BYD chairman Wang Chuanfu laid out a bold plan yesterday to replace 3,000 taxis running on liquefied petroleum gas in Hong Kong with its e6 electric cars within two years.
But the city's taxi owners were sceptical, as questions remain about who will pay for the electricity, who will build the charging facilities and who will pay for the car - which is twice the price of the popular Toyota cab.
After an eight-month delay, the first batch of 45 BYD electric taxis would finally roll out on to the streets of Hong Kong in May, Wang said yesterday.
But whether the e6 can be a new driver for the carmaker's earnings is uncertain, with Wang admitting the first batch of vehicles - which will be leased, not sold, to taxi companies - will operate at a loss.
"It's just 45 cars. If either we make a profit or a loss, it won't be a big sum, but we will run the first batch at a loss as a trial," he said.
It is understood that BYD will lease the 45 cars to taxi firm City Motors in a package that covers electricity costs, because the government will not let any party other than the two power suppliers sell electricity to an individual. That should not be an issue for now because owners of electric cars still enjoy free charging at the city's 1,000 charging points, but career drivers will not be able to count on that for long.
BYD declined to specify details of the package at this stage.
Wang said he expected to add 1,000 e6 taxis in Hong Kong next year, and by 2015 the number would grow to 3,000.
Since building a charging station from scratch is time-consuming and costly, the firm will seek to retrofit charging facilities to existing car parks and shopping malls. "Each charging point can serve three taxis, so for 3,000 taxis we only need about 1,000 charging points. The retrofitting will only take us about six months," Wang said.
While Wang sounded optimistic about the prospects for electric cars in Hong Kong, he said the government should do more to boost their usage, such as providing infrastructure or offering incentives to buyers.
"If someone would build the charging facilities, we wouldn't. We are a carmaker. Our main purpose is to sell cars," he said.
BYD is spending up to HK$40 million to retrofit 45 charging points for this trial - only 18 have been completed thus far - and it has not managed to sell one electric taxi yet because City Motors failed to obtain subsidies from the HK$300 million fund set up by the government two years ago to help public transport operators try out new green vehicles.
City Motors' Brandon Tong Yeuk-fung said the parking fees that owners of electric cars must pay while charging their vehicles would be a big problem in future.
"Now the government or the Link Reit might waive the parking fees for the drivers because the number of cars is low, but when there are 1,000 or 3,000 cars on the road, this will change," Tong said.
BYD said fuel costs for an electric car were just 26 Hong Kong cents per kilometre, less than a third of those for an LPG taxi, but that did not take into account parking fees, which could be up to HK$30 an hour.