Mass produced electric cars have always seemed like a dream often delayed and pushed back by economics. For years now nothing has come close to transporting the masses quite like the petrol driven internal combustion engine. An electric car to me was the stuff of the Jetsons, the popular space cartoon of my youth, where people zipped (zip seems to be the imperative word when describing driving electric vehicles) around in compact car with large windows. Aside from the odd resort buggy on quiet resort roads, I have never driven a car running solely on electric power before. So when I saw the Mitsubishi i-MiEV (pronounced i-meev) electric vehicle parked under the eaves of the GM of Mitsubishi Corporation garage, I grabbed the wet toaster with my metal tongs and asked whether I could test drive it for a couple of days. The kind gentlemen of Mitsubishi Corporation obliged.
The i-MiEV I had on loan was decorated with bubble gum pink and orange decals indicating that it had zero CO2 emissions. Futuristically done in a Japanese “cho kawai” style, it had a Harry Potter scar sticker where you plug a nozzle (connecting to your ordinary 3-pin power socket at home) to charge the battery. It was like the Jetsons’ car; compact, with large windows, a full on electric dream. Whilst its name left something to be desired (Apple have cornered the lower case i in front of every high tech- high design apparatus haven't they?), it drove like a futuristic dream.
Silent from the time you turn on the ignition, it has a special sound effects button to give the car some noise so that it's not a danger to pedestrians. It accelerates reasonably well, like any compact car, to a comfortable cruising speed of about 80km/h. Instead of a rev counter, a digital gauge tells you whether your power use is economical or wasteful. Driven with care, the vehicle will travel about 160 kilometers on a full battery, but you won’t get this if you regularly max it out at 110 km/hr. The battery charges at home from empty in about 8 hours, there is also quick charger, but this needs special equipment.
The batteries and electric motor are kept low and in the rear and they drive the rear wheels. Given that it is also designed to be light, this gives it a sporty feel. It has a radio with a front-loading CD, a chilly air conditioner, a few knobs here and there for adjusting mirrors and suchlike. Its a bit bare for an approximately USD35,000-00 car but one thing it does do is that it doesn't compromise on being a car. It even has proper air bags for all passengers, including the ones at the back.
Will the average Abdul on the street buy them? I reckon affluent trendsetters and early adopters will snap up the first electric cars on the market, but most people are naturally skeptical about new technology. The electric car has come a long way but there's still the limited driving range, the lack of public recharging stations and relatively high initial costs.
I maxed it out a couple of times zipping down the highway towards Mentiri from Beribi and got a kick out of bearing down and overtaking an older petrol car that was belching black smoke. Songs on the radio, my daughter in her car seat, boy was I ever a trendy mommy. Upon reaching Mentiri, the battery indicator showed me that I had used up a quarter “tank” of electrical power. Being the kind of person who brings along her phone charger everywhere for fear of a dead phone, I immediately recharged the car at my mother's garage. Therein lies the first problem. If I had an electric car, I'd like to have charging stations around. If not I'd be mapping my routes keeping in mind who will be kind enough to let me use their electricity.
It takes a slight shift of mindset to come home and plug your car into a socket to charge up the battery. There is an argument against electric cars in that the electricity used to charge the car would be more expensive than filling the car with petrol.
I hope my calculation is correct, but here goes: -The battery is rated at 16 kilo/watt hours meaning it stores 16 kilowatt hours of energy. At 7 cents per kilowatt-hours according to the new home electricity tariff, this means that it costs you $1.25 to charge in full and to travel 160 kilometres. A petrol compact car will use up 5 litres of petrol to travel the same distance, which at 53 cents a litre, amounts to $2.60. On this, it would seem that the electric car is cheaper to run by half (but don’t take my word for it, I was definitely arts stream at school). There are other factors to consider though, such as maintenance, (cheaper for the electric I reckon) and battery life.
There is also nothing "green" about electric cars if the electricity to power these vehicles will be generated with fossil fuels. The sustainable way forward is to consider the whole power generation infrastructure and also to introduce quick charging stations powered by renewable energy sources –wind, sun or water. Tenaga Suria, the Mitsubishi Corporation research facility on solar power and our higher learning centers would be well suited to doing research into these.
I reckon if the authorities were committed to reducing carbon emissions by putting more electric cars on our roads, they could. Money would have to be spent on infrastructure such as quick charging stations at various points across the country and in car parks. Ideally, these would be powered, in part or in whole, with alternative fuels or renewable sources. A tax incentive or subsidy for electric cars? Financial institutions could join in the fun by providing lower rates for loans on electric vehicles. Surely if more people adopt the electric way, the economies of scale will translate into lower costs over time.
I can envision a Brunei known for being a country that is committed to reducing its carbon emissions. We lie after all within one of the greenest parts of a fairly polluted globe, with a lush and beautiful rainforest we are proud of. I can see us slowly, but surely, killing off the dinosaur that is the internal combustion engine and embracing the electric or ecological vehicle. Let's take this thought and zip around with it folks.
Illustration by Cuboi Art.