SINGAPORE: Mr Koh Jie Meng has driven from Singapore to different parts of Malaysia more than 20 times in his electric Hyundai Kona SUV since he bought the car in 2019.
He described the journeys as “smooth and seamless” now, but he acknowledged that this was not always the case during his first few attempts at driving from his home near Yishun to Kuala Lumpur for business meetings.
“At the start, I had some anxiety because I started driving too fast on the highways. I learnt that you have to watch your speed, travel only at 100 to 110kmh so I can get there easily,” said Mr Koh.
He is now more seasoned but he did learn some lessons the hard way.
He figured out that speeding would deplete the car’s battery life sooner and would leave him scrambling to find an electric charging point along the journey.
He also shared that putting the air conditioner at full blast while being stuck in traffic congestion at the Causeway would also drain the battery fast.
Mr Koh outlined that the most important factor in completing the journey safely was planning.
“You need to know your car’s battery range. For my Kona, it is a long-range electric car so I can do a single charge run. This means I can drive straight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur in one shot without the need to charge along the way,” said Mr Koh.
Drivers like Mr Koh have learnt that driving an electric car in Malaysia can be challenging given that the country still lacks the infrastructure that supports electric vehicles usage en masse.
There are only around 300 electric charging points across the country, with most of them concentrated along the west coast and the Klang Valley.
Furthermore, these drivers are also aware that there are not enough workshops or repair services specific for electric vehicles in Malaysia, in case urgent work is needed.
However, they note that the situation has improved recently and there is optimism that travelling with an electric car for a road trip in Malaysia could be a more viable option in the future.
MORE CHARGING POINTS IN KL, NORTH-SOUTH EXPRESSWAY
Mr Shahrol Halmi, president of the Malaysian Electric Vehicle Owners Club (MyEVOC), told CNA that the charging situation has improved vastly along the west coast from when he bought his car four years ago.
“When I first got the car, it was kind of pathetic - the kind of DC rapid charging infrastructure outside of Kuala Lumpur. So you fast forward to this year, actually there are already a pair of 50kW DC chargers in operation in Ayer Keroh Rest Stop, both north and south bound,” said Mr Shahrol.
Direct current (DC) charging points are fast charging, and typically takes an hour to charge a car fully. Alternating current (AC) charging points could take up to eight hours.
Mr Shahrol bought his electric car, a Tesla S 75, in 2017. He is based in Kuala Lumpur but has used the car to travel across various parts of Peninsular Malaysia.
He noted that of the estimated 300 charging points in the country, only a handful are DC points, and these are mainly concentrated on the west coast of the peninsula.
He lauded the move by local company JomCharge, which announced last October that DC chargers will be installed at various points along North-South Expressway to reduce range anxiety for electric car drivers travelling between major cities like Johor Bahru, Melaka, Kuala Lumpur and Penang.
Besides the chargers at Ayer Keroh rest stop in Melaka, JomCharge is also set to install DC fast charging points at rest and relaxation (RnR) pitstops in Skudai, Johor as well as Bukit Gantang, near Ipoh, Perak.
Mr Shahrol said: “For Singaporeans who want to come to Malaysia for a road trip or holiday, there are charging points along the way for their electric cars. If they want to head to KL, Ayer Keroh is conveniently located mid-journey. There are absolutely no issues.”
He added that in Kuala Lumpur, there are currently three DC charging points, with two more set to be built soon.
A Singaporean driver who made regular road trips to Malaysia, Lee Hon Sing, expressed surprise at how little money he had to spend charging his car during the trips.
“In KL, the fast chargers are free to use. Even the chargers at my hotel, near Sunway Lagoon, were free as well,” he said.
The IT programmer owns two electric cars which he uses for these trips – a Hyundai Kona and a Renault Zoe.
Before the borders were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Lee drove his Hyundai Kona, which is a long-range car, to Kuala Lumpur.
On paper, his car had enough range to complete the journey without recharging but he was worried and decided to charge at Ayer Keroh just in case.
“It is possible to drive the car from my house near Jurong area to Kuala Lumpur. But the first time I did it, I was a bit scared,” said Mr Lee.
“I did a top-up at Ayer Keroh for 40 minutes. But when I reached KL, I did my calculations and figured out that even if I did not top up, I would have had 80km of distance to spare. So it’s actually quite safe, and the range balance is comfortable,” added the 57-year-old.
Mr Shahrol shared that the MyEVOC community has also extended advice and help to Singapore drivers who have planned road trips with their electric cars.
“I remember in 2019 a Singaporean guy was driving a 20kW (Hyundai) Ioniq up to KL. He needed to charge along the way so we were guiding him. I think he eventually stopped in Seremban for a charge, some of us were ready to go there and help,” he said.
“But fast forward to this year onwards, it's pretty easy for any electric car to come up to Kuala Lumpur by fast charging at Ayer Keroh,” added Mr Shahrol.
ROAD TRIPS TO THE EAST COAST “A BIT OF A GAMBLE”
For Singaporean electric car owners who want to drive to Johor Bahru over the weekend when the border reopens, Mr Koh said a two-hour to three-hour congestion at the Causeway would only reduce the battery life by around 3 per cent if the driver sets the air-conditioner at full blast.
If drivers need to charge their cars, he pointed out that there are AC charging stations located at IKEA Tebrau, a popular shopping destination for Singaporeans.
Mr Shahrol also noted that most of the hotels in Desaru Coast, a popular beach holiday destination, have charging points for electric cars.
However, there needs to be more DC charging points across the country, especially on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, he added.
Road trips to the east coast could be risky as there are barely any charging points, he said.
“For trips to the east coast like Terengganu and Kuantan (in Pahang), Kelantan, it’s still a bit of a gamble, because there are only a few AC charging stations at some of the hotels in that area. It does require a bit more work, a bit more planning,” said Mr Shahrol.
Mr Koh recalled that he once drove his Hyundai Kona from Singapore to Kuantan, a 340km journey on the east coast.
He knew that there were no DC chargers along the journey so he would not recommend that route for drivers.
“My (Hyundai) Kona is a long-range car so it had enough to complete the journey, there was also enough charge to overtake trucks along the way,” said Mr Koh.
However, he had to travel inland the following day to Subang, near Kuala Lumpur, to charge his car fully at a DC point before heading back home.
“When I arrived in Kuantan, I charged the car at my friend's landed house for a bit. The next day, I drove to Subang for a fast charge,” he added.
LACK OF REPAIR OPTIONS
Besides charging points, another factor that triggers anxiety for electric car drivers is the lack of repair options if things go wrong.
Mr Shahrol, the MyEVOC president, said that in case of breakdown or repair, there are merely “one or two” workshops in Kuala Lumpur that are able to resolve EV repair issues.
“For such services, it’s still quite early yet (for Malaysia). Only these workshops are good at repairing EVs and they know not to mess things up when they look at it,” he added.
Over the last four years, Mr Shahrol has had to send his Tesla S 75 to Hong Kong twice for warranty repair claims, after encountering issues with his central screen.
Although the costs were covered as his car was still under warranty, he maintained that it would be more convenient if Malaysia had a Tesla workshop, or other electric car specialised workshops.
“It’s just the inconvenience of loading it up into a container, going over there, servicing it, repairing it and transporting it back,” said Mr Shahrol.
However, both Singapore drivers Mr Koh and Mr Lee said they have been lucky so far, and not experienced any breakdown or issues with their cars while travelling in Malaysia.
Mr Koh said: ”One thing that Malaysia doesn’t have is workshops to repair the EVs. So if anything happens, you have to tow it back to Singapore on a flatbed.”
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Mr Lee recalled that he was involved in an accident, when his Kona was rear-ended by a Malaysian vehicle at a traffic light in Johor Bahru.
“When it happened, my first immediate thought was I now need to get a flatbed truck to tow it back to Singapore and it’s going to really cost me,” said Mr Lee.
He said that his car survived the hit, and only suffered a small dent. Thankfully, he could still drive the car to the police station to make a report and subsequently back to Singapore.
According to a transport expert CNA spoke to, Malaysia does not have electric vehicle repair facilities because there is a lack of human capital to support the EV industry.
Associate Professor Muhammad Zaly Shah, director of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s Centre for Innovative Planning and Development told CNA: “We don’t have programmes to train mechanic and engineers to be efficient in maintaining electric vehicles. So owners have to send their car back to manufacturers overseas."
“Addressing the manpower with the right technological know-how is a critical issue to support the EV industry,” he added.
MORE CAN BE DONE TO BOOST EV TAKE-UP
Although purchasing an electric car would be more expensive that a petrol car, Mr Shahrol said a handful of Malaysians still prefer going electric because of the smoother driving experience.
“The biggest difference (between EV and petrol) is there’s no engine vibration, and you couple that with the fact that the torque of the motor is maximum when you start from standstill,” said Mr Shahrol.
“This means that when you push down the accelerator in heavy traffic, the car glides silently, so you can enjoy podcasts and music,” he added.
Based on May 2019 data, there are 194 battery EVs registered in Malaysia. In comparison, there are 1,274 registered electric cars in Singapore as of Jan 31 this year, according to the Land Transport Authority.
Mr Shahrol said “more can be done” to make EVs a more viable choice for drivers in Malaysia, such as introducing tax incentives and making more infrastructure available.
He expressed concern that Malaysia is in danger of being left behind by neighbouring countries like Singapore and Thailand, which are staking out bold pledges to transition from internal combustion engine cars to electric.
“Malaysia launched its electric mobility master plan in 2015, which set targets for 2020 and 2030 and we’ve fallen way short of that. We are trying to tell the government that our neighbours are progressing, not only in helping users but also manufacturing, while we seem to be taking a wait and see attitude,” said Mr Shahrol.
“So enough of the waiting and seeing. Let’s get going,” he added.
Mr Shahrol said one positive sign is that Malaysia’s Ministry of Environment and Water is set to launch a low carbon mobility action plan in 2021.
“We look forward to that, hopefully there’s some positive news in terms of charging stations, more tax incentives for buying electric vehicles – the usual stuff that we have seen by governments in the region and around the world,” he added.
However, Assoc Prof Muhammad Zaly wondered if the Malaysia government would simply back the transition given that the electric vehicle industry could be seen as threatening the future of government-owned oil and gas company, Petronas.
He added that local car manufacturers Proton and Perodua have also yet to produce electric cars.
He observed that policymakers must be seen to support firms like Petronas, Proton and Perodua to ensure they remain competitive in the automotive industry.
“If (policymakers) want these local companies to survive, they must maintain petrol cars as the main option for users. If they transition to EV, Proton and Perodua cars would no longer have an edge over other brands,” said Assoc Prof Muhammad Zaly.
He also maintained that Malaysia’s position as the second-largest oil and natural gas producer in Southeast Asia would mean that it could stand to lose if more countries transition to EV.
“The cost of petrol or diesel is relatively cheap in Malaysia, so even users would hesitate to switch their diesel or petrol-powered vehicles to electric,” he added.