Letter to Bangkok Motoring Post - I finally got irked enough to do it.

The Bangkok Post runs a motoring section each week. I look through it for items that may be of interest but each week I am disappointed. Why? Because I find the writers focus on vehicles that are outside the scope of most of us, I mean if we want to drool over pictures of flash expensive cars that we'll never be able to afford to own, we can search Google images for them, or buy a glossy mag with colour images throughout.

What got me going today however, were the articles about the EcoCar project, one of which suggested that the EcoCar was not realistic.

Here are those articles, followed by my email to the Post. I welcome feedback, so if you think I've been too harsh, or if you have other thoughts on the EcoCar project and can shed some light on this, please do get in touch, or post a comment.

Getting started

The EcoCar, alias ACES, project that had been gathering dust until its revival this week is being widely hailed as a step forward in Thailand's attempt to strengthen its position as the regional automotive production hub.

But some auto industrialists cautioned that despite the good intentions, implementing the project could be anything but easy because it was a complex issue that required delicate handling and input from all parties concerned.

Earlier this week, the government announced three criteria that broadly define what would constitute an EcoCar: fuel consumption of no more than 5 litres per 100 kilometres (at least 20kpl), exhaust emissions no more than 120 grammes per kilometre, and compliance with European crash safety standards.

"With this is mind, we are not too sure that Thai consumers would be getting cheap cars," noted one top executive of a major car company.

It is a given that all car manufacturers have equal access to modern technology. But in many cases, meeting stringent requirements mean higher costs that would eventually be passed on to the consumer.

As many have been led to believe, the project envisages cars smaller than those that currently make up the B-segment: Toyota Soluna/Yaris and Honda City/Jazz.

However, pricing the EcoCar under B400,000 - given the conditions - would be virtually impossible from a business point of view.

As well, such cars, given their cost and small size, may not always find acceptance in potential export markets - a key factor when a manufacturer makes a decision to invest and qualify for Board of Investment privileges, where the guiding criterion is that production should reach a minimum 100,000 units annually by the fifth year of operation.

After speaking to several car makers Motoring came to the understanding that before any firm guidelines are set, there must be a consensus on the EcoCar's main objective based on price affordability, fuel economy or space-saving packages. Combining all three would only complicate matters because affordability will be compromised by costs of new technologies to save fuel and improve safety, and vice-versa.

For example, a Toyota Prius or Honda Civic Hybrid can be engineered to meet the proposed EcoCar guidelines, but it could still cost over B1m even with special BoI privileges.

The same goes for an A-segment or city car that would cost just as much as a Yaris or Jazz due to the need of fitting strong and lightweight materials to enhance safety and economy.

While some executives dismissed the notion of an EcoCar since it didn't favour every brand, others suggested using the existing excise tax regime as a basis for classifying the car.

As for the general public, it wants the EcoCar to be small, economical and cheap. Creating more tax brackets under 2,000cc (30%) is one way out. But one pitfall is export potential: South America, Europe, Japan, India and Malaysia all build small cars.

Another alternative could be to push for energy-saving vehicles, regardless of affordability for the masses. That may give Thailand a global niche product (just like the one-ton pick-up), but the question arises about demand to justify investment.

Implement EcoCar with impartiality

JESSADA TANDHASETTEE

For any tasks to succeed the objectives must be estimable. Should the targets be well-defined and rational, it would only require a deserving support to see it through.

In this case, we're talking about the government's EcoCar project which made some buzz 2-3 years ago. But when it was canned, the talk died down.

Virtually everybody inside and outside the automotive circle reasoned that the project never materialised because of conflict of interests among the powerful ones.

The current interim government recently shone a bit of light on hopelessness by approving the EcoCar project. Hopefully, it won't be merely an image-building exercise or another deceit to reap the benefits.

The last time the overthrown administration debated about the vehicle specifications was a very peculiar matter for many of the figures were derived at via the most ridiculous prank.

For example, the dimensions of the EcoCar were derived at by holding a poll involving a group of motoring writers and so-called automotive experts. There was no technical nor engineering grounds for formulating the EcoCar dimensions.

How could they have even discussed on a set of engineering parameters by asking a bunch of motoring journalists instead of the engineers and people who actually build cars?

Can you deny that Thailand is not anywhere near being a developed and prosperous country?

If your vision is not clouded, you can see that the people of this economically-challenged nation should be offered the chance to use economically friendly vehicles - ones that are cheap to build and fuel efficient, thus cheap to run as well.

Such a "chance" need not come in the form of promotion or encouragement. It can also come by means of indirect financial persuasion since the government is the one that can adjust taxation appropriately.

There's a slight obstacle on the consumer side - the perennial perception of a small car's lack of safety.

Sure, physical advantage used to take side with the bigger and stronger vehicles. But cars are not solid chunks of metal.

Occupant safety nowadays is so thoroughly well engineered that a relatively small car can offer the same level of passive and active safety as a bigger car thanks to continuous and extensive R&D of many car makers.

The primary aspect of the EcoCar is fuel efficiency and the requirement for this indirectly outlines the physical size of the car.

Principally, the bigger the car the more energy needed to move it - thus going against the project's goal.

Define the fuel economy rate and let the industry develop a car around it - the size can only be as big as fuel consumption technology can permit as long as it's not smaller than what the consumers are willing to drive in.

That's still not good enough.

Such a car must still be driveable with sufficient levels of ride comfort, handling and braking.

Don't underestimate the demands of Thai consumers in these criteria. Thais may not be as well educated in vehicle control and traffic laws as in most developed countries.

But when it comes to car design flaws due to unwritten policy of profit preceding public safety, Thais aren't that gullible.

When a Thai buys a cars, an expensive price tag isn't as much as an issue as self-indulgence.

Whatever the government does with the EcoCar project, let's pray that the bigwig is neither related nor such a "close friend" to any of the auto makers or related industries.

Let the auto industry emerge from the dark ages.

Jessada Tandhasettee is former department head of automotive engineering studies at Rangsit University and is currently a technical consultant. He holds a master's degree in automotive engineering from Technical University, Berlin, Germany.

And here is my email to Motoring:

Hello,

This weeks motoring section has 2 pieces on the EcoCar project.

In the article titled "Getting started" the writer begins by talking about the broad criteria being:

- at least 20km/l
- no more than 120g/km emissions (doesn't define, but we assume CO2)
- compliance with European crash safety standards.

Next paragraph has a quote from a "top executive of a major car company", stating that "we are not too sure that Thai consumers would be getting cheap cars", suggesting that "a major car company" doesn't believe that it's possible to produce a cheap car that would fit into those criteria.

This concept is then echoed over and over throughout the article.. "meeting stringent requirements mean higher costs that would eventually be passed on to the consumer"... "pricing the EcoCar under B400,000 ... virtually impossible from a business point of view"... "not always find acceptance in potential export markets"..... "combining all three would only complicate matters because affordability will be compromised by cost of new technologies to save fuel and improve safety"..... "city car that would cost just as much as a Yaris or Jazz due to the need of fitting strong and lightweight materials to enhance safety and economy"

All of this is then made to sound completely ridiculous by the statement that "South America, Europe, Japan, India and Malaysia all build small cars."

Think about it. The article rants on for ages about how impossible it will be to make a cheap car that will meet European safety and emissions standards, and yet we concede that Europe already makes them. Further there are several small cars in Europe that achieve the fuel and emissions criteria required for the EcoCar. Built in Europe, with high energy costs, high labour costs, high transport costs, high tax, and high VRT, Toyota are still able to build cars to this standard for 6,980 British pounds (around 480,000 THB). That is the cost of a Toyota Aygo 1.0 VVT-i. You can check the information on this car here.

Isn't it at all possible that Toyota could build the Aygo here, and take advantage of the lower production costs, as well as BoI assistance, and tax relief to help bring the car to market at under 400,000 THB?? Why not?

The European Aygo comes with 4 airbags, 2 of which could be ditched from the Thai model for a start. Handling, and driving are good and the car is well built. (It is Toyota.)

Perodua, Kia, Hyundai, Proton and Suzuki all make cars that are well below 400,000 Thai baht and have them on sale in Europe, adhering to European standards. The Perodua Kelisa is a mere 334,994 THB in the UK. Okay, the Kelisa is 1g over the emissions limit, but it still serves to prove that this standard can be met.

The final paragraph:
"Another alternative could be to push for energy-saving vehicles, regardless of affordability for the masses. That may give Thailand a global niche product (just like the one-ton pick-up), but the question arises about demand to justify investment."

This sums up what was a completely unhelpful and badly conceived article, starting with a notion that 400,000 baht was not a possible target unless the car was going to be rubbish. Pushing for energy-saving vehicles is a world-wide effort. Thailand is not going to find a global niche product by working this angle while everyone else is working towards the same goal anyway.

To conclude: There are already many cars out there that are cheap, safe, nice to drive, and environmentally have a very limited impact, that would fit well into the EcoCar concept. Toyota's Aygo is a fine example. It is also available in Europe with a very efficient 1.4 diesel if people want more power than the 1.0 petrol, while still achieving over 60 mpg.

The manufacturers might be reluctant to have such cars entering the market, because it would provide them with reduced margins, and take sales from the Jazz, Yaris and Aveo, but that's a different matter. People who buy a bottom of the range Jazz or Aveo are in the market for the cheapest car they can get. If there was a car with 4 seats, 4 doors, 4 wheels, an engine, some aircon, a cd player, good safety, and comfort levels (like say.. an Aygo) selling for around 100,000 less then these people would buy that. Not everyone is in the money. If they were they wouldn't be buying the cheapest car they could get would they?

The next article "Implement EcoCar with impartiality" by an expert "Jessada Tandhasette" is generally better, and I agree with him virtually in every point. But the sentence " When a Thai buys a cars, an expensive price tag isn't as much as an issue as self-indulgence." is another example of the lack of realistic thinking here.

The EcoCar is not for you: "the writers of the Motoring post", which I read regularly but seldom enjoy. You who review cars that are outside the budget of 90% or more of the population of the country. One could argue that it is an English language paper, and you expect that your target readers have fatter wallets than average, but let's be realistic. An article a few weeks ago talked about the Spyker, but ended with something to the effect of "get one if you want, but I'm going with an Italian." So we assume that your writers can afford 20 million baht for a car. The EcoCar is not a replacement for your Porshe, or even your BMW or Merc, or your Toyota Camry for that matter, or your Toyota Altis, or Honda Civic.... No, the EcoCar is a car for the people who cant afford a new one at the moment. A car that, after a modest 50,000k down payment (the cost of a motorbike) would set the customer back around 6,000 a month for 5 years. Still much more than many can afford, but suddenly an option for many others.

Let's go back and write that sentence again, I think it should read "When a RICH Thai buys a car(no 's' check the website), an expensive price tag isn't as much of an issue as self-indulgence. But when a poor Thai, who has rarely experienced a moment of self-indulgence if ever, purchases are based on NEEDs rather than the desire to impress oneself with ones own affluence,and if those needs are met with a 350,000 baht car then that's great."

Reading these articles, I was left with the impression that your paper has an agenda that doesn't take an interest in anything that is not relevant to your-own interests. The EcoCar is a good idea, and if everyone was more positive about it the car would be built by now.

I can understand the auto industry individuals wanting to remain nameless in your article. Name that exec who doesn't think a value for money car is realistic. He doesn't deserve his job.

Regards,

Peter

I will be sure to update with their reply if I get one!