Southeast Asia ramps up electric vehicle industry with help from Tesla and Vingroup

Photo: Michael Movchin / Felix Müller, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Southeast Asia’s electric vehicle and battery industries are quickly gaining momentum, as manufacturers in Thailand and Vietnam scale up production and high-profile foreign investors like Tesla and Nissan show increasing interest.

Editorial

As Southeast Asia looks for ways to recover from the economic impacts of COVID-19, the region’s growing electric vehicle and battery industry appears poised for growth.

Foreign manufacturers from China and the US have moved to enter the market and invest in Indonesia, Thailand and elsewhere, while domestic companies in Thailand and Vietnam have launched new manufacturing pushes.

Electric vehicle companies and governments are looking for ways to promote production and domestic demand, though minimal infrastructure and mass adoption remain major challenges.

Foreign investment in electric vehicles continues despite pandemic

In Indonesia, the electric vehicle and battery industry is now the major source of foreign investment, reportedly accounting for 70% in 2020. Investors are attracted in large part because Indonesia has the largest nickel reserves in the world—23% of global reserves. Nickel is necessary for electric vehicle battery production and the Indonesian government reinstated its ban on exporting nickel ore in January 2020.

The Tesla Model S electric car. Photo: Vauxford, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Indonesia’s highest profile proposal has come from Tesla, as the company seeks to lower its production costs. The Indonesian government hasn’t released details on Tesla’s proposal but has sought the company’s support to develop its e-vehicle industry. “If they only want to buy raw materials, we are not interested. This (proposal) is beyond just taking the raw material,” said Septian Hario Seto, Indonesia’s deputy head of investment and mining coordination.

In December, Indonesia also signed a US$9.8 billion investment deal with South Korea’s LG Group to produce lithium batteries for vehicles. The deal is one of the world’s first efforts to integrate mineral mining, processing and battery production. Indonesia also has similar plans with China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL). In addition to exports, the first batches of batteries will be put to use in Jakarta’s buses, as the city works to shift to electric vehicles by 2027.

In Thailand, Nissan has invested heavily in plans to make the country a hub for electric vehicle manufacturing. The Japanese manufacturer is also developing technology that allows electric cars to run without needing to plug in to a charging station. As Southeast Asian countries have little to no electric vehicle infrastructure, this could have a major impact on the region.

Vinfast Lux A 2.0 at the Paris Motor Show 2018. Photo: Alexander Migl, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Vietnamese firm to lead on e-vehicle exports

Vietnam faces the same lack of charging stations as the rest of the region, but megacorporation Vingroup says its subsidiary VinFast will begin exporting electric vehicles in 2022. Vingroup is founded by Vietnam’s richest man, Pham Nhat Vuong, and is a key source of momentum behind the country’s e-vehicle industry.

VinFast announced in January that it will manufacture three electric sports utility vehicle (SUV) models for export to North America and Europe. All three will reportedly use artificial intelligence technology and be at least partially self-driving.

“This is a solid foundation for VinFast to reach its global vision and become a popular high-tech electric vehicle company in the world, as well as develop green transport ecosystem and reducing emissions,” Vingroup said in a press release.

VinFast first began production in 2019 but struggled to sell its electric vehicles in Vietnam, in part because the country has very few charging stations. As the company turns towards international markets, it has focused on cars rather than its earlier models of electric motorbikes.

Chinese auto firm says Thai expansion will include e-vehicles

Chinese auto manufacturer Great Wall Motor (GWM) has announced it will begin selling nine models in Thailand over the next three years, “nearly all” of which will be electric. GWM Thailand was launched in 2020 and has already begun production at a factory in Rayong, purchased from US car company General Motors (GM). The Chinese firm considers Thailand a promising entry point for its expansion into Southeast Asia.

Thailand hopes to convert 30% of its car production, or around 750,000 units, to electric vehicles by 2030. The investments from GWM in Nissan will help it meet its goal. But for now, the number of electric vehicles on the road in Thailand remains very low, at just over 2,000 vehicles in 2020. 

According to many analysts, Thailand’s goals around electric vehicles still fall far short of what’s needed to have a significant positive environmental impact or to shift the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. Thailand also saw significant negative attention after news broke that its police force leased a fleet of Tesla Model 3s.

An electric ferry in operation in Denmark. Photo: Erik Christensen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Though few consumers have made the switch, Thai companies are taking a broad approach to e-vehicles and have already begun producing tuk tuks and ferries. The city of Chiang Mai has seen electric tuk tuks for at least two years now and domestic startup Power Up TukTuk is building electric three-wheelers that are more accessible to people with mobility issues.

In the country’s south, fossil fuel energy conglomerate Banpu has started to push electric ferries in Phuket and nearby areas. The ferries are part of a collaboration with Sakun C, a subsidiary of Choknomchai Group, one of the region’s automotive heavyweights and the local partner of Honda, Toyota and Nissan.

Sakun C CEO Weeraphon Techaphasuksanti says the electric vehicle industry offers Thailand and other Southeast Asia manufacturing hubs an advantage. “Body and engine technology means we haven’t been able to have Thai brands,” he told CNA. 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.”

The country’s e-vehicle push also has the backing of its influential national power company, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT). 

“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, director of EGAT’s Research and Innovation Division.

Mass adoption of e-vehicles depends on targeted, equitable government policies

In the US, car manufacturers and the government have so far failed to make electric vehicles affordable enough to cater to the majority of the population. Being eco-friendly requires significant disposable income. In most Southeast Asian markets, the solution likely lies in mass rollout of electric motorbikes.

According to Pew Research data from 2014, over 80% of households in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam own a scooter or motorcycle. When the same survey looked at car ownership, the picture was dramatically different: while over 80% of Malaysian households owned a car, that figure dropped to 51% in Thailand, 4% in Indonesia and 2% in Vietnam.

The UN Environment Programme is working with the private sector in Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand to find ways to promote a transition to electric motorbikes.

In Thailand, local firm Edison has rolled out a line of electric motorcycles that, coincidentally or not, aims to mirror many aspects of Tesla’s market strategy.

“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,” Edison CEO Nataphat Lertviriyasawat told CNA. “And then the process of changing the world, changing the carbon footprint, comes later.”

“We never saw e-bikes on the road,” he added. “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.”

Thailand also has plans to launch a trade-in scheme offering people 100,000 baht to swap out their old car for an electric vehicle, though the plan is currently on hold. 

With details on major investments like Tesla’s still to come, Southeast Asia will likely continue to see its e-vehicle and battery industries grow as the region rides out the economic impacts of COVID-19.

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