Policymaking needs to keep up with rapid tech changes

Electric cars, solar panels, Uber - we must think ahead rather than react to disruptive breakthroughs

I bought an electric car five months ago and it's the coolest thing I've ever owned.

It is spectacularly quiet when driven and the pick-up from standstill is breathtaking.

Best of all, you never ever have to visit a petrol station.

Charge it like you do your smartphone every night and it's good for 140km, which is more than enough for driving around the city.

So, what's not to like about it?

Quite a bit if you own one in Singapore, though the downsides have nothing to do with the car itself.

For one thing, you won't enjoy any special financial incentive, unlike in many other countries where electric car owners are given generous tax breaks, presumably because the authorities want to promote their use.

My electric wonder, a BMW i3, qualifies for the usual carbon emission rebates, but no more than other petrol and diesel vehicles which meet the required standards. Then there is the issue of public charging points, which are practically non-existent here, save for a few outlets at some carparks.

This limits the potential market to only those who live in landed property and can charge their cars at home.

It's the reason the i3 is the only electric car available here.

This is in sharp contrast to what's on sale in many countries, where there is a broad range of models to choose from made by the likes of Nissan, Chevrolet, Ford and many others.

The Nissan Leaf, for example, has been a hot seller and is the world's best-selling electric car, but you won't be able to get one here.

In the United States, Europe and even China, you can find many more public charging points than in Singapore.

Clearly, Singapore is a laggard in the electric car market and, unless something is done about it, will remain so for many years to come.

Is this a desirable outcome?

The issue was propelled into the public limelight last month after an imported used Tesla S, an electric car made by the world's foremost manufacturer, was slapped with a $15,000 surcharge, prompting the company's celebrated boss, Mr Elon Musk, to phone Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong about the matter.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) is now reviewing the case but, in its early comments, said the surcharge was based on the power output of the car, which when converted to a carbon emission equivalent, made it as environmentally unfriendly as a gas-guzzling Ferrari.

That's even though when driven, it emits not a trace of the black stuff, as is the case with my i3.

The LTA has now said it is reviewing the issue, so there might be further twists down the road.

But however it decides this one particular import, the larger and more important issue is what the Government's overall policy is towards promoting the use of electric cars here.

Based on the experience of that unfortunate Tesla buyer and my own with the i3, it looks like officialdom isn't electrified by the new technology.

That's a pity because I can think of at least two reasons why Singapore should promote its use.

One is the obvious environmental benefit: The air would be significantly fresher if all the cars on the road were driven electrically.

Clean air is a priceless thing in a densely populated city like Singapore, which wants to be an attractive place for people to live and work in.

How do you price it when formulating policy on whether to promote the use of these cars?

In fact, Singapore is ideally suited for them, given its small and compact size.

My experience with the i3 is that a single charge is enough for my daily commuting needs. In fact, on many days, I need to charge it only every other day.

In larger countries, where people drive long distances, it might not be so practical but not so here.

Are there any downsides to having these noiseless, non-polluting vehicles on the road?

Perhaps the Government is concerned about the potential loss of revenue from petrol duty?

But this shouldn't be a consideration as the deficit can be made up by other means.

Or could it be that it does not want to use policy to favour one particular type of car against another?

But it has been doing this all these years when it introduced a diesel surcharge to discourage the use of diesel vehicles for environmental reasons.

It clearly favoured the use of petrol-driven cars, resulting in there being many more of them compared with diesel ones.

This shows how important policy is in influencing consumer behaviour and market choices.

Can a similar case be made in favour of electric cars?

I do not know the answers to these questions because the Government has not articulated clearly its position on this issue.

When policy isn't clear, you get questionable decisions like the one on the imported Tesla.

And the market here will continue to be stunted, while the rest of the world powers ahead.

In fact, the global market for these cars will soon expand significantly after Tesla announced last week the launch of its first mass-market model, attracting more than 300,000 bookings worldwide.

In the broader scheme of things, it probably does not matter much whether Singapore makes it attractive for motorists to buy these cars, even if the environmental benefits are superior.

The bigger worry for me is whether policymakers are thinking ahead about the emergence and impact of these new technologies and how they change the way consumers behave.

Do they plan and formulate new policy solutions in response to these breakthroughs or are they merely reactive?

The same question could be asked about solar panels, which are increasingly being used in many countries because prices have plummeted in recent years .

Yet you don't see many being installed here in sunny Singapore.

On my recent trip to the Netherlands, for example, I saw more of them in a small town than I have in the entire city here.

Another disruptive technology in need of a faster policy response is Uber, which is upending the traditional taxi industry.

Singapore needs to move faster in deciding how this global phenomenon can be part of the country's transport system, taking into account the impact on the livelihood of the tens of thousands of taxi drivers here.

Perhaps the funniest story of this policy-failing-to-catch-up-with-innovation is Airbnb, the accommodation website, which has set up its Asian headquarters in Singapore despite not being able to offer any rooms here legally.

That's because present regulations prohibit home owners from renting out their places for less than six months.

There is a serious point to this contradiction.

Singapore is obviously a great place for many of these innovative companies to be based - modern, plugged into the world, business-friendly and with talented people to hire.

Apart from Airbnb, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and many others are already here.

But Singapore needs to capitalise on this advantage by promoting the use of these new technologies among its people so they can be a part of this exciting world.

It has to start with having more forward-looking policies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 10, 2016, with the headline 'Policymaking needs to keep up with rapid tech changes'. Print Edition | Subscribe