KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Benjamin Jacob stops his new scooter at traffic lights in Malaysia’s capital, fellow drivers sometimes flash their lights or honk their horns at him, though he has done nothing wrong.
With his silent electric motorcycle, other users of Kuala Lumpur’s congested roads wrongfully assume the 29-year-old has turned off his engine or fallen asleep at the wheel.
But the delivery driver is always alert - especially since he was picked to take part in a new electric-vehicle pilot project run by logistics giant DHL eCommerce.
When drivers beep at him or wind down their windows, Jacob lets them know he rides an electric bike that makes no sound.
Parcel delivery firm DHL eCommerce is testing electric vehicles in Malaysia and Vietnam for a year as it works towards a goal of cutting its logistics-related greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.
As well as helping companies boost their green credentials, electric vehicles ease air pollution and can reduce a country’s costly oil imports.
If the electricity that powers them is from renewable sources, they can also help meet the emissions reduction targets submitted by governments for the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb climate change.
Cities in the Asia-Pacific region have seen unprecedented growth over the last two decades. Many face air pollution crises, crippling congestion and other challenges related to mobility and infrastructure.
Tackling noise pollution is also becoming increasingly important to improve the wellbeing of residents.
The DHL project is rare in Asia, which experts say lags other regions in creating the right incentives, regulatory frameworks and infrastructure needed to make electric vehicles more attractive to both drivers and businesses.
At first, DHL wanted to pilot the project in three countries, but regulatory issues and limited availability of e-bikes in Thailand prevented it from launching there, it said.
Globally, the group hopes to replace 70 percent of all the vehicles it uses for “first and last-mile” delivery services with cleaner energy versions by 2025.
“After one year, we will see which bike does the best and how practical it is to scale up and look at more fleet joining us,” Anil Gautam, managing director for DHL eCommerce Malaysia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Around the world, electric and plug-in hybrid cars topped 3 million in 2017, a 54 percent jump from 2016, according to a 2018 report by the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA).
China was the largest electric car market, accounting for half sold last year - about 580,000 cars.
Facing public health risks from increasingly polluted cities, the Chinese government has put in place clear targets for electric vehicle sales, said Nick Twork, general manager for innovation and technology communications at the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance in Paris.
China has also invested in technology and mass production to bring down costs and make electric vehicles more affordable, he added.
The United States had the second-highest number of plug-in vehicles, with about 280,000 cars sold last year, although Nordic countries lead on market share, the IEA said.
Norway was in the top slot, with electric cars making up 39 percent of new car sales.
China and Japan aside, experts said Asian governments should consult more with industry and consumers to improve policies on electric vehicles, especially as the economic advantages of switching to electric from fossil fuel vehicles are slim.
There is a need to expand infrastructure for electric vehicle charging beyond homes and work places - a key barrier to take-up of electric vehicles in the region, said Dominic Patella, a transport specialist with the World Bank in Brussels.
Governments can also provide incentives or subsidies for electric vehicle buyers - including low-cost registration - and tax breaks for sellers, experts said.
“Where this generally works is when you have close cooperation between industry and government, and there are economic incentives for both infrastructure and the purchase of vehicles,” said Twork of Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi.
Preferential parking and lane access are other options for cities, many of which already ban diesel vehicles from the centre at busy times of day or have late-night curfews to reduce noise pollution.
Governments, meanwhile, can make it easier to import electric vehicles, and play a role in persuading public and private transport providers to go electric.
“Sometimes it takes government intervention to enable the uptake of electric mobility - and that’s where you need good policy, good programmes, good investments to enable good things to take place in the transport sector,” said Patella.
Businesses like parcel delivery and taxi companies have an easier route to switching to electric fleets because they can track routes and busy times, and recharge during quiet periods.
Charging time for the DHL scooters is between 60 to 90 minutes for a range of about 140 km (87 miles), but this differs depending on the make of motorcycle tested, weight of the load and driver, battery age and the type of charger used.
Most privately owned electric vehicles take hours to charge up, a process usually done overnight, but experts said the cost of batteries and charge times are falling fast.
Between 2016 and 2022, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi aims to cut the cost of its batteries by 30 percent, with a 15-minute charge time and an overall range of 600 km.
While electrified delivery fleets are expected to take off in other parts of the world first, Asia is a “fast follower”, given the rise in parcel delivery and freight across the region, especially from China, said Andrew Campbell, who provides technical support for the Philippines’ e-Trike Project.
The government-backed programme aims to electrify and replace all the country’s rickshaw-style tuk tuks, and has rolled out about 3,000 e-trikes so far.
"Somewhere between the five and 10-year mark, we are going to see a sea-change," said Wellington-based Campbell. (Reporting by Michael Taylor, Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org/climate)