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Why the Philippines is lagging far behind in the transition to electric vehicles

As we ponder on the adoption of electro-mobility as the predominant form of powering transportation in this day and age, Shakespeare could not have said it any better when he had his character Hamlet question the necessity of his existence. This is this same line of questioning that we, in our environmentally challenged world, face today – should we or should we not embrace the now trending shift toward electrification?

The switch to Electric Vehicles, or EVs, has been mulled over since the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Arab Oil Embargo in 1973 showed the vulnerability of transportation’s dependence on oil and fuel. And in the 1990s, the then emerging call to arrest the effects of climate change kicked off a new wave of interest in EVs.

The Toyota Prius was the first mass-produced car to champion the possible future. With its internal combustion engine and battery hybrid powersource, the Prius gave the common man a taste of what electric-only mobility could offer. Since then, other mainstream brands have made their own foray into electric mobility. Most notable of which is Tesla, an American car company established to manufacture battery-powered electric vehicles.

In its various forms – hybrid, plug-in hybrid, extended-range, hydrogen fuel-cell and all-battery, the electric vehicle seems to be a promising solution to cut a country’s dependency on oil and gas, as well as to curb the problem of air pollution in urban centers.

A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2015 saw that when full life-cycles from manufacturing to end use of both gasoline and battery powered cars are compared, EVs account for only half the emissions that contribute to global warming versus a gasoline engine car. It further went on to state that despite the higher emissions produced during the manufacturing stage of EV batteries, EVs would eventually make up the difference in six to 18 months of driving.

We only need to recall what a city without emissions was like last year, during the first ECQ. Remember the awe you felt when you saw days of smog-free air and blue skies when there were no cars and buses on the road? Does that not convince us enough that vehicles without emissions is something we would certainly welcome?

Another benefit to EVs is their proven efficiency. According to the US Department of Energy website, www.fueleconomy.gov, EVs convert over 77% of the electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels. Compare this to the average 12 to 30% power that an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) can extract from gasoline, and it just becomes a no-brainer.

EVs also bring about a reduction of noise pollution as they run virtually silent. And for anyone who lives in the city, quiet streets are more than welcome.

For the car owner, it may also mean lower operating and maintenance costs, in theory. Nissan Philippines, in its website, claims that its Leaf battery-powered EV, with its fewer moving parts, translates to lower cost of ownership. Indeed, the drivetrain of a typical ICE vehicle consists of about 2,000 moving parts while an EV contains about 20. And add to that the savings from not filling up with fuel at the pump anymore, then we can get a clearer picture of the EV’s real world benefits.

After all these fact-driven revelations, the growing trend in various countries to switch to EVs and even some car manufacturers’ declarations themselves that they will cease production and sales of ICE-powered cars in the near future, why is it that in the Philippines, the adoption and transition to electric vehicles has not caught on?

According to Edmund Araga, president of the Electric Vehicle Association of the Philippines (EVAP), the Philippines has a total of 12,965 registered EVs from 2010 to 2020. This is composed mostly of locally-manufactured E-Trikes, E-Motorcycles, E-Jeepneys. E-Cars for the driving public have largely been non-existent, save for a few models sold by China-made BYD, Chery and Changan, along with Nissan, Hyundai, Audi, Porsche and Jaguar. There are also hybrids by Toyota and Mitsubishi. But even the cheapest battery EV car among this lot is already close to 2 million pesos. Quite prohibitive for the average Filipino car-buyer.

Aside from the obvious cost difference, the big elephant in the room preventing wide scale EV adoption is the lack of a quick-charging infrastructure. What good is an EV if it can not even get you to where you are going? Or worse, one that runs out of power without hope of a convenient and accessible charging spot? This has been one of the main hurdles preventing car companies from introducing new EVs into the market. And while brands like Nissan and Porsche are setting up their own charging stations, along with Unioil in selected gas stations, the reality is they are too few to alleviate the range anxiety an EV owner might experience.

While there has been token public policy support for EVs in the form of tariff-free EV component importation, and the Board of Investments’ Investment Priorities Plan of 2014 which opened the possibility of public-private partnership deals in the setting up of charging stations, there has not been much of public spending and interest to kickstart the transition.

Unlike in other countries where the government takes the lead in setting up a network of charging stations and the private sector follows with its own efforts, here we have a wait-and-see attitude. Moreover, the much awaited incentives for the importation of EVs is still pending. Without aggressive government maneuvers to initiate clear-cut policies and programs to support the adoption of EVs, we will most likely get left behind, yet again, as our neighbors like Thailand and even Vietnam are setting the stage for EV adoption early on.

So, what should the government do to set in motion this change? Assuming it wants to relieve its dependency on foreign oil, and vested interests aside, there are many ways it can initiate the transition to Electric Vehicles. E-Trikes and E-Jeepneys are now being rolled out but at a dismal pace. Local Government Units are now being tasked to sell these to operators but at a loss. Government should incentivize the switch to EVs in the public transport sector. Providing a subsidy to LGUs to purchase more of these EVs.

At the national level, replacing buses and granting franchises only to operators with a substantial or full EV bus fleet can be viable options as well. Government can even implement EV-only vehicle purchases for national offices and Government Owned and Controlled Corporations.

Creating EV-only zones in urban and commercial areas where only EVs are allowed to enter and traverse can be a convincing factor for motorists to make the switch. Along with free parking, free toll on highways, and EV-only lanes, measures like these can be institutionalized over a specific period of time to help create a demand for EVs. And lowering their sticker prices by providing car companies with tax-breaks for EV cars and parts imports should provide a shot in the arm for distributors to finally bite the bullet and bring in their EV models.

Further public investment in battery technology, servicing, and even recycling through the Department of Science and Technology can lead to an industry emerging from the switch to EVs. And in the midst of it all, the government should also now transition from coal-powered electric plants to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro and geothermal energy sources. This makes the life-cycle and everyday use of an EV more sustainable and less impactful on the environment.

As the world moves toward electro-mobility, with technology leading the way towards better battery and EV manufacturing techniques that involve less mineral mining, and even longer EV ranges in the near future, the Philippines is in a prime position to take the lead in EV adoption in the region.

While we are an industrializing country, it does not mean we have to make the mistakes of the industrial giants who have gone ahead of us. We have the opportunity of hindsight to make more rational, sustainable and people-driven decisions without experiencing the pitfalls of modernization.

Electric Vehicle adoption is perhaps the next big thing societies will undergo in the next couple of decades. If we do it right, and do it now, then perhaps it will be the start of our atonement for the environmental sins we have committed in the past. The time is now to start saving the environment so that future generations of Filipinos will still have the opportunity to relish the beauty this country has always had.

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