When will Proton make an electric car?

Earlier this month, Proton posted its best monthly sales figure in seven years, delivering 11,873 cars in February, and capturing more than a quarter of the Malaysian automotive market share.

This is welcome news as our national car brand had been plagued with problems since its inception. Most who purchased a Proton did so just because it, along with Perodua, offered the most affordable cars in the market.

But with its recent acquisition by Chinese auto giant Geely, the tide seems to be turning. Both the Proton X50 and X70 were unveiled amidst much hoopla and surprisingly enough, they managed to justify it, thrilling and satisfying customers.

I can’t remember a time when a Proton product was lusted over by thousands across the nation. Sure, the X50 and X70 are essentially just rebranded Geely Binyue and Geely Boyue, respectively, but they’re still a welcome addition to the Proton stable, which has needed a shot in the arm (or several), for a while now.

This makes me ask the question that’s been on the minds of some since Geely’s acquisition of Proton: When will it start making electric cars?

It’s a natural next step.

Geely already makes a range of hybrid vehicles and even a full electric one: the Geely Emgrand EV. To boot, Geely signalled its intention to bolster its electric vehicle making capability by inking a massive deal with Chinese search giant Baidu to develop autonomous electric cars.

The Emgrand EV – Geely’s fully electric car – boasts an impressive 500km range on a single charge, and charges up to 80% capacity in a mere 30 minutes.

With such an impressive range, it would easily be able to handle users’ daily work commutes and end the day with plenty of juice to spare. And at 195,800 yuan (RM124,000), it’s just a tad more expensive than the range-topping variant of the Proton X70.

If Proton thinks this is still out of the price range of most Malaysians, slightly reducing battery capacity, and hence its range, would go a long way towards reducing its price and making it an enticing proposition.

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This is why Proton Edar CEO Roslan Abdullah’s words on the matter disappointed me. When asked about Proton’s electric vehicle plans during an interview in August 2020, he said: “Proton found that the feasibility study conducted on investment and sales of EVs does not match, which means it is not a positive investment yet.”

He cited lack of awareness, poor range and deficiency in electric charging infrastructure as the reasons for Proton’s reluctance to pioneer the electric vehicle market in Malaysia.

He added: “We need to understand Malaysian customers’ driving behaviour. We love to drive cars from Kangar in Perlis to Johor Bahru. Imagine you drive an electric car from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bharu in 10 hours, it will be quite difficult (without charging). It goes back to customers’ demand.”

This kind of thinking is short-sighted at best.

First of all, the US and China, which are home to millions of electric vehicles, have landmasses and road infrastructure far larger and more extensive than that of Malaysia. If they are embracing electric vehicles, I don’t see why Malaysians wouldn’t, if provided the option.

The only major impediment I see to mass adoption of electric vehicles is the need for an abundance of electric charging stations. This is where Proton can learn from Tesla, the pioneering American electric carmaker. Realising that range anxiety was the number one issue bothering would-be electric car buyers, Tesla embarked on an ambitious mission to build electric charging stations across the US.

Fast forward to today – a mere eight years later – Tesla has built 754 charging stations (supercharger stations, as they call it) across the US, and is able to cover 99% of the US population.

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For context, the US has a landmass that’s 75 times larger than Peninsular Malaysia and around ten times as many people. If Tesla, then a startup, could pull off such a feat, I’m sure Proton – with some smart planning, the knowhow of Geely and with the aid of government incentives – can muster it in Malaysia.

Electric cars make a lot of sense. The cost of the electricity needed to run an electric car can be up to four times cheaper than the cost of using petrol. Imagine the long drive from KL to Penang costing you just around RM15.

And since it has dramatically fewer moving parts, servicing is easier, less frequent and as a consequence, is cheaper than it is for a conventional, petrol-powered vehicle.

Also, producing energy at a massive power plant, converting it into electricity and using that to power our cars is more efficient and environmentally-friendly than using a relatively inefficient internal combustion engine (which is essentially a mini power plant) in the car.

And if paired with clean energy sources such as solar and nuclear power, these electric cars will be better and safer for the environment. At a time of climate uncertainty, this is more important than ever.

This is why the government’s lack of focus on electric cars is especially frustrating. All its incessant spouting about the importance of being an IR 4.0 pioneer is pointless if not coupled with action in the electric and autonomous vehicle space, among other areas.

According to Maybank Investment Bank Research, Malaysia is increasingly seen as a laggard in the electric vehicle space, due partly to the seemingly rudderless and scantily detailed initiatives in our National Automotive Policy (NAP) 2020.

Instead, investors are bullish about our Southeast Asian neighbours Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, which have each unveiled ambitious and substantial electric vehicle initiatives.

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Among other things, Thailand has set a goal of building 1.2 million electric vehicles by 2026 and is looking to be the region’s EV hub; Indonesia wants 20% of its overall automotive production to be electric by 2025; and Singapore plans to phase out petrol and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040.

Malaysia sorely lacks such clear, definitive and ambitious electric vehicle plans.

Probably catching wind of the deteriorating local landscape, Hyundai – the third largest car manufacturer in the world after Toyota and Volkswagen – has shifted its regional headquarters from Malaysia to Indonesia. This is a huge slap in the face for Malaysia and signals our increasing loss of relevance in the region.

We need to reverse this terrible trend and reverse it quick. To do this, Proton should use its power and clout to build a nationwide network of charging stations, starting with major cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor Bahru, and the major highways connecting them.

Concurrently, it should look at bringing an electric Geely vehicle under the Proton brand to Malaysia, just as it did with the X50 and X70. Being a pioneer in the local electric vehicle space will pay off for it in droves, allowing it to carve out a huge lead before the entry of other carmakers. The government, for its part, should provide incentives and tax breaks as it sees fit to enable Proton and others to do this.

In addition, foreign hybrid and electric vehicles should not be taxed as heavily as petrol-powered cars so that more people will purchase them.

These steps and more, if executed effectively, would not just be good for Proton, but also good for Malaysia, and good for the planet.

This post is written by K. Kathirgugan and originally published on Free Malaysia Today.

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