Electric vehicle start-up companies here have found the going tough

SINGAPORE – Imagine building cars out of a workshop the size of a three-room HDB
flat. That was what Mr Clarence Tan, 28, planned to do in 2008, after he had
invested S$250,000 to set up The Green Car Company (TGCC). His dream was to
manufacture 2,500 two-seater, air-conditioned electric cars a year, starting
from last year.

Three years on, TGCC did not make a single car. The
project has since been shelved.

Mr Tan, who is now focusing on his
existing robotics business, is not the only entrepreneur who had his grand
electric vehicle (EV) dreams dashed: The same year that Mr Tan set up TGCC, Mr
Lim Kian Wee, then 36, reportedly quit his S$200,000-a-year engineering job,
liquidated his investments and took out his retirement savings to start green
technology firm Ample.

Mr Lim had hoped to raise some US$40 million
(S$51.7 million) in two years to develop an EV with a range of 900km per charge
instead of the conventional 200km per charge and a power management system for
plug-in hybrid electric cars that run on both electricity and fuel. The company
wound up in November 2009.

To trailblazers like Mr Tan and Mr Lim, there
is a perception that the Government could have done more to support
them.

Said Mr Tan: “Government bodies want to know if your project can be
patented, if it can’t, your chances of getting funding is low.”

Mr Lim
died last year. His former employee, Wong Liang Tang, said: “There is the sense
that the Government prefers to work with established companies, but not
start-ups.”

But experts pointed out that these entrepreneurs were perhaps
ahead of their time. The reality around the world is that there are still many
design issues plaguing EVs which render it impractical for mass
commercialisation. These issues have to be closely examined, the experts
said.

Nanyang Technological University Associate Professor Michael Li
said: “For all uses of electricity, there is a huge amount of loss. So power
loss is a common challenge and an area for intensive research.”

He
added: “Anything that the Government does should benefit everybody, not just the
big players or the small players, and that means infrastructure for electric
vehicles; the charging stations. If you look at some of the issues of electric
vehicles, the power or the range, the Government cannot do anything about these
design issues. But it can do something about infrastructure. So the Government
has to put money into areas of high probability of success.”

In June, the
inter-agency Electric Vehicle Taskforce launched an EV test bed to test whether
these vehicles and its related technologies might be suitable for Singapore’s
roads.

To be tested are the vehicles’ operability and cost, the
suitability of the business model, the driving experience and barriers to adopt,
and the level of infrastructure development required to meet the expected demand
from EVs in the coming years.

The trial has kicked off with 15 vehicles
at nine charging stations, and the taskforce – led by the Energy Market
Authority and the Land Transport Authority – hopes to test 95 vehicles at 63
charging stations by the time the trial ends in 2013. So far, the participants
for the test-bed programme include Daimler, Mitsubishi, Bosch, Renault and
Nissan.

Global sales fall short

Worldwide, sales of EVs
have fallen short of expectations.

According to a Bloomberg report in
September, Nissan has delivered 12,000 of the Leaf model since its introduction
in December last year – less than half of its target of 25,000 units in a year.

PSA Peugeot Citroen, which beat Renault to the market with two electric
city cars last December, targeted 7,000 combined deliveries of the iOn and
C-Zero models for this year. It has sold 3,000 since Jan 1.

According to
Mr Tan, together with various partners, TGCC sought S$10million from the
National Research Foundation (NRF) in 2009 to test-bed a battery system that can
be used on various types of EVs, and to research on improving the motor drive to
get more mileage of the vehicle as well as to build a lighter but stronger body
for EVs.

Mr Tan claims that TGCC did not receive a response from NRF – a
claim which NRF denied.

In response to Today’s queries, an NRF
spokesperson reiterated that all proposals submitted under its Research,
Innovation and Technology Administration (RITA) grant management system would
automatically receive a response acknowledging the submission.

NRF also
has a standard operating procedure in place “to explain the reasons for
rejection to each and every failed applicant”, the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added: “This is to help our proponents to improve on
their research ideas so that they can re-participate in future grant
calls.”

According to the spokesperson, NRF has a range of grant calls
such as the Competitive Research Programme (CRP) funding scheme and the
Proof-of-Concept (POC) grants.

“Proposals submitted by interested
parties are evaluated by expert panels and awards are made to the best
proposals,” the spokesperson said. “A successful POC demonstrates not just
technical viability but also a high degree of commercial readiness to move it
into the market place.”

In September last year, NRF awarded POC grants to
two EV projects proposed by National University of Singapore researchers to
develop a novel anode-based Li-ion battery for EV application and the
fabrication of high performance Li-rechargeable batteries with superfast charge
rate.

Greenlots, a charging infrastucture company, was also successful in
funding under EDB’s “Quick Start” incentive scheme. The programme supports the
commercialisation of clean-tech innovations in early-stage companies, both local
and foreign, on condition that they locate their global headquarters and
undertake technology-orientated activities in Singapore.

Still, Greenlots
vice-president Khoo Lin-Zhuang told Today: “While the Government gives a lot of
funding to start-ups for research, when it comes to market commercialisation,
it’s very conservative.”

But National University of Singapore transport
analyst Lee Der Horng pointed out: “Given the size and nature of Singapore, the
motor industry has never been a focus over here, at least certainly not in the
sense of manufacturing.”

The lecturer at the NUS Department of Civil
Engineering added: “We are ideal for doing test-bedding.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING
BY TEO XUANWEI

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