BANGKOK: It was a postcard picture day off the coast of Phuket as a sleek, modern ferry embarked on its maiden voyage. The battery-powered vessel slipped from the dock in near silence and jetted towards the limestone karsts on the horizon.
This was the launch of a vessel that its backers hope will revolutionise sea travel and tourism around Thailand’s picturesque islands and beaches, normally a magnet for millions of visitors every year.
The e-Ferry is powered by 625 kWh lithium-ion batteries sourced from Singaporean battery maker Durapower. It allows the vessel to cruise at 17 knots, taking tourists to some of the most awe-inspiring sights in the kingdom’s south, without producing any emissions to damage the environment.
Using just this single e-ferry for one year will reduce emissions equivalent to planting 8,700 trees, according to project collaborator Banpu Next, the innovation-focused subsidiary of powerful parent energy company, Banpu, whose core business has long been coal and gas.
“When the world is calling for lower carbon emissions, we are foreseeing this same challenge and are now transitioning to cleaner and smarter assets in our strategy,” said the group’s CEO Somruedee Chaimongkol.
The environmental impacts of vessels like this could be enormous; around the Andaman Sea area there are approximately 2,000 marine tourism boats.
It is also symbolic of the start of a greater movement that is pressing to transform the future of Thailand’s transportation sector and make an impact on its damaging environmental footprint.
Vehicles powered by electricity instead of conventional fuels are slowly starting to emerge on Thailand’s roads, rails and waterways. The world is looking to enact solutions to tackle the climate crisis and the mobilisation of electric vehicle (EV) fleets is becoming an increasingly viable way to reduce carbon footprints.
Thailand is at a critical juncture. It has work to do to meet its climate targets under the Paris Agreement, while Bangkok continues to endure prolonged periods of elevated air pollution, much of which is caused by vehicles.
The country’s central role in global auto production though has it strategically placed to take advantage of new innovation and companies are already positioning themselves.
PIVOT TOWARDS ELECTRIC VEHICLES
A place long known as the Land of Smiles has for decades also been the land of automobiles. Away from the country’s iconic shimmering seas and ancient temples, in the grey industrial estates that sprawl outside Bangkok, the cars of the world have been assembled for decades.
The automotive sector is one of Thailand’s most important. The country is the eleventh biggest car manufacturer in the world and the fourth in Asia, only behind the powerhouse nations of China, Japan and South Korea.
Thailand’s legacy assets and skills, all set up to produce conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, face being wiped out by the electric wave. Already the industry has taken a major hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But within five years, the Thai government wants the country to become a hub for something new.
A national roadmap will aim to promote EV manufacturing to the extent that it makes up 30 per cent of total annual car production, or about 750,000 units, by the end of the decade. Tax incentives are being rolled out to encourage big players to build their EV fleets in Thailand.
It is mobilising state agencies to power a fast transition, starting with public transportation and infrastructure, like charging stations and battery swapping facilities.
The police force is leasing a fleet of electric Tesla Model 3s for patrols, Bangkok City Hall is replacing diesel ferries with electric models to link the Chao Phraya river and train services, and battery-powered public buses are in a testing phase in anticipation of a widespread rollout.
“The government set a goal that by 2037, there should be around 2.5 million EV cars. And in order to get to that point, the government must support the building of infrastructure, the change of mindsets and making people trust that if they use EVs, it will be safe,” said Somchai Chokmaviroj, the director of the Research and Innovation Division of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT).
The big questions are whether Thailand will be able to compete in a globally charged industry where technology is changing rapidly on a massive scale and if consumers will make the jump, when EVs remain exclusive, expensive and limited.
GRIT AND STEEL
Aware of the opportunities, local companies have begun to position themselves in terms of innovation and investments.
Sakun C’s new assembly plant is an expansive space, its size exaggerated by its emptiness. Soft afternoon light filters through high windows onto a working floor, where aluminum chassis of various vehicle prototypes are being inspected by workers.
Soon, it is anticipated that advanced robots will be assembling thousands of buses every year here, as well as electric trains and boats of various designs, including the e-Ferry, which the company designed, assembled and put on the water in Phuket, alongside Banpu Next.
It is an ambitious push by the Thai company to revive domestic innovation and ensure locally-made technology is viable, in the face of a surge of EV development overseas.
Sakun C is a subsidiary of Choknomchai Group, the largest car producer in Southeast Asia with an extensive domestic network of parts suppliers. It has been making cars for the likes of Honda, Toyota and Nissan for two decades.
But according to Sakun C’s CEO Weeraphon Techaphasuksanti, continuing to simply manufacture vehicles for others will not be enough in the looming age of the electric vehicle.
He wants to stimulate a tenuous industry and create new jobs by creating a strong local brand. It does not mean picking a fight with the Japanese companies that have sent their business to Thailand for years, rather finding lower volume gaps in the sector and the types of vehicles that the country really needs.
“It’s really good timing for us now to have our own brand. Everyone is on the same level. Everyone has to restart. It’s a good opportunity for Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines; everyone is very excited about this opportunity. They all want to produce,” Weeraphon said.
But Thailand’s advantage over its ASEAN neighbours is its long-built expertise and technology.
“Definitely in my opinion Thailand is in a good position. Because before electric cars, normally we’re building cars for the world under many brands. We have these skills already. So when the new technology comes, it’s not that complicated and we have our knowledge base,” he told CNA.
“Body and engine technology means we haven’t been able to have Thai brands. But we’re very lucky because now the engine’s gone. We have dye making, eco-design engineering, part producing. We’ve built our assembly plant to build the body. With the engine gone, it means the parts we need are just on the shelf.”
Sakun C is focused on light, resilient aluminum bodies that will suit an EV platform, rather than steel, traditionally used in Japanese carmaking. Aluminum is three times lighter than steel and can be assembled much more quickly.
Its minibuses and city buses are road ready, accelerated by research assistance from the National Science and Technology Development Agency, a government agency that has invested in the company.
Weeraphon is hopeful the partnership means Thai-made buses could soon replace their pollution-spewing diesel predecessors on the streets of Bangkok, and in tourism-centric regions of the country.
“The world is calling for this kind of vehicle. I think it’s going to come much earlier than we expected. If we have our own brand a form of innovation is going to happen,” he said.
“If we don’t do these projects, it means we’re ignoring the needs of the country. If we have this technology, that means we wait for Chinese or other people to take Thai industry away. We would have no choice if the big players come and acquire everything in Thailand. We’re going to lose everything if we do nothing.”
His company is not alone. There is a raft of private newcomers to the automaking scene who are ready to ascend Elon Musk-style to the pinnacle of a fast growing industry and others looking to carve out niche pathways to decongest Bangkok.
BORN IN THE GARAGE: EMISSION FREE TUK TUKS
It is a common theme that some of the world’s most successful start-ups began in a garage. For many of Thailand’s budding auto start-ups, the same is true.
With little government support and few incentives within reach, most small players in the electric vehicle industry in Thailand are on a long and solitary road. And while cooperation exists between the startups, there is also competition.
On the outskirts of the capital, Chayoot Sripian proudly steps through the warehouse-cum-showroom of his fledgling company, Power Up TukTuk. His fleet right now comprises just a handful of the iconic Thai vehicles, but his ambitions are overflowing.
The concept is to build a platform for emission-free tuk tuks that can be accessed by all. The idea was inspired by his elderly grandmother who before her death found it difficult to get around Bangkok.
“My grandma went to Lumpini Park every day for her whole life. One day when it became difficult for her to walk at the age of 93, we decided she needed to use a wheelchair,” Chayoot recounted.
“After that, when I asked my grandma if she wanted to go to Lumpini Park, she would say ‘no, I don’t want to go’. But I know that actually she does want to go but she doesn't want to be a burden. So she stayed home. I think a lot of elderly think like that and stay like that.
“When I’m thinking about my grandma, I’m thinking of all the other people who couldn’t afford a car that can take a wheelchair. There are so many elderly left at home because it’s too difficult to travel. Taxi drivers have to carry them, have to trust them, and the roadside taxis won’t pick them up,” he said.
Power Up has re-engineered a conventional tuk tuk, removing the drivetrain and installing a centrally positioned battery. The result is a lower, more accessible vehicle that can accommodate a wheelchair or less mobile passenger.
Chayoot is still trying to scale up his concept and bring it to market. “I’m not Elon Musk. I don’t have that much money. I’m not a public company,” he conceded.
“For these companies, it’s very challenging. You need to have very good resources, enough capital and human resources. You have to compete with the giant corporate companies who have the technology and the human resources,” said Dr Yossapong Laoonual, a leading academic, founding head of the Electric Vehicle Association of Thailand (EVAT) and member of the National Electric Vehicle Policy Committee.
“This is very difficult for a country like Thailand,” he said.
THE SCENT OF MUSK
While they may not have the money, what inspires many budding EV entrepreneurs is clear - one man - Elon Musk of Tesla.
The imprint on this industry of a pioneer of the global electric vehicle industry is profound. It has small companies dreaming of loftier heights.
For self-professed “nerd and gear head”, Nataphat Lertviriyasawat, Tesla was the perfect business case study to model his electric motorcycle start-up on.
“Tesla is the first company that can say to the market that we don’t need to rely on gasoline alone anymore. You have a choice and it can work,” he said.
He even - coincidentally he claims - named his company after Thomas Edison, a bitter rival of engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla. The two men fought a war over whose electric currents would power the world in the 1880s. Far from competing now though, Nataphat simply wants a fragment of the success of the American EV and technology behemoth.
After already being dubbed the “Tesla on two wheels” during participation in an innovation competition in China, he believes his company is primed to make an impact.
It is a sector where EV innovation has been painfully slow to reach consumers: the exception being China where bans on ICE vehicles in big cities has seen hundreds of millions of two and three wheelers hit its roads.
Despite the lack of EV adoption so far, the size of the potential market in the ASEAN region cannot be ignored. Motorcycles far outweigh cars on Southeast Asian roads. In Thailand alone, there are about 21 million registered motorcycles, double the number of sedans, yet there are less than 10,000 electric or hybrid motorcycles in operation.
“We never saw e-bikes on the road. That’s why we started to try and figure out what the problem was. Why can’t the e-bike enter the market? We narrowed it down to four main problems at that time - low performance compared to a gasoline bike, the range is too short, the charging time is too long and the serviceability is crap,” Nataphat said.
With a nod to the Tesla business model, Edison embarked on designing a “platform” with aesthetics, speed and reliability, regardless of price.
“It’s a similar strategy to Tesla, who launched a sports car first for the top end to adopt. That’s the way we’re going right now, into a niche market or early adopters,” he said.
Environmental benefits are a non-factor in Edison’s approach to encouraging riders to switch to electric, even though motorcycles typically produce more damaging greenhouse gases than cars.
“We have to look at the whole ecosystem of electric vehicles. We need to attract people to the industry. Otherwise, it is meaningless. You can build it and say it is environmentally friendly but people still need to adopt it,” Nataphat said.
“Never once have I said that electric vehicles will save the planet. We want to focus on the fact that this is an EV that actually works. And then the process of changing the world, changing the carbon footprint, comes later.”
Yet, the environmental impacts of removing combustion engines from the roads are clear. The benefits of doing so just have not been fully realised in Thailand yet.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing commuters wearing a face mask in Bangkok was already a fairly regular sight. Like many growing cities, air pollution can periodically stifle the Thai capital, forcing people to try and protect their lungs.
With zero tailpipe emissions and better efficiency than conventional vehicles, electric vehicles are a logical solution to easing some of Bangkok’s PM2.5 issues.
“The problem of the rising pollution will be a driving force for any government. Electric vehicles are a solution. That solution can be used straight away. It’s not only an emissions issue, it’s a climate change issue - a global issue,” said Yossapong of EVAT.
“The source of the PM2.5 is the exhaust from automobiles. If we’re not solving it by using a better technology, the problem will stay with us for another ten years.”
Analysis backs up his claims. The International Energy Agency stated this year that EVs, “are a key technology to reduce air pollution in densely populated areas and a promising option to contribute to energy diversification and greenhouse gas emissions reduction objectives”.
And transport needs to be cleaned up in Asia. More than 30 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases from transport and buildings is produced on the continent, based on analysis by international consulting firm McKinsey Global Institute.
However, the true climate gains will only be realised once deeper changes are made to Thailand’s energy mix.
Presently, the majority of Thailand’s power generation is from dirty sources - coal and natural gas. The wind and solar energy industries are in early development stages, hampered by the country’s significant national power surplus. State energy agency EGAT has shown reluctance to disrupt its fossil fuel-driven strategy.
It means the electricity powering Thailand’s growing EV fleet is not as clean as it could be. That might not matter much to the government, according to energy economics expert Puree Sirasoothorn from Thammasat University.
“They don’t have a green attitude. Whatever policy they put in place, they will look at the numbers. It’s got to push the economy, help employment and it will be calculated in terms of money. It’s hard for them to see the benefits that EVs can have,” she said.
“We have very low targets for everything. Low targets for EVs and low targets for renewable energy. It’s going to be a very, very slow transition. It’s because of the state enterprises.
“Definitely they’re going to phase out oil and gas, sooner or later, but later would be the answer for the government, that’s for sure.”
The government gains about one-third of its excise tax from petrol, a large amount of revenue that electricity cannot provide. It is one of the reasons, Puree said, that the mass rollout of consumer EVs may be slow.
Prices for private electric vehicles remain restrictively high, mainly due to import taxes. The government has proposed a trade-in incentive, where buyers could receive a THB100,000 (US$3350) payment when switching their older car for a new EV. But it has yet to be clarified and approved, and is a rare purchase subsidy, the likes of which are common in many other countries.
“In Thailand we rely very much on what kind of support from the government will accelerate the use of the electric vehicles,” said Banpu’s Somruedee.
EV prices are forecast to drop, however, as economies of scale are reached. Already battery prices, a major cost component, have decreased globally by more than 85 per cent since 2010. In that time, the number of electric cars on the road has rocketed from 17,000 to 7.2 million, mostly in China.
EV car registrations in Thailand increased by 380 per cent from 2018 to 2019, and despite the economic downturn experienced in 2020, the number of new registrations this year have surpassed last year, according to EVAT’s president Krisda Utamote. That number is only about 2,000 units, however.
“We see some movement in terms of buyer behaviour. The young generation is more interested in clean energy and what type of fuel the vehicle will emit,” he said.
“People are more active in considering buying an electric vehicle as their first purchase and we’re seeing more models coming into the market as well.”
Inevitably, it means electric infrastructure is popping up around the country. More demand will breed more solutions and support. But the first EV people might experience, may not be one that they own.
A BETTER FUTURE
It was when Supapong Kitiwattanasak and his friends had children that they decided on a business idea fiercely focused on the environment and society.
“Why do we live in a city where we can’t commute easily? We thought that we needed to do something to fix this problem,” he said.
Friends became co-founders and today, Urban Mobility Tech - the start-up they began - has more than 100 electric tuk-tuks in its fleet and a small army of drivers on the payroll.
The concept of their platform - MuvMi - is to give commuters a sustainable transport option for the first and last mile of their journey. Without options, reaching public transport can be difficult, encouraging people to use their own private vehicles instead.
On a mobile application that works similarly to other ride sharing software, MuvMi is transporting passengers emission-free on a daily basis. Even though charging stations, batteries and vehicle conversions have added significant challenges to the business, it was important from the company’s perspective not to add any burden to Bangkok’s issues.
“If we want to solve the traffic problem by bringing more vehicles into the load, we should not make another impact in terms of pollution, or solving one problem by causing another, so we have to go to EV,” Supapong said.
“Our plan is to have a thousand cars on the street. It would be unacceptable for the business in the long run. Every component we use, we think about how it affects the environment.”
Krit Vichaiwatanapanich is also adding vehicles to Bangkok’s congested roads. Yet, climate change is one of his primary concerns.
The CEO of Haupcar, Thailand’s first car sharing service, wants to change the notions of mobility in Bangkok by making EVs accessible to more people at a low cost.
The company has the support of Banpu, which assisted with the purchase of 100 Thai-made Fomm vehicles, the world’s smallest class four-seater EV. They are parked in specific locations and can be hired to self-drive for as short time as an hour.
“To have an electric fleet on the platform is my intention from the very beginning. Back then we weren't as ready due to the charging infrastructure but for now it’s become a key for us to expand,” Krit said.
“As we expand electric charging stations, it helps other players as well to be able to sell more electric vehicles in the market. We’re not only helping people who use our service but other car manufacturers to introduce other vehicles on the platform as well.”
While he admits that driving an EV in Thailand is still “very inconvenient”, that may not be the case for much longer. Cooperation and coordination means more pieces are in place to seize a cleaner future.
The country is just waiting to flick the switch.
Additional reporting by Ryn Jirenuwat.