When they hit our streets they will be the slowest cars in town, but some say also the most powerful. Their most enthusiastic supporters believe they’ll change not only the way Hongkongers drive but also the way they think, and launch a similar shift in consciousness across the rest of China. At the same time, many stress that they’re far from the solution to all our problems, and that the government prioritizes them at the expense of more urgent solutions. Either way, the electric car faces a bumpy road ahead into Hong Kong. One such vehicle is an electric car that was actually designed in Hong Kong. MyCar is a battery-powered, two-seater “microcar” developed by Hong Kong company EuAuto Technology. When fully charged it can travel more than 100km, at up to 50-60km/hr, producing no roadside emissions and saving owners up to a dollar per kilometer over gas cars. And according to Professor Eric Cheng, who worked on designing the car with other members of the Power Electronics Research Centre at Hong Kong Polytechnic, its small size makes it easy to manufacture in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, MyCar’s small size also means it can’t be used in Hong Kong right now. While the Financial Secretary’s budget speech touted special government support for electric vehicles in Hong Kong—namely the funding of research work on MyCar and the extension of the tax exemption on electric cars from three to five years—it has not approved the use of Hong Kong’s own model on our streets. According to Cheng, the hold-up is a “red tape issue” at the Transport Department, which currently lacks a licensing category for cars so small. Instead, the government will be using Mitsubishi’s larger iMieve as a test model here, possibly before the end of the year. While still pushing to get approved locally, EuAuto chief executive Chung Sin-ling has decided to bring MyCar to Europe in the meantime. “Electric micro-cars are widely used there, particularly in the UK, France and Italy,” she says, adding that Denmark is considering a plan for all its drivers to go electric. MyCar is expected to hit the road later this year in London, where electric cars are already being driven and are encouraged by incentives such as free parking. The recent spate of international enthusiasm for electric cars around the world is impressive considering they were pronounced dead in 2006. Chris Paine’s famous documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” blamed the oil industry, automobile manufacturers and other vested interests for thwarting its successful emergence in California. Since then, more advanced technology, high oil prices and growing environmental awareness have put the car back in the international spotlight, prompting Paine to follow up with “Revenge of the Electric Car,” out later this year. Local advocates such as Chung consider Hong Kong a “model city” for the use of electric cars in Asia. “It’s small, it has well-educated people, and we have good environmental sense here,” says Chung. Professor Cheng believes the city’s severe air pollution problem is bound to push up demand for the product once it’s available. Yet plenty of local infrastructure work has to be carried out before such a market can even begin to evolve here. Battery-charging facilities connected to the electric grid will have to be set up at stations and car parks. How long and how easy it will be for such a network to be set up has yet to be seen. Meanwhile, local environmentalists emphasize that it isn’t the environmental panacea the government makes it out to be. Edwin Lau, chairman of Friends of the Earth, believes the disproportionate focus on electric cars in the Financial Secretary’s budget speech suggests the government hasn’t got its priorities straight: “It fails to address the crux of the issue when it comes to air pollution from vehicles.” The main culprits, he says, are not private automobiles but franchised buses and trucks, which rack up far more mileage and in many cases still have pre-Euro and Euro-I standard diesel engines that need to be phased out. While electric vehicle enthusiasts say they hope for commercial vehicles to eventually go electric in Hong Kong too, Lau and other environmentalists believe we can’t wait for that: “we already have available technology such as cleaner diesel that don’t require new infrastructure, and it needs to be used urgently.” Electric vehicles are also not entirely pollution-free themselves. They run off electric grids, which in Hong Kong means ultimately being supplied by two heavily polluting power stations. “So long as we’re not using more alternative sources of energy, electric cars will still mean emissions—they will simply come from chimneys rather than tailpipes,” says Lau. Local environmental group Clear the Air report that those chimneys currently account for up to 70 percent of Hong Kong emissions. Thus while their chairman Christian Masset welcomes electric vehicles as a means of cutting down, he too stresses that “we mustn’t let it distract us from the overall problem of air pollution in Hong Kong.” Nonetheless, Masset recognizes the potential power of electric cars if they become a trend in Hong Kong. “They could anchor a new awareness about the environment and a new way of thinking about transport and energy here,” he says; “in six months to a year we might not only see new cars but a new mindset emerging.” It would come at an opportune time. Many believe such a shift in attitude is becoming vital to sustainable development in Hong Kong both environmentally and economically, as traditional engines of growth such as the endless development of roads and bridges seem continually less reliable. In the end, Masset and others hope the new mindset could go beyond Hong Kong and take off across the mainland. “It’s still in its embryonic stage here, but it could be the beginning of something much bigger,” he says.