybrids purchases. In London, the government has set a goal of having 100,000 electric vehicles on its roads by 2020 — roughly 5% of all vehicles registered in the city.

The Hong Kong government has set its sights even higher. In September, officials said they were aiming for 30% of privately owned cars in the city to be hybrid or electric by 2020. As such, the government is encouraging businesses and car-park owners to install at least 2,000 charging stations by 2013, setting up an electric infrastructure before the vehicles hit the roads in significant numbers. There are currently 265 stations across Hong Kong, says the Environment Bureau. On Jan. 21 it launched a hotline that provides installation information.

“Availability of charging facilities is critical to potential car owners in considering whether to take up an EV [electric vehicle],” says Eva Wong, a spokeswoman at the Environment Bureau.

The government has waived the first registration tax for electric vehicles until March 2014 to further promote the use of electric cars. For Hong Kong’s most popular electric vehicle, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV—a small four-door hatchback available for 395,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$50,700) —the tax waiver saves consumers HK$85,000, according to William Lee, senior marketing officer at Universal Cars Ltd., the Mitsubishi distributor in Hong Kong. Mr. Lee says he expects to sell between 30 and 50 i-MiEVs this year.

To boost visibility of electric cars, CLP Power, one of Hong Kong’s two electric utility companies, said on Jan. 20 it will lease five i-MiEVS to five corporations for a monthly fee of HK$7,500. The program, CLP hopes, will provide data for the company’s charging-infrastructure research and expose the public to more electric cars. Kerry Properties, for instance, one of the five companies participating in the program, will let residents of its Primrose Hill development in Tsuen Wan rent the i-MiEV for daily use.

The public will “gain practical experience driving and charging EVs without worrying about the pricing,” a CLP spokesman said.

Those who look to the hybrid-car market as an indicator of future electric vehicle sales say interest in eco-friendly vehicles is growing, even if it’s still modest. Last year, about 350 Toyota Prius units were sold; distributor Crown Motors says it expects another uptick this year. In total, there are about 2,200 Prius units in Hong Kong, about half a percent of the total number of registered private cars in the city. Other hybrid cars sold in Hong Kong include models made by Lexus, Porsche and Volkswagen, though the Prius has been on the market the longest.

Mr. Hills, at the Kadoorie Institute, is a Prius owner himself, and he says many drivers don’t actually need the longer range of a hybrid and that the current battery technology in electric vehicles is adequate for day-to-day driving. But he says electric vehicles lack one thing all the Jaguars and Mercedes in the city have: status.

“For Hong Kong drivers, a car represents more than just getting from A to B,” he says. “It is the cachet that goes with the car.”

Enter the Tesla Roadster, a HK$1.07 million all-electric sports car. Tesla doesn’t have a showroom in Hong Kong yet, but it quietly started selling its Roadster and Roadster Sport in Hong Kong last year. The two-seat Roadster Sport can accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.7 seconds, and Tesla says it has a range of nearly 400 kilometers.

Could it be the start of making an electric car a status symbol? Perhaps. Until then, electric-car manufacturers will continue adding more to the market: Detroit Electric’s five-seat electric car is expected to hit Hong Kong showrooms in the next four months and Nissan’s all-electric Leaf will be released in 2012.

Category: Article, Business, Environment, Science

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One Response

  1. Malcolm I'Anson says:

    I was the first non-large corporate to buy an iMiEV in Hong Kong (18 Aug 2010). It’s quite perfect for Hong Kong. But there are few places on earth where it would be of much use at all. First off, run the heater and you cut your mileage in half! So write off anywhere with a decent winter season (all of Europe, USA, Canada, most of Australia, S. Africa and most of South America). Any country on 110v, that’s 16 hours to charge it – disastrous. So, again, forget the States, Canada, even Japan, in reality. And anywhere people commonly commute large distances in large metropolises, again, the range is going to start to be a concern.

    So, while I repeat it’s a perfect vehicle for Hong Kong, it has no future on the world stage.

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