We find ourselves shifting toward a new automotive paradigm - excuse the big words but that’s only because it’s pretty apt. In the future, cars might still have four wheels but likely no engine in the usual sense. What do we make of this?
First of all, there’s a couple of contenders: the first - and the one we’ll be focusing on - is the Battery Electric Vehicle or BEV.…often just called an EV. You might have also heard about FCEVs, cars that also technically uses electricity to motivate the wheels but use hydrogen as a fuel source.
BEVs, by comparison, are simpler to understand as we’ve all had (or seen) a remote control toy car before. The kind sold for kids, of course, not the faster and more serious hobbyist RCs that run on nitromethane.
Basically, an EV is an upscaled and more advanced version of that toy car. It runs on batteries that power an electric motor, except now it also has a proper interior and other creature comforts.
Both eschew non-renewable petrol and diesel and their harmful exhaust emissions caused by an internal combustion engine (ICE) in favour of clean, sustainable driving. Both also seek to reduce humanity’s overall dependence on fossil fuels, the supply of which will be exhausted in our not so distant future.
Why EVs, Why Now?
Automakers are usually the first to experiment with alternative propulsion solutions, usually spurred by a fuel crisis that made routine driving and filling up hard on the wallet. Jet cars, solar-powered cars, hydrogen cars, and electric cars were all made into working prototypes before they were actually sold to the public.
Over the past 10 years especially, not only are they acutely aware of the disruptive impact of the global crude oil supply suddenly running dry, but also know that climate change is something their own customers are increasingly conscious of and concerned about.
In late 2021, the Malaysian government announced aggressive incentives and perks to buyers of electric vehicles as part of a longer-term objective for the country to gain a foothold in expanding the EV manufacturing and supply chain market. ‘Step One’ is equipping the nation with a healthy base of zero emissions motorists catered to by a widespread charging network.
ICE vs EV - The Big Differences
Engine vs Electric Motor
That big front section of a typical car will be much emptier thanks to the fact that a large engine is no longer present for EVs. Instead, an electric car’s internals is concentrated lower down between the front and rear wheels where the batteries are usually located. Compared to an internal combustion engine, EVs have electric motors that are quite small (about the size of a watermelon) but powerful enough to power a car and will get even more compact over time. Due to their dimensions, they can be positioned on the front or rear axle, or both.
Battery vs Fuel Tank
The fuel tank is probably the most low-tech component of any car. A tub that gets filled with petrol or diesel, rarely do you have to think about it unless it’s empty. In contrast, the battery in any EV is probably its most important single component due to its sheer volume, weight, expensive material composition, and energy capacity, all of which contribute to how much the vehicle can travel on a single charge.
Charging vs Refuelling
The equivalent of topping up a car with fuel is also much different in an EV as charging doesn’t take nearly as fast. Even our small electronic devices, which use the same base technology (lithium-ion, lithium-iron phosphate, lithium-polymer) take hours to replenish. Any way you spin it, charging an EV involves a lot more waiting. Luckily, with some perspective and a little pre-planning, this could be seen as a much smaller issue. The average passenger car spends about 80% to 90% of its existence at rest (parked), which is ample time to charge up.
AC vs DC
If you’ve perused some EV lingo, you might have heard that AC (alternating current) charging is the slower charging method. This is true as it relies on the car’s onboard converter. A DC (direct current) charger will always be able to get you to 100% quicker as it offloads that conversion step to a much beefier system. The biggest practical difference here is that AC chargers are much cheaper to purchase and easier to install, making them ideal for home and public use. Due to their higher cost and additional burden on the electrical grid, faster DC chargers are more suited to specific locations such as highways where the least possible charging time is desired.
Living With An EV
The ideal situation for any EV owner is to not only to have an EV that can travel a reasonably long distance on a single charge, preferably as long as we can stay awake driving but also to have an abundance of charging stations - AC or DC - at our disposal so that we’re never far from getting our batteries topped up. A typical daily routine would involve walking out to a fully recharged car (since it spent the night charging as we slept) and being able to charge it easily and frequently while we’re out and about.
Home vs Public Charging
Home charging is ideal, obviously, and is the basis of an EV ‘lifestyle’. Here’s where having a landed property is a real advantage for EV owners today as most apartments and condominiums in Malaysia have very few charging options at this moment, if any at all, and are not very receptive to accommodating them. Having said that, there has been some positive traction from property developers, specifically from the likes of Sunway Property with the Alishan development, Unio Residence, Residensi Ava as well as Edelweiss to name but a few.
Public chargers (usually AC), either paid or free to use, are unfortunately still quite few and far between and a major obstacle to an increased adoption rate but again we’re seeing positive movement here. As part of the efforts to bring our nation along Malaysia’s energy transition journey, TNB has pledged to build an EV charging infrastructure along the North-South Expressway by investing RM90 million to develop and support the EV ecosystem over a span of three years. There will be an estimated 18,000 charging points by 2030 to accommodate 500,000 EVs.
The private sector with the likes of ParkEasy, chargEV, and JomCharge have also partnered up with malls to offer a seamless charging experience while you shop. It is also heartening to see manufacturers like BMW Malaysia also get on board with these initiatives.
Apart from obviously not releasing any harmful emissions as you drive, EVs are much more economical from a simple Ringgit-to-Kilometre standpoint. Better still, since its electric powertrain is ‘source-agnostic’, it will be cheaper and more ecologically sound to run as we find cleaner and/or less expensive means to generate electricity. Now, all we need are cheap EVs….
Maintenance (Or Lack Thereof)
Any EV has much fewer moving parts compared to any car with an internal combustion engine. There are no routine oil/fluid changes, leaky head gaskets, or transmission failures since it’s literally a computer sitting on top of a big battery and electric motor(s). Only tyres come readily to mind as a ‘wear and tear’ consumable. That and windshield washer fluid…
Problems & Hurdles
This is perhaps the biggest sticking point with EVs as a whole. We all know rechargeable batteries degrade over time, meaning they will not be able to hold as much charge the older and more used it gets. It’s also too bad that an EV’s battery, as mentioned, is its largest and costliest part so replacing it won’t be easy or cheap. This puts an unwritten lifespan on any EV as a new battery might cost more than the whole car is worth. Fortunately, there is some light ahead with advancements in battery technology with graphene and solid state cells reaching maturity.
Tying into the above matter is the EV industry’s reliance on lithium, a metal that needs to be mined out of the ground and is, therefore, neither abundant, cheap, renewable, or environmentally friendly. Where ICE car ownership today is often beholden to the price of crude oil, the entire trajectory of electric cars could be swayed by the cost/availability of this one material.
The Way Forward
Automakers are steaming ahead with plans to convert all or the majority of their line-up to electrified or fully electric powertrains in the coming years or decades. Clearly, Malaysia doesn’t want to get left in the lurch, and the government’s initial steps to encourage the EV adoption rate while simultaneously trying to position our country as a regional hub for manufacturing is a good start. However, getting real traction could take some additional coaxing, such as:
Cheaper EV Selection - For now, the majority of EVs offered for sale in Malaysia remain beyond what most of us will consider ‘affordable’ as next to none of them are listed below RM100,000 new. If electric mobility is ever going to see the uptake needed for a real shift away from ICE cars, that price ceiling will need to be reduced considerably. The most direct route to this is the micro-EVs that are either catered for 1 or 2 occupants. Intended for urban commutes and little else, these cars are compact and only require a modest battery to deliver decent range, hence their low price. Logically this should be led by our national carmakers, Proton and Perodua. We are already seeing some momentum from the latter with the soon-to-be-introduced Perodua Ativa Hybrid. Whilst not a BEV, it is a step in the right direction.
Long-Term Government Support - Malaysia will be offering EVs whose selling price is free of both import duty and excise duty with road tax waived until the end of 2025, but beyond that, any appeal and momentum for EVs will be dramatically reduced or halted if these policies are not extended. Apart from this, the country needs to consistently push for the establishment of a thriving infrastructure if it seeks to have any chance of seeing mass EV ownership flourish.