Singapore should wake up to the idea that vehicular test-beds are wasteful and rather pointless.
They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that may well be true for Singapore’s history of vehicular test-beds. First, what is a test-bed? According to Wikipedia, it is a platform for conducting rigorous, transparent and replicable testing of scientific theories, computational tools and new technologies. We have been test-bedding all sorts of vehicles in the past two decades, from fuel-cell Mercs and biofuel Smarts to fleets of electric and diesel cars (yes, we needed to test-bed diesel vehicles).
What economic valueadd has singapore gained from testbedding all sorts of vehicles in the past two decades?
Before coming to Singapore, most of these vehicles had already been tested elsewhere. So we were by no means “conducting rigorous, transparent and replicable testing of scientific theories”. Ostensibly, our intention was to find out how these vehicles performed in the local context. And for that, we launched the Transport Technology Innovation Development Scheme, or Tides. The scheme is spearheaded by the Economic Development Board, which has roped in agencies like the Land Transport Authority and the Energy Market Authority (EMA) to conduct these on-road trials.
But after nearly 20 years and tens of millions of dollars, what have we to show for it? What great scientific discovery have we unearthed? And more importantly, what economic value-add has the country gained? Granted, most of the millions spent have been in the form of taxes foregone (test-bed cars, wearing yellow-and-blue research plates, are practically tax-free), but money is money. Let’s take the example of the $20 million electric vehicle (EV) “test-bed” conducted by the EMA (see sidebar Electric Dreamland). We are embarking on yet another “test-bed”, now involving a far larger fleet of EVs in a car-sharing scheme. This experiment is expected to cost at least $100 million (mostly in foregone taxes, again), but experts are already saying it is doomed from the start.
BYD has a fleet of E6 electric cars being tested in Singapore under “real-life conditions”, but with artificial exemption from taxes.
For starters, car-sharing has never been popular here, mainly because taxis are fairly affordable. Secondly, an EV fleet needs parking spaces with chargers. This being the first time we are conducting this experiment, we are unlikely to get the location of these parking spaces right (because we do not know the demand pattern). So we will probably be stuck with unsuitable locations, or we will spend lots of money and effort hacking up and relocating chargers every few months. But as sure as the sun rises, we will embark on this “test-bed”, at the end of which high-ranking officials will pat themselves on the back, saying: “Well done, well done.” No one will, however, be actually wiser about EVs, or car-sharing, or what we could have done with $100 million.
Meanwhile, a fleet of BYD electric cars are plying here like limos or on-call taxis. These, too, are exempted from vehicular taxes, thanks to Tides. Think about it: tax-free vehicles competing with other fleets that pay full taxes. Asked about this, an EDB spokesperson said the BYD cars “operate in actual road conditions”, and this allows the Government to “better understand the optimal business models and the charging infrastructure required”. Did they not learn these from the EMA “test-bed”, which was carried out “in actual road conditions”? “BYD’s commercial fleet of EVs allows relevant agencies to collect a diverse range of data in real-life conditions,” she added. “Data collected will help agencies in the development of advanced mobility solutions in the context of Singapore’s traffic rules and road environment.”
Just as lofty and highsounding as the EMA objectives. But isn’t allowing BYD tax-free status giving it an unfair advantage over other fleet operators? The EDB spokesman said the scheme “is not intended to confer commercial benefits to individuals or fleet operators, but remains to attract high-value, knowledge-based economic activities in Singapore”. (I can imagine her saying it with a straight face, too.) “It is also necessary for BYD to run its flee t of EVs commercially so that the relevant agencies can collect the necessary data under real-life conditions and also study the feasibility of EV fleet business models,” she continued. What “real-life conditions”, when you do not have to incur millions in Additional Registration Fees, Certificates of Entitlement, and other related taxes and tariffs? This is not “real-life”. It is as artificial as you can get.
The objectives at the start of the EMA’s $20 million electric vehicle “test-bed” were ambitious and high-sounding, like finding out precisely how efficient electric vehicles were in the hot and humid stop-start driving environment here, and how EV owners could sell unused power back to the electricity grid. But in the end, the findings were no more illuminating than what the automotive community already knew from the reams of published literature available on the Internet. The agency concluded that EVs were feasible in Singapore, but their cost remained the biggest hurdle. A secondary-school student could have told you that – and for far less than $20 million.
Singapore has testbedded fuel-cell Mercs, biofuel Smarts, electric vehicles and, for some reason, these German diesel cars.
Way back in the 1980s, Singapore Power wanted to dabble in electric vehicles. So did the Defence Science and Technology Agency. If EDB joined forces with them, it could have had an equal footing with all the other EV researchers around the world. In fact, it could even have had a head start, seeing that homegrown GP Batteries was also keen. There were also homegrown private technopreneurs and inventors who sought EDB support for their EV-related quests, only to be turned away. We could have been bigger and more advanced than Renault-Nissan, BMW or even Tesla (in fact, when Tesla was at its infancy, we could have bought into it). By now, we could have had a thriving, buzzing EV hub in Tuas.
Apparently, BYD has committed to invest in Singapore, with plans to set up a regional headquarters, a joint lab with A*Star and a centre to “export e-mobility solutions to South-east Asia and beyond”. Export e-mobility solutions to the world – that’s really impressive. Let’s see if it happens. If it does, it will be the first tangible spinoff we have after two decades of “test-bedding” The thing is, BYD already has a huge setup in its home country, China. Torque has visited this facility, and it is rather impressive. Cuttingedge research is being done there. So why is Singapore re-inventing the wheel? Wouldn’t it be be tter if we did what Warren Buffet did – that is, to buy a stake in BYD? Singapore had plenty of opportunities to be “cuttingedge” in the e-mobility sector (see Electric Disconnect).
Instead, we are now trying to play catch-up. Which is admirable, if only we were doing it the right way. But what would be the right way? Well, one suggestion comes to mind. It is not entirely radical, but it involves breaking conventions (something Government agencies are especially averse to). The plan calls for granting sizeable rebates to EV buyers. The current carbon-based rebates are inadequate, and skewed against EVs. We suggest going back to the ARF-based rebates – say, 50 to 60 percent of a car’s open market value (OMV). To make it more socially equitable, we can cap the OMV at $50,000.
Electric cars with higher OMVs could be granted smaller tax breaks. And here is the unconventional bit: Allow owners to modify their cars’ powertrain and battery pack, with lighttouch regulations from the LTA. So, instead of leaving research to a few scientists to come up with innovative solutions, we leverage on a population of enthusiasts. After all, that was how plugin hybrids gained traction. Before mainstream vehicle manufacturers started making plug-in hybrids, geeky hybrid owners (mostly in the US) were tinkering with their Priuses in the garage because they wanted a longer electrical range. They exchanged notes over community forums, drank copious amounts of Dr Pepper and, before long, gave birth to the first versions of the modern-day plugin hybrid electric vehicle. Will Singapore ever dare do such a thing? Probably not. We do not like things we have little control over. We like predictability. We like big companies. We like test-beds.