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Tesla Unplugged: In Singapore, It’s Just Another Unwelcome Car

Adam Minter

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Around the world, Tesla Inc. is a welcome symbol of what can happen when high-tech meets the global need for sustainable, electrified transportation. Everywhere, that is, except Singapore.

Last week, in an interview with Bloomberg News, Masagos Zulkifli, Singapore's minister for water and environment resources, dismissed the company and its founder, Elon Musk, outright. “What Elon Musk wants to produce is a lifestyle,” Zulkifli said. “We are not interested in a lifestyle. We are interested in proper solutions that will address climate problems.”

Coming from another government, that might sound petty and short-sighted. But Singapore's government has spent decades questioning whether personal vehicle ownership makes sense from both an environmental and quality-of-life standpoint. The answer, dating back to the 1970s, involves stringent restrictions on car ownership and ongoing investments in mass transit. Questioning whether a high-end electric vehicle brand like Tesla fits into that vision is not only appropriate, but should serve as an example to other crowded cities contemplating how to manage the future of transportation.

Few places on Earth feel the impact of the automobile quite so keenly as Singapore. Car ownership rates are low — around 11%, compared to 80% in the United States — but that still amounts to nearly 1 million vehicles (600,000 of which are private and rental cars) packed into an island city-state half the size of Los Angeles. Roads account for at least 12% of the total land mass.

To manage the traffic and other impacts on urban livability, Singapore imposed the world's first congestion pricing scheme in 1975. Initially, it applied only to morning rush hour in the central business district. But as the numbers of humans and cars expanded, so too did efforts to control the impacts via such schemes. They were effective in controlling traffic, but did little to crimp the appetite of upwardly mobile Singaporeans for new cars that would contribute to traffic. Indeed, between 1975 and 1989, the annual rate of automotive growth averaged 4.4% (it peaked at 9.6% in 1980).

So in 1990, Singapore established a quota for the number of new vehicles annually allowed on its roads. Aspiring car owners bid for 10-year ownership permits. The cost of these permits, combined with other taxes, have made Singapore the most expensive place in the world to own a car, forcing buyers to regularly pay three or four times more for a model than they would elsewhere. And ownership is only going to become more expensive: in 2018, Singapore cut the annual growth rate of new vehicles to 0% (commercial vehicles are excluded from the policy until 2021). The government justified the cut "in view of Singapore’s land constraints and our commitment to continually improve our public transport system."

They aren't joking. In 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveiled his commitment to a "car-lite Singapore" and a 15-year, $1.5 billion program to boost public transportation. Among other initiatives, the subway system will double by 2030, to 224 miles (at a cost of more than $21 billion). The goal is to boost the number of commuters using public transit at rush hour to 75% and to ensure that 90% of journeys to the city center can reach there within 45 minutes. Meanwhile, Singapore is investing in electric buses, including a bespoke miniaturized town — complete with rain simulator — for trying out autonomous buses. There are currently at least 10 companies testing vehicles at the facility.

Singapore's government hasn't been nearly as aggressive when it comes to aiding the deployment of personalized electrified automobiles. Just ask Elon Musk: in 2018, he tweeted that "Singapore govt is not supportive of electric vehicles."

His grudge, it appears, dates back to 2016, when Singapore imposed a $10,850 carbon emissions surcharge on a Tesla Model S to account for carbon emitted during the electricity generation process (Singapore is heavily reliant on fossil fuels). There is also Singapore's slow deployment of battery-charging infrastructure compared to other countries.

Masagos Zulkifli's repudiation of Tesla as a lifestyle is easier to understand. Thanks to Tesla's premium pricing (and Singapore's taxes), a used model S can exceed $250,000 in the city-state (a new one can be double). In fairness, other electric vehicles also have eye-popping prices in Singapore — the Kia Niro is one of the cheapest at $132,600. But from the perspective of policymakers seeking to electrify transport for as many people as possible, a car that exceeds the price of some homes isn't a climate change solution — it's a bauble.

Not every city, much less country, has the ability to make Singapore's investments in mass transit. Nonetheless, the kinds of questions that Singapore is asking about the impact of personal vehicles on the environment and urban livability are worth contemplating elsewhere. Long-term, fully autonomous electric vehicles might solve the most intractable problems — especially traffic — by doing away with traditional ownership models altogether.

But until that happens, the world's most-crowded cities need to rethink whether a personal vehicle — electric or not — is a future and a lifestyle around which they want to build at all.

To contact the author of this story: Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Patrick McDowell at pmcdowell10@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and the forthcoming "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale."

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