Car sharing, along with ride-hailing services, is starting to make its mark in the auto industry’s traditional model of individual ownership. The global car-sharing market is expected to hit US$16.5 billion by 2024 from just $1.2 billion in 2015, with China expected to see particularly fast growth. Electric and hybrid vehicles are very much a part of this shift as they are deemed part of the solution to mitigate the effects of climate change and foster greater environmental sustainability in mobility and transport.
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Other than improving its public transport network, Singapore has also been open to modes of transport that do not rely on polluting fossil fuels. To that end, the first fleet of electric cars in a public car-sharing scheme took to the roads in December 2017. Launched by BlueSG, a subsidiary of French conglomerate Bollore Group, the scheme comes after years of planning and a number of delays going back to 2014. The scheme started with a total of 80 cars and runs on two subscription plans: a premium yearly membership plan priced at $15 per month, and a weekly membership plan which does not require any recurring fee. Car Rental in Singapore is charged based on duration instead of distance. Bluecars, as they are known, can be booked via a mobile app.
BlueSG aims to have 1,000 electric vehicles in the sharing fleet, and 2,000 charging points by 2020. The service was launched with 32 charging stations, with 18 located in public housing estates such as Tampines and Punggol, and 10 in the city.
From an international perspective, the BlueSG scheme is slated to become the world’s second-biggest electric vehicle car-sharing programme after the biggest in Paris. The Paris-based Autolib service, which was launched in 2011, is the world’s largest and is also run by the Bollore Group. Autolib has 4,000 electric vehicles, 6,200 charging points and more than 100, 000 long-term members and thousands of short-term ones, underlining the appeal of electric car-sharing schemes.
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In China, ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing is setting up an electric car-sharing service in partnership with 12 autoplayers, including local auto-manufacturer BYD Co Ltd, local partners of Ford Motor Co and the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance. Didi, which dominates China’s ride-hailing market, aims to have 1 million electric cars in its network by 2020. It also previously announced plans to create a domestic charging network which electric cars rely on. If electric car-sharing takes off in the massive and influential Chinese market, it would create a positive knock-on effect for other countries in Asia and beyond that are considering such a venture.
Roadblocks for Electric Car-Sharing in Singapore
Electric car usage is very much in the nascent stages in Singapore. According to the LTA, there are less than 300 electric and plug-in hybrid cars here, making up a tiny 0.05% of the car population. Several important challenges lie ahead. Experts have pointed to the availability of charging locations as one major challenge. The last thing electric car drivers want is having their batteries run flat on them while driving. A 2014 study across 30 countries by a Dutch University found that the assurance of access to charging stations was considered a greater inducement for many to buy electric cars than a US$1,000 cash inducement. Notably, the study found that it would increase the electric vehicle market share by almost two times.
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Getting the right number of charging stations per vehicle is crucial if BlueSG is to succeed. For example, the figure is 14.10 in Norway and 2.99 in Germany. Singapore needs to determine its optimal number based on local conditions. The location of stations also matters. Charging facilities should not only be located along commonly used routes, but also other routes with potential for traffic so that the usage of electric cars grows throughout the island.
Getting these details right is vital in solving the “chicken or egg” problem of electric vehicles being widely adopted in Singapore — while more electric cars lead to infrastructure development, insufficient infrastructure in turn discourages car growth.
Poor acceptance by drivers is another concern. The positive start to the BlueSG scheme here could be due to curiosity and early enthusiasm from drivers testing out the experience. Within about a month of its launch, more than 3,300 people signed up for the service, and there were 5,000 car rentals in the first three weeks of operations. However, infrastructure such as charging stations must keep growing along with car numbers if there are to be repeat users and loyal members.
Parking space is a perennial problem for motorists in Singapore, and electric cars are no exception. Carpark owners – public and private – need to set aside lots for electric vehicles. Government leadership in setting requirements for electric vehicle parking availability is the first step. As a way to incentivise carpark owners, experts have suggested a smart billing system that allows carpark owners to earn money through the sale of electricity on top of the usual parking fees for electric cars.
As is the case for non-electric vehicles (including shared bicycles), good driver etiquette is essential. If charging stations and parking spaces are the ‘hardware’ that physically facilitate electric car-sharing, driver etiquette is the ‘software’ that keeps it going. Once again, experts have pointed to technology and tiered pricing playing a role in shaping behaviour. For instance, a driver charging a vehicle can be updated of the estimated for a complete charge and the tiered prices to be paid for a full charge. The driver can then choose to leave the car in the charging space and pay more over time, re-park the car elsewhere at a lower price, or drive off with a partial charge, thus making space for other users.
Electric Vehicle Technologies
A key aspect of electric vehicle technology are the batteries that power the cars. BlueSG’s vehicles are equipped with Lithium Metal Polymer (LMP®) batteries that it says are dry batteries (entirely solid) which are considered safer as they pose less pollution risks in the event of an accident or damage to the battery. BlueSG cars have an average range of 200km on a single charge.
A major disadvantage for electric vehicles is the time taken to fully charge the batteries. While most electric vehicles can take up to 10 hours for a full charge, StoreDot, an Israeli start-up, has developed a new car battery technology which it claims could revolutionise the industry. StoreDot says its batteries can be fully recharged within five minutes and can run up to 300 miles (480km) on a single charge.
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Electronics manufacturer Toshiba similarly announced new technology that effectively doubles the capacity of a battery. It has increased the energy density of its lithium-based batteries such that a 32kWh battery of a “compact electric vehicle” can last for about 200 miles (320km) after a full-charge that takes only six minutes. However promising, it would be best to keep a watch on such developments until they hit the market and prove to be safe, effective, durable and affordable.
Electric Vehicles: Future of Motoring?
Even as reducing pollution and inculcating environmental sustainability becomes more urgent, the need for effective, convenient and affordable mobility options remains. With a view to the future, BlueSG has established a Global Innovation Centre in Singapore to undertake R&D work in areas such as mobility and energy management solutions that prove electric vehicles can be good for people, the economy and the environment.
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In Singapore, as elsewhere, electric cars have some way to go in convincing motorists to part with their fossil fuel-driven vehicles. Commercially viable battery technologies and charging infrastructure are two main challenges that must be overcome if electric cars are to play a role in the future of motoring. BlueSG has the challenge of convincing consumers that its electric car-sharing scheme is a better one than other options such as private-hire cars and taxis.