New trends in mobility | Daily News

New trends in mobility

There is a wide debate in business circles, media and in society over the import restrictions imposed on motor vehicles in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic which led to a foreign exchange crunch. Industry bodies such as the Ceylon Motor Traders Association (CMTA) and the Vehicle Importers Association of Sri Lanka (VIAL) have called for a gradual resumption of vehicle imports, noting that the entire industry is on the verge of collapse.

The Government has however allowed the resumption of imports of construction, agricultural and heavy commercial vehicles (buses and trucks), given their importance to the economy. This has enabled some importers to keep their heads above water, though sales are still sluggish compared to the pre-COVID days due to the present economic downturn. In the meantime, hundreds of brand new and reconditioned cars imported before March 2020 are still languishing at “car sales” awaiting buyers. The used car market has picked up considerably, as many people cannot afford to buy unregistered vehicles in the present economic climate.

But there is no question that motor car imports will have to resume at some point. It is a matter of when, not if. Besides, as a member of the International Community abiding by World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, we cannot keep out imports forever.

But there are several factors to consider here, both from the point of view of the Government as well as the consumer. The country generally spends around US$ 1.5 billion every year to import vehicles, which is a huge burden for a country like ours. With nearly 500,000 registrations per year (inclusive of motorcycles and scooters, the biggest category), one also has to consider the collective fuel bill for all these new vehicles. The country spends around US$ 6 billion yearly to import fossil fuels, though most of it goes for power generation. Nevertheless, this too is not sustainable in the long term for an emerging economy battered by COVID and other external shocks.

The depreciation of the Rupee, now hovering around Rs.200 to the US Dollar, is another factor to consider. This means vehicles will be more expensive to import and purchase in Rupees terms. Even if duties and taxes are adjusted accordingly, it will still be a huge outlay for all stakeholders concerned. It will thus not be a wise move to open the floodgates for vehicle imports at this juncture.

But there is a way out of this imbroglio that calls for a twin-pronged approach. There is currently a well-subscribed school of thought that we should limit passenger vehicle imports to hybrids and pure electrics once the imports begin. This is a sensible argument, given the need to reduce our fuel bill.

In case you think that electric vehicles are not yet “mainstream”, almost every manufacturer from BMW to Volkswagen has at least one all-electric model in their line-up. Electric vehicles are becoming cheaper and their battery range keeps on increasing. Almost every mainstream manufacturer has announced plans to produce only electric vehicles from 2030 onwards, which is just nine years away.

Sri Lanka should adjust accordingly, bringing in only hybrids and electrics from now until 2030 and thereafter permitting only pure electric cars to be registered. A further grace period of 10 years can be given for heavy commercial vehicles, whose pace of electrification is somewhat slow in comparison to personal passenger vehicles. By 2030, electrics will cost the same as Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) cars or even less, so price will no longer be an issue. Batteries may also be able to do up to 1,000 Km on a single charge by that time, ending “range anxiety”.

But there is one problem. If all these electric cars tap into our mainly thermal-powered National Grid to recharge, the whole purpose of having electric cars will be negated, as fossil fuels will anyway be burnt for mobility. There are two solutions – one is to increase drastically the generation of renewable energy. Plans are already afoot in this direction and it will indeed be possible to get nearly 80 percent of our energy requirements from wind and solar by the end of this decade.

The other approach is to have individual solar-powered charger units for electric vehicles. Duty concessions can be granted for the import of such units. These two approaches will reduce the pressure on the National Grid, slash the fossil fuel bill and air pollution and lead to a better environment overall. The Government should also consider installing an islandwide DC electric car charger network which can fill up batteries to 80 percent capacity in just 20-30 minutes, which minimises electricity consumption. Taxes and duty concessions should be granted for the import and installation of these superchargers at private premises too. Hydrogen Fuel Cell cars are also appearing gradually, for which we will need hydrogen filling stations.

The world of mobility is changing fast, with driverless cars on the way. We should be ready for that future in terms of infrastructure and an attitudinal change. Transport planners should take all these factors into account as we head rapidly towards 2030.