January 20, 2021

Electric car for the masses?

3 min read

WE associate the car industry with big names like Toyota, BMW and Mercedes, just to name a few. New entrants face an uphill struggle to gain a decent share of the world market.

We are all familiar with our own Proton which for years could not enter the export business in a big way. First, the competition with the many entrenched brands has been stiff. And second, even with strong government support, the small local market cannot support the demand which would make viable economic sense of the car.

Add to that the fact that the critical parts have all to be outsourced with very few components coming from our own research and development (R&D), and the investment in Proton has always been plagued with problems.

The partnership with Geely from China may resolve some of Proton’s problems, especially those related to securing a bigger market. But not all.

Admittedly, competing in the global car market with the established brands is not easy. Even some of the established brands

had to merge to be competitive. Recently, talk about a merger between the American Chrysler-Italian Fiat and French Peugeot has been in the news.

Comparatively, the South Koreans have made better inroads into the car export business though they also started at about the same time as Proton. Experts attribute the Korean success to their better brand positioning as well as more committed R&D of technology.

In a nutshell, it is futile to compete in the crowded global car market where the internal combustion engine still rules.

But now, with the advent of the electric car in the market, I can see the changing. Most of the entrenched brands are still positioning themselves in the new electric mobility business and none has achieved true maturity. They are all exploring and trying.

Is this, then, the right time for Malaysia to enter the potentially lucrative electric car industry?

All the brands have made announcements about eventually phasing out the internal combustion engine in the near future. So, with the proposed third national car, can we embrace a different business model than the one we have been accustomed to?

In both our earlier ventures we have been overdependent on major established brands, so much so that we have been dictated to. Is it time for us to go our own way, albeit collaborating with strategic partners wherever needed?

I know of at least one Malaysian entrepreneur who is placing the bet on not only a truly Malaysian car, but also a different business model. I have known Datuk Karl, as he is affectionately known among us classmates, as an ardent and persistent entrepreneur. His company has always been a strong believer in R&D. As an electrical engineer, his passion has always been for the electric and electronic business sector.

I recently visited his office and laboratories in Wangsa Maju, Kuala Lumpur. I was truly inspired by his work on drones and artificial intelligence, which he and his cadre of young engineers have been working on. I was told some of the engineering software the company has developed is used by top smartphone companies in the world.

During my brief visit, I was enlightened on how he has been going about developing the electric car, the nation’s first. He told how he has collaborated with a workshop in Gombak, Selangor, run by young TVET (technical and vocational education and training) graduates to develop the prototype car.

But his electric car is not for the crowded traditional car market where big brands dominate. He is targeting rural buyers by designing for affordability and practicality. Even the electricity to charge the car uses a technology that the rural people are already familiar with, the humble generator, which is widely used at pasar malam. But his generator is fuelled not by diesel but by palm oil, a renewable fuel.

To me Datuk Karl is an example of a true entrepreneur who has demonstrated how the power of science and innovation can advance business ideas. We need more like him in the industry, investing in R&D and producing disruptive products.

Talking about dignity, his is the kind of initiative that should be emulated. He shows what dignity is all about, being independent and believing in one’s self.

PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM

Fellow, Academy of Sciences, Malaysia

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