A program to begin replacing some of the country’s 3.5 million gasoline-powered commuter tricycles with more efficient, environmentally-friendly electric models appears to be finally moving forward with the approach of the end of the program’s bidding period and the arrival on the scene of an experienced Japanese electric vehicle manufacturer. The E-tricycle (or “e-trike”) program was initiated with financing organized by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in December, 2010 and is being overseen by ADB and the Department of Energy, and aims to distribute about 20,000 e-trikes by the end of 2015.
The e-trike is a six-seat unit powered by lithium-ion batteries, and uses about 3 kilowatt hours of electricity (roughly P36.60 at current electric rates) per 100 kilometers of travel. By contrast, the most efficient 125 cc four-stroke tricycles—which are anything but representative of the country’s tricycle fleet—manage a fuel economy of between 2 liters and 2.7 liters per 100 kilometers, which costs between P100 and P135. The economic and environmental advantages are obvious; not only can the e-trike safely accommodate more passengers than a typical tricycle, it has virtually no carbon footprint, it reduces the use of dangerous lead-acid batteries, is almost silent when in operation, and reduces operating costs by more than 60 percent.
This project is full of win for everyone concerned, but it has been slow to get off the ground; after its approval by the ADB board in December, 2010, an initial pilot test of 20 units was launched in Mandaluyong City, which until now are still the only e-trike units—save for a few Chinese- or domestically built models here and there, powered by heavier and less efficient lead-acid batteries and otherwise inconsistent with the ADB- and DOE-approved design—in operation, albeit operating very successfully by most accounts. Fortunately, it now appears as though the project will get a welcome boost. At least 21 interested companies have purchased bidding documents, and per DOE specifications at least six of those companies should be characterized as ‘serious’ bidders in order to have a properly competitive bidding, a goal which has been achieved, according to ADB’s Principal Energy Specialist for Southeast Asia Sohail Hasnie. With the bidding phase set to wrap up on July 30, the prospects appear good for meeting the initial target set by ADB and DOE, extending the pilot testing of the e-trike units to three more areas (20 in each area, for a total of 60 units) by the end of the year.
Although Hasnie understandably was not able to disclose the identity of the “serious” prospects, one bidding participant that is not waiting for the formalities to run their course before introducing itself to the public is Terra Motors, a Japan-based manufacturer of electric vehicles that has teamed up with a still-unnamed local partner to pursue manufacture of e-trikes and other electric cycles at a facility in Laguna. Earlier this month, Terra Motors presented its e-trike model based on the DOE design to the media, and is currently testing the model to study local road conditions, particularly in flood situations, according to Teppei Seki, Terra Motors director for Business Development. Although the focus for Terra Motors is currently on the bidding process for the e-trike program and negotiations for environmental incentives from the Board of Investments and other agencies, the $20 million the company has initially invested is also intended to be used to set up long-term production, hopefully to begin by the fourth quarter of this year, regardless of the outcome of the e-trike project bid.
“We are making efforts to create a sustainable business model,” explained Seki. “We have the largest market share in Japan for electric bicycles, and we see good opportunities here as well as elsewhere in Asia,” he added. One of Terra Motor’s main targets is to fill the vacuum left by the failure of the Chinese-made “Low E-Bike,” which was popular in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia before the company folded in 2009. Seki pointed out that unlike the Chinese model—or for that matter, the large number of inexpensive electric bikes that have become popular in the Philippines in the last year or so—Terra Motor’s advantage is that it has a full aftersales program, and will be able to provide parts and service support for customers long after their purchase. Incidentally, ADB’s Hasnie also explained that one of the DOE specifications for the e-trike project is an aftersales support program for a minimum of five years.
Whether Terra Motors will be the supplier, or one of the suppliers, of the e-trikes remains to be seen; one must think, however, that the company’s shrewd marketing move in introducing itself to the Philippine public might well be a significant advantage. Even if Terra is not the DOE’s first choice, the government should extend more than the usual welcome—legitimate foreign direct investment, particular direct investment in a long-term, job-generating manufacturing enterprise has been scarce for too long in the Philippines, and the chance to have a company like Terra Motors set up shop here should not be missed. And particularly not when it is a company producing vehicles that provide solid answers to the chronic problems of pollution, gridlock and imported fuel dependency.
As much can be said of the e-trike program as well; while it is a welcome sign that it appears to have shifted to a higher gear and will move forward at a little faster pace, further delays and bureaucratic inertia must be avoided. Philippine commuters deserve a safer, cleaner transportation option; Philippine drivers deserve the chance to share the road with fewer noisy, pollution-spewing, and badly driven conventional tricycles; and tricycle operators deserve a chance to make a better living from their dangerous and difficult job. Now that the e-trike program has been brought to the public’s attention—thanks in large part to Terra Motor’s public introduction—those responsible for seeing the program brought to fruition should take note they are now under some scrutiny—optimistic and supportive attention, to be sure, but scrutiny nonetheless.