An odd (and random) thought struck me while I was sitting in the middle of this Nissan-led symposium in Singapore where experts -market researchers, automotive engineers, energy executives, and even IT specialists- were talking about the future of mobility.
What if this was taking place exactly fifty years ago?
I wasn't even around yet, but I can imagine the kinds of cars we'd be talking about. We'd be looking at stunning concepts such as the Lincoln Futura with its bubble roof and development into becoming the first Batmobile, the ultra-sleek Alfa Romeo Carabo with its scissor doors that inspired the Countach, or the Dodge Charger III concept which bears little resemblance to the production car; it looks more like something out of Blade Runner.
We'd also be talking about fanstastical technologies that were way ahead of the time like jet-turbines such as the Chrysler Turbine Car, systems that enable automobiles to fly were being developed by many firms, and there were even concept vehicles like the Ford Nucleon that ran on -wait for it- nuclear fission.
With the exception of a few, many of those ideas of the future at the time had, unfortunately, fissured out. Many proved to be merely the subjects of Hollywood and science fiction, some proved to be impractical, while others were just too dangerous, unless you like the idea of carrying a radiation suit in the trunk of your car.
So for the next few decades, the future wasn't so much revolutionary, but evolutionary. Internal combustion proved to be the only way to go, and the pursuit changed to making it better, more powerful, and more efficient.
But at Nissan Futures, this gathering of subject-matter experts that will define how motoring in Asia Pacific (and the world) changes in the near future, poses a not-so-obvious statement: the future is already here, and we're going to start feeling it from Nissan.
The future is connected and (possibly) autonomous
Two big topics of the conference, or perhaps of every modern automaker today, is connectivity and vehicle autonomy.
What Nissan says is that they're working on something called an Alliance Connected Cloud; a shared technology in vehicle connectivity through a shared platform that will be used by Nissan, Renault, and the newest member of the alliance: Mitsubishi.
This cloud will house a lot of the data from their customers to provide a variety of new services. Think of things like remote diagnostics that could eliminate the guesswork when figuring out what's wrong with a car. Or perhaps even navigation with intelligently mapped routes; like what Waze does, but OE. Things like safety and security could also be further enhanced. The possibilities are many, and they're tapping their IT partner, Microsoft, to help out in the development.
Of course there's a concern that we had to raise at the forum: how can Nissan assure the security of the customer's data in an age when private data can so easily be grabbed by hacking “clouds”?
Ogi Redzic, the Alliance's head for Connected Vehicles and Mobility Services, chimed in that they'll be observing the EU's GDPR, or General Data Protection Regulation, when it comes to personal data collected from customers. How that plays out, we'll find out soon enough as the EU's GDPR becomes enforceable in May.
But really, the big thing now is vehicle autonomy. We're being saturated -bombarded, really- with news of the latest developments in autonomous vehicles (or self driving car technology), and that's understandable; it's the next logical step for automobiles to drive on their own, freeing up the driver to either relax, or get something else done along the route.
Still, there's a big element of science fiction here; many of today's technologies require human intervention in one way or another. And of course, there's the legality of it all; if an autonomous car is involved in a traffic violation, who gets the ticket? How will it be insured? Or perhaps the extreme: if an autonomous car is involved in an accident, who bears the liability of the consequences? Mind you, it also all depends on the legal framework of the country your car is “driving” in.
These are all very important questions, and a great challenge for autonomous cars. Neils de Boer, the expert from Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, chimed in that the OEM could be liable if there is a problem with the software and decided not to fix it. These could be hurdles that would make the lawyers and accountants of car companies very nervous.
Still, Nissan is forging ahead; some vehicles like the Leaf and Serena already have a single lane intelligent cruise control that can follow the lane markings and come to a full stop if the vehicle ahead stops, and resume driving again when traffic gets going. They even announced that a lot of their vehicles will have some kind of autonomous related technology available from automated emergency braking all the way to more advanced versions of ProPilot later on; again, it all depends on the market.
Locally, Nissan is already moving forward too; they've already started to introduce some of these new features in their vehicles, and we'll be testing them out real soon.
Tomorrow's driving is electrified
The major highlight of the Nissan Futures event is the study conducted by research firm Frost & Sullivan into the market viability of electrified cars in South East Asian countries: Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, and of course, the Philippines.
I know what you're thinking: why would a region predominantly thought of as “third-world” be interested in full electric or even hybrids?
The results of the study -a survey of car buyers in the region- conducted by the firm proved that interest is high. In fact, 37% of South East Asian customers are willing to consider an electric vehicle as their next purchase. More importantly, the result of that survey for the Philippines is even higher: 46%, or almost half, are interested in an EV as a next purchase.
That comes as a surprise, especially since our country has only started implementing Euro 4 as a standard for emissions in new vehicles whereas other countries in other regions are already at Euro 6. Not only that, there are no fully-electric vehicles offered for sale from the major automakers in the Philippines, though there are quite a number of hybrids being offered.
Unfortunately, however, the cost of owning hybrids in the past has been prohibitively high; something we can blame on the old excise tax scheme. Cars like the Prius, while popular in places like the United States and Japan, are priced double of their compact counterparts; actually, they're priced like executive cars and crossovers, making them unattractive to purchase and own.
Thankfully, that pricing has changed thanks to the 50% discount on excise tax commitments that hybrids will receive under the new tax reform law. And more importantly, electric vehicles or battery electric vehicles (BEVs) will be fully tax exempt. That will bode well for BEVs because, according to the same survey, a tax waiver on EV cars is the most important incentive for South East Asian customers to buy one; 75% of the respondents said so.
But what will be tricky is infrastructure; 70% said that the presence of charging stations, particularly in their apartments, is the second most important incentive. Right now, apart from the charging station at Meralco to service the Tesla of their chief executive, the Philippines has zero commercially-accessible charging stations whether fast (ChaDeMo) or otherwise. And let me tell you now, after testing the BYD E6 electric MPV, the anxiety you get while behind the wheel of an EV in traffic is real; you can't just pull up to a gas station or even a Motolite center and charge it.
That will change though; one of Meralco's executives was part of one of the panels, and he said that their company is working on a plan to expand into EV charging stations. It makes sense given the popularity of smaller EVs in the form of electric trikes, bicycles, and electric jeepneys, as well as favorable legislation giving tax breaks on EVs. But until they set up the stations they're planning, we'll have to wait.
And that's why Nissan isn't offering the Leaf -the world's best selling EV- yet. Instead, what they're aiming to introduce is something of a bridge between internal combustion and a full EV: they call it e-Power.
Is e-Power the answer for now?
After a day of talks and presentations, we were driven up to the Nanyang Technological University's Center of Excellence for Testing and Research of AVs or CETRAN. Yes that's a mouthful to say, but it's essentially a small test circuit for advanced vehicles, even autonomous ones.
This will be a date with what we can expect from Nissan in the field of electrification. They had three cars for us to drive: They had the all-electric Leaf on hand, along with the the standard Note with a gasoline engine, and the Note with the e-Power unit.
The Leaf is something we've driven before, and it's great; smooth, quiet, and nimble around the tight test course. But again, the Leaf -for now- in unrealistic for us to expect in our market and on our roads given the lack of charging stations. The interim solution that Nissan poses for the Philippines is e-Power.
The e-Power system combines the abilities of a battery electric vehicle and a gasoline powered vehicles, but it would be unusual to call it a hybrid in the same sense as a Prius. It technically can be considered a full EV in the sense that the tiny gasoline engine cannot directly drive the wheels; instead, it just charges the batteries, and the electric motors do the driving. The more accurate term is series hybrid.
Compared to the gasoline counterpart, the Note with the e-Power unit is quite smooth. It's just as quiet as the Leaf and is just as smooth. The engine only kicks in when the battery is running low, and even then, it's extremely efficient; in the Japanese fuel efficiency test, the Note e-Power achieves 32.7 kilometers to a liter. More importantly, it comes in a familiar B-segment hatchback format; and it's good looking too.
But here's the surprising bit: we may not be getting the Note e-Power yet because there's no left-hand drive version. What is being hinted at for us is something different, but with e-Power technology; as to what form it will take, we can only wait and see. Given our market, however, a crossover would sell very, very well.
A revealing flight
The concept of what the future holds for the automobile is different from what it once was. Electric drive, advancements in connectivity and autonomy are more feasible targets than nuclear cars or even flying ones.
Our time behind the wheel of Nissan's latest cars was cut short simply because we were slated to catch a flight just past noon for another event in Bangkok but on the approach to Thailand's primary airport, I could barely see the ground. The smog surrounding the country's capital is so thick that it was difficult to make out just what we were looking at.
And this is perhaps why the interest in EVs -a more efficient and more eco-friendly mode of mobility- is so high in our region. The challenges are there like bringing the prices down or ensuring that the source of electricity is more environmentally friendly (only 32% of our power supply comes from renewable sources), but carmakers are working to get there if we're willing to embrace the future of motoring.
We just have to hope that these ideas for the future become mass market reality sooner rather than later because, judging by the view outside my window, we don't have a moment to spare.