Working out a viable approach for success of electric cars in the UAE

Electric car uptake depends on the government making the switch worthwhile for consumers, Cécile Chamaret, Béatrice Parguel and Felix von Pechmann write.

Electric cars on display during the launch of electric car charging station at the Dewa headquarters in Garhoud in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
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Theoretically, it should be a real challenge to bring electric vehicles to the UAE.

According to Renault Middle East’s managing director, Hakim Boutehra, cheap petrol and high summer temperatures have the potential to cause technical battery problems (longer charging time, less driving range and shorter lifetime).

But in practice, Renault cars have passed the “summer test” with flying colours, and their arrival on the market supports the Smart City Initiative launched by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. This initiative aims to make Dubai the smartest city in the world by 2021.

And so the electric car is spreading in Dubai, and the UAE is fast becoming the champion of electric vehicles in the Arabian Gulf region.

The electric vehicle’s success now depends on rapid adoption by consumers, and predicting uptake is a crucial question and a particularly complex one as it is a totally new innovation.

Electric vehicles are a radical departure from the petrol-engine standard and are opening up new markets. As a result, they are generally being sold to inexperienced customers who cannot assess their unfamiliar qualities and do not understand how to use them.

This makes traditional methods for predicting the distribution of a new product unworkable. To solve this problem, our research proposes a new modelling approach.

The idea is as follows: running an electric car involves difficulties for the user that reduce the likelihood of adopting it. These difficulties have been identified and calibrated in conjunction with automobile industry professionals. A preference for powerful cars is a difficulty that can be overcome; but needing to drive long distances daily is a difficulty that cannot be overcome, because the average driving range of electric cars currently on the market is rarely more than 150 kilometres.

These difficulties can accumulate to the point of total incompatibility between the user and an electric vehicle.

Starting from this observation, a model of adoption probability is constructed and tested using sales data collected in France, where electric cars have been sold since 2010. This model ultimately predicts sales of electric cars for each time period and identifies the most favourable geographical zones for their adoption.

Our model takes into consideration the gradual extension of the automakers’ vehicle ranges, and the users’ buying cycle. It also includes the fact that rising market penetration by electric cars encourages installation of new charging points and leads to better control over driving range difficulties, such that the user will have fewer problems in the next period. Ultimately, our model predicts that without a proactive public policy, electric car diffusion will probably be disappointing in the next few years.

Fortunately, automakers and public decision-makers have levers for action to counter this trend and speed up the diffusion of the electric vehicle.

Cost levers can reduce the surplus cost of the electric car compared with a petrol or diesel-engine car (giving a bonus to buyers as in France, or exempting electric vehicles from urban traffic charges, as in London).

Likewise, value levers can increase the perceived value of the electric vehicle compared to a petrol or diesel-engine car (admittance to bus or car-share lanes, provision of special parking spaces).

Our model, which incorporates these levers, shows that the “value” levers have a major effect on the spread of the electric vehicle. For example, allowing electric vehicles to use special traffic lanes or parking spaces reduces the chances of getting caught in a traffic jam or not finding space to park, and thus offsets anxiety over the vehicle’s driving range.

This result is confirmed by surveys conducted in California, where many electric car owners declare that the main motivation for their choice was the possibility of using special traffic lanes.

Although this kind of benefit cannot be offered indefinitely because ultimately the priority lanes would fill up, it could be reviewed regularly and restricted to limited time periods, following the California example.

In the Emirates, too, Mr Boutehra considers that government incentives will be decisive in the electric vehicle diffusion. “Exemption from Salik tolls and providing dedicated lanes and parking spots are the primary areas for consideration,” he said in late May at the Electric Vehicle Conference held in Dubai.

While European-style tax incentives are obviously ineffective in a country with no income tax, other economic levers can be envisaged, such as exemptions from import duty, or discounts on registration fees and utility bills.

For the time being, the country still lacks the necessary infrastructure in terms of charging points and federal regulations regarding electric vehicles. This situation is hindering large-scale imports of electric vehicles.

Lastly, the electric vehicle’s arrival in the UAE is good news for the environment.

Electric vehicles could be used to drive around the Dubai Expo 2020 sites, Dubai Silicon Oasis or the Dubai Design District, or they could be given away free with villa purchases. They could be a convenient car-sharing solution for tourists visiting Dubai, or form the fleets of governments keen to light the path to sustainability, as in Jordan.

Cécile Chamaret is an assistant professor at Paris Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. Béatrice Parguel is a researcher with France’s National Committee for Scientific Research. Felix von Pechmann is a researcher with France’s Ecole Polytechnique