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Hong Kong’s electric car owners still stuck in the slow lane

Despite the buzz surrounding the Formula E race in the city, ordinary drivers are being held back by a lack of charging stations

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 October, 2016, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 October, 2016, 10:08am

The Formula E race in Central this weekend is first and foremost a world-class sporting event, but for Hong Kong residents it will bring something equally unprecedented and precious – no roadside pollution, at least along Lung Wo Road, for a couple of days.

Though the thunder will be silent, the two-time champion Renault team will defend its Formula E title by the IFC and giant ferris wheel on the harbourfront, against teams from Audi, Jaguar, DS Virgin and Venturi, which was co-founded by actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

For one weekend in Central, Hong Kong will have arrived at a new era of electric vehicles, and our notorious air quality will be temporarily cleaner. And in theory, if petrol cars are gradually replaced by electric cars, then Hong Kong will enjoy cleaner air.

“Motor vehicles are the major emission source of air pollution in Hong Kong,” Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing said in a written response to the Post. “It is challenging to improve roadside air quality in a city because vehicle exhausts are trapped by buildings flanking both sides of the road.

“The high development density in Hong Kong aggravates the challenge. Electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions and are efficient in converting energy from the grid to power at the wheels. Replacing conventional vehicles with electric vehicles can help improve roadside air quality.”

But the reality is not that simple, as there are issues that cause daily headaches for many electric car drivers.

A random look at the car park at Pacific Place in Admiralty during a weekday lunchtime shows the shortage of charging stations. All four standard charging docks were occupied, as were the four Tesla fast charging stations, and there was a queue of Teslas waiting.

What is worse, many private residential car parks do not allow charging stations. As the percentage of electric cars is small, owners’ associations, made up mostly of non-electric car owners, are reluctant to do the extra work involved, and certainly not to shoulder the additional costs.

The government was well aware of this and Wong said “potential buyers should consider charging arrangements before buying electric vehicles”.

But he added that the government had been taking measures to alleviate the problem. Since April 2011, developers who put the necessary electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the car parks of new buildings, including provision of sufficient power supply and wiring to facilitate future installation of chargers, would be granted concessions on gross floor area.

And in June 2011, planning guidelines for new buildings were amended to “recommend” 30 per cent of private car parking spaces be installed with chargers.

Wong said the government wanted to encourage more developers and property management companies to provide charging services. “The government has been working with the private sector, including the power companies, in expanding the electric vehicle charging infrastructure in Hong Kong.”

But is what is being done enough?

“I think the government should make it mandatory for residential car parks to have charging stations,” said Professor Chau Kwok-tong, an expert in electric vehicles at the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Hong Kong.

“It is easier for new buildings, though existing buildings with suitable electricity infrastructure should be allowed to install charging facilities. We can introduce a quota system, say a car park should be required to have 5 per cent of parking spaces with charging facilities, perhaps raising to 10 per cent in three to five years,” Chau said.

“The availability of charging facilities at home is very important to attract people to choose electric cars. If the other resident landlords are not happy to pay the extra costs, the estate management company can charge electric car owners a rent or fee to recoup the extra expenses.”

Electric cars likely to become ‘smarter’ as Chinese start-ups adopt smartphone approach

Dr Hung Wing-tat, an associate professor at Polytechnic University who teaches transport infrastructure design and development, also felt the government needed to do more to meet the growing demand for electric cars.

“At some older buildings, electricity supply may not be enough to support chargers, but setting up new facilities may be expensive. Buildings laws may need to be changed to meet the growing demand for electric cars.”

He said the appetite for electric cars would further increase as the government would soon tighten the emission standards of vehicles. “Many drivers will need to replace their cars. Electric cars don’t have emissions, so they are attractive in this aspect.”

However, Gordon Lam, chairman of the Electric Vehicle Club Hong Kong, was not optimistic that the government would step in to facilitate.

“I am acutely aware of the problem. Among our membership of about 100 who drive electric cars, 90 per cent of them do not have a charging station at home.

“Ideally the government should make it mandatory for newly built car parks to have a certain quota of spaces with charging facilities, but I think in reality this is difficult to implement, as it will involve the government confronting developers who do not want to set up the charging facilities.”

But he noted that some developers were already active in preparing the charging infrastructure, such as Hopewell, Sino Land, Wheelock, and Sun Hung Kai Properties, because it “may help to make their flats more attractive”.

There were now about 1,400 public chargers in Hong Kong, but Lam said there were problems at these stations too. “Charging spaces are often occupied by petrol cars. There is no punishment for these unethical drivers, and often the guards simply say they can’t do anything about it.”

Electric cars are starting to charge ahead in Hong Kong

The most important benefit of electric cars is less pollution. But how serious is the pollution problem in Hong Kong? The environment bureau said the transport sector as a whole contributed about 14 per cent of greenhouses gases in 2013, while motor vehicles contributed about 14 per cent of local respirable suspended particulates and 20 per cent of volatile organic compounds in 2014.

Hung of Polytechnic University said a major pollution problem was the so-called canyon effect.

“Tall buildings along the roads in Hong Kong act like a tunnel and prevent the exhaust gas from petrol vehicles from dispersing. The problem is particularly bad in Causeway Bay, Central and Mong Kok.”

There are already several government measures to encourage electric cars. First registration tax is waived until March 2017, while companies that buy environmentally friendly vehicles are allowed 100 per cent profit tax deduction for capital expenditure in the first year of procurement.

The performance is great. Because there is no engine, it is really quiet, and there is much less need for maintenance
Tesla owner Dr Sammy Lee

By August 2016, there were 6,167 electric vehicles in Hong Kong, with 5,957 of them private cars. The figures had grown sharply from just 592 in 2013.

Dr Sammy Lee, a medical doctor, drives one of them – a blue Tesla Model S, the best-selling model of any brand in Hong Kong last year with 2,221 units. His experience shows why so many people are showing an interest.

“As a driver, choosing an electric car is all I can do to improve air quality in the city,” said Lee, who spent about HK$50,000 to install a charging station.

“The performance is great. Because there is no engine, it is really quiet, and there is much less need for maintenance. The ‘smart’ tools are also hugely appealing. My car is always connected to the internet via 3G, so it records every road and every turn it travels.”

Another perhaps unexpected benefit comes from the lack of a petrol engine.

Kevin Tsui, who drives a BMW i 3, said: “In the summer, I can keep the air conditioning running to keep myself cool even if I have parked my car, because the law to punish idling engines has exempted electric vehicles.”

The popularity of electric cars is being accelerated by new models. Tesla has just launched Model X in Hong Kong, an SUV with “falcon” doors and an impressive acceleration from 0 to 100km/h in just 3.1 seconds. The new BMW i3 has upgraded to a new battery with 50 per cent more capacity, increasing its range to 200km.

For the long term, the need to recharge during a long road journey is important
Professor Chau Kwok-tong, University of Hong Kong

In order to reduce overall pollution, Joseph Lau, managing director of BMW Concessionaires (HK), said production of electric vehicles should not be just about power generation.

“For the electric vehicle industry to improve, it will depend on whether the industry can truly commit to a wholesome sustainability concept. For example, BMW i3 and i8 are produced with renewable wind energy in Germany,” Lau said.

“The future is bright for electric vehicles. With the progress in technology, there will be more advanced products and with a larger range and smart features.”

Chau of the University of Hong Kong said a major direction of development was wireless charging, both static and in motion.

“Instead of linking the wire to the car, the charging can be done wirelessly from a facility built underneath the car, a bit like smartphones charging wirelessly. This solves the risk that wires can carry a potential safety hazard. There are already prototypes of these.

“For the long term, the need to recharge during a long road journey is important. There is research about building wireless recharging facilities underneath the slow lane, so electric cars running on batteries can move to the slow lane and start charging away.”

But that is more for tomorrow’s world and will not be happening in Lung Wo Road this weekend.