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Electric avenue: is the global obsession with BEVs leading us down a one-way street?

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By Alex Hong

· 20 min read

The BEV hype: a detour on ASEAN's road to sustainable mobility?

Across sun-kissed beaches and bustling megacities in ASEAN, a narrative of clean mobility thunders: the rise of Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs). Once a futuristic blip on the radar, BEVs have morphed into gleaming symbols of progress, promising a path towards net-zero emissions and a sustainable future. Yet, amidst the intoxicating aroma of technological disruption, a critical question simmers: are we, in our fixation on the BEV chariot, veering off course from ASEAN's true journey to sustainable transportation?

Electrification's allure

The BEV ascent is undeniable. Their silent hums and zero tailpipe emissions offer a beacon of hope in the fight against climate change, resonating with an eco-conscious generation. Thailand, ASEAN's EV champion, aims to become the region's production hub, while Indonesia envisions a quarter of its new car sales to be electric by 2030. Globally, sales have skyrocketed by 108% in a single year, with Tesla, the undisputed king of the road, delivering nearly a million vehicles in 2021 alone.

The Muskian spotlight

It's impossible to ignore the "Elon effect" in this electrifying narrative. His charismatic audacity and visionary pronouncements have catapulted Tesla to the forefront, transforming BEVs from nerdy contraptions into futuristic objects of desire. This "cool factor" ripples through the market, influencing consumer choices and shaping public perception. While undeniably beneficial in driving adoption, it risks casting a long shadow, potentially obscuring the need for a more nuanced approach to transportation sustainability.

Geopolitical shadows and missed opportunities

The BEV obsession, while exhilarating, carries hidden costs. Geopolitical tensions simmer around battery mineral extraction and supply chains, raising concerns about resource security and potential monopolies. In the rush to electrify individual vehicles, we risk overlooking crucial aspects of a truly sustainable transportation ecosystem:

  • Public Transport Revolution: Efficient, electrified buses, trains, and trams offer the potential to move far more people with significantly lower emissions per capita. Yet, ASEAN's investment in these vital arteries lags behind individual EV adoption. In 2020, only 20% of urban trips in the region were on public transport, compared to 47% in Europe.

  • Active Mobility Ascending: Walking, cycling, and micro mobility, the silent heroes of the urban landscape, deserve a starring role. However, inadequate infrastructure and safety concerns relegate them to the sidelines. A 2019 study by the World Bank found that only 12% of ASEAN residents walk or cycle to work, highlighting the need for a paradigm shift.

  • Urban Planning Paradigm Shift: Building walkable, mixed-use cities can drastically reduce transportation needs in the first place. Yet, car-centric urban patterns remain deeply entrenched in ASEAN, with a 2020 report by the World Resources Institute revealing that only 19% of urban residents have access to high-quality public transport within 400 meters of their homes.

ASEAN: a tapestry of solutions

ASEAN, a region teeming with diverse landscapes and transportation realities, offers valuable lessons in this rethinking process. Singapore's world-class public transport system, with its extensive bus and rail network, stands as a testament to the power of prioritizing collective mobility. Thailand's rapid EV adoption showcases the potential of market forces, while Indonesia's focus on domestic EV production highlights the strategic considerations of resource security. These unique case studies, when woven together, form a roadmap for a more holistic approach to transportation sustainability in the region.


The BEV revolution, with its sleek vehicles and futuristic promises, deserves an ovation. However, let it not become the sole act in the play of sustainable transport. To truly decarbonize ASEAN's streets and pave the way for a greener future, we must embrace a wider ensemble, one that celebrates public transport, active mobility, and smart urban planning alongside the BEV. By orchestrating this holistic symphony, we can ensure that ASEAN's journey towards sustainable mobility is not just about individual journeys, but about a collective transformation, leaving behind a legacy of clean air, vibrant communities, and a healthier planet for generations to come.

Captivating appeal of BEVs: a siren song on ASEAN's sustainability voyage?

While the allure of BEVs shines brightly on ASEAN's path to sustainable mobility, it's crucial to understand the full symphony of solutions needed to truly reach net-zero. Let's dive deeper into the captivating appeal of BEVs and their undeniable contributions to a cleaner future.

Zero tailpipe emissions: a breath of fresh air for ASEAN

Imagine Bangkok's bustling streets, typically shrouded in a haze of exhaust fumes, transformed into a vibrant tapestry of clean air and hushed tranquility. This is the promise of BEVs, with their zero tailpipe emissions offering a monumental leap forward in combating climate change. ASEAN, a region grappling with rising air pollution levels and its associated health impacts, stands to benefit immensely from embracing electric mobility. In Indonesia alone, air pollution is estimated to cause 191,000 premature deaths annually. BEVs offer a powerful solution, contributing to cleaner air and improved public health outcomes for the region's 650 million inhabitants.

Reduced noise pollution: a symphony of silence

The cacophony of honking horns and engine roars that currently define many ASEAN cities could soon be a distant memory. BEVs, with their silent electric motors, promise a dramatic reduction in noise pollution, creating a more peaceful and livable urban environment. Imagine strolling through the historic streets of Hoi An, Vietnam, bathed in the golden glow of lanterns and serenaded by the gentle murmur of conversation instead of the jarring symphony of traffic. This quieter future not only improves quality of life but also benefits mental and physical health by reducing stress and noise-related health issues.

Energy independence: breaking free from the fossil fuel chains

For ASEAN nations heavily reliant on imported fossil fuels, BEVs offer a path to energy independence and economic empowerment. By tapping into domestic renewable energy resources like solar and wind, countries can generate the electricity to power their electric fleets, reducing dependence on volatile oil markets and strengthening their energy security. Imagine an Indonesia powered by its vast geothermal potential, or a Thailand fueled by the sunshine that bathes its stunning beaches. This shift towards clean energy not only bolsters energy security but also contributes to a more stable and sustainable future for the region.

While the appeal of BEVs is undeniable, their captivating melody should not drown out the importance of a holistic approach to sustainable transportation. Public transport systems, active mobility infrastructure, and smart urban planning must play their own crucial roles in ASEAN's journey towards a cleaner future. Remember, the true path to sustainability lies not in a single, seductive tune, but in the harmonious orchestration of diverse solutions.

BEVs under the microscope: beyond the hype in ASEAN's sustainability shift

While the BEV narrative sparkles with the allure of emission-free driving, a closer look reveals shadows lurking beneath the polished surface. In ASEAN's journey towards sustainable mobility, we must examine these challenges with clear eyes:

Battery bottlenecks: a dirty secret in a clean package

The lithium-ion batteries powering BEVs, while heralded as clean heroes, hide environmental and ethical burdens. Their energy-intensive production and hazardous waste generation cast a long shadow on their green credentials. Mining for raw materials like lithium and cobalt can be riddled with human rights abuses and environmental degradation, particularly in regions with lax regulations. Imagine the pristine landscapes of Laos, home to rich mineral deposits, scarred by unsustainable mining practices to feed the global BEV appetite. This underscores the urgent need for responsible sourcing, sustainable battery lifecycles, and robust recycling and repurposing initiatives.

Grid strain: when clean cars tax the clean grid

A mass shift to BEVs, while desirable in theory, could overburden existing grids. Picture the idyllic island of Langkawi, Malaysia, known for its lush rainforests and eco-tourism, plunged into darkness as its grid buckles under the surge in demand from electric vehicles. To avoid such scenarios, significant investments in modernization, expansion, and smart grid development are crucial. Additionally, ensuring a greater integration of renewable energy sources, like solar and geothermal, into the grid is essential to prevent BEVs from simply becoming cleaner vehicles powered by dirty electricity. In the context of ASEAN, the lack of widespread smart grid and High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) rollout further complicates the picture, hindering resilience and efficiency in electrification efforts.

Beyond BEVs: embracing a systems approach for all

Focusing solely on BEVs risks overlooking the broader ecosystem necessary for true sustainability. Imagine neglecting the vibrant street hawkers and bustling public markets of 

Ho Chi Minh City when envisioning a sustainable future. We must embrace a systems approach that prioritizes public transport, active mobility, and smart urban planning alongside BEVs. Efficient, electrified buses, trains, and trams offer significant emissions reductions and improved air quality. Walking, cycling, and micromobility provide healthy, low-carbon transportation options, especially for short trips. And building walkable, mixed-use cities reduces transportation needs in the first place. By investing in these complementary solutions, we can create a truly inclusive and sustainable mobility system for all.

Accessibility and equity: leaving no one behind

The high upfront costs of BEVs and limited charging infrastructure create barriers for low-income communities and those residing in areas with inadequate access to electricity. Picture remote villages in Myanmar, already grappling with poverty and limited infrastructure, further marginalized by their inability to participate in the electric mobility revolution. To bridge this gap, affordable solutions like electric motorcycles and scooters, coupled with expanded charging infrastructure in underserved areas, are crucial. Additionally, innovative financing models and government subsidies can play a key role in making sustainable transportation accessible to all.

Conclusion: moving beyond the BEV buzz in ASEAN

While BEVs represent a valuable tool in the fight against climate change, they are not a silver bullet. In ASEAN's context, addressing battery concerns, strengthening the grid with smart and HVDC technologies, and prioritizing a systems approach that embraces various modes of transportation, affordability, and equity are essential. Let us move beyond the BEV buzz and strive for a truly sustainable future where clean mobility is accessible, equitable, and embedded within a broader vision of green cities and thriving communities. Remember, the true path to a sustainable ASEAN lies not just in individual vehicles, but in a holistic, interconnected web of solutions that prioritize the well-being of people and planet alike.

By incorporating these additional points and tailoring them to specific ASEAN examples, you can further strengthen your argument and make your commentary even more impactful for the sustainable portal audience. Remember, the goal is to spark a meaningful conversation about the multifaceted nature of sustainable transportation in the region and encourage a move towards a more comprehensive and inclusive approach.

Hybrids: The Untapped Potential in ASEAN's Sustainability Journey

While the BEV wave crashes onto ASEAN's shores, a quieter current flows beneath the surface - the potential of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs). Often overshadowed by the sleek glow of their fully electric counterparts, HEVs offer a valuable stepping stone in the region's transition towards sustainable mobility. Let's explore why.

Lower Emissions, Brighter Skies

Imagine the bustling streets of Jakarta choked with smog, a grim reality for many ASEAN cities. HEVs, by combining electric and gasoline engines, can significantly reduce these emissions. Studies show that HEVs emit 30-50% less CO2 than traditional gasoline vehicles, offering a tangible step towards cleaner air and improved public health. In Thailand, for example, widespread adoption of HEVs could translate to a 20% reduction in transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. This cleaner future isn't just a dream; it's a measurable impact on the lives of millions in ASEAN.

Smoother Transition, Less Friction

Shifting gears towards a fully electric future can be daunting for both consumers and manufacturers. HEVs bridge this gap, offering a familiar driving experience with the added boost of electric power. Imagine navigating the winding roads of Luzon Island in the Philippines with the confidence of gasoline while enjoying the quiet efficiency of electric assistance on climbs. This comfort factor eases the transition for consumers, fostering greater acceptance and accelerating the overall shift towards electric mobility. Additionally, HEVs provide valuable data and experience for automakers, paving the way for smoother development and deployment of full EVs in the future.

Infrastructure Harmony, No Major Disruption

The BEV revolution often necessitates hefty investments in new charging infrastructure, a challenge for many developing nations. HEVs, however, utilize existing gasoline stations and electricity grids, eliminating the need for drastic upheaval. Imagine fueling your hybrid in any corner of Vietnam, just like your current motorcycle, while still benefiting from the cleaner electric boost. This compatibility allows for faster, more inclusive adoption of sustainable transportation, particularly in regions where resources are limited and infrastructure development takes time.

Beyond Hype, Embracing a Balanced Approach

While HEVs offer substantial benefits, they are not a universal solution. Their dependence on gasoline still generates emissions, and their battery capacity typically limits their electric range. Therefore, we must embrace a balanced approach, leveraging HEVs alongside other sustainable solutions like public transport, active mobility, and smart urban planning. Imagine bustling Bangkok with a robust network of electric buses and trams efficiently whisking people across the city, supplemented by a fleet of HEVs serving suburbs and smaller towns. This multifaceted approach maximizes the advantages of each solution, creating a truly sustainable and equitable transportation ecosystem for ASEAN.

Conclusion: Hybrids - A Bridge to a Brighter Future

In ASEAN's journey towards a cleaner future, HEVs deserve a starring role. Their lower emissions, familiar driving experience, and existing infrastructure compatibility offer a pragmatic and inclusive pathway towards sustainable mobility. Let us not get swept away by the BEV hype but instead, recognize the valuable contributions of hybrids in bridging the gap and paving the way for a transportation system that benefits people, planet, and progress. Remember, the key lies in a holistic approach that embraces the full spectrum of solutions, ensuring that ASEAN's journey towards net-zero is not just swift, but equitable and sustainable for all.

By weaving in specific ASEAN examples, data, and compelling visuals, you can further enrich your commentary and grab the attention of the sustainable portal's audience. Remember, the goal is to spark a constructive conversation about the potential of HEVs and encourage their inclusion in a comprehensive approach to sustainable mobility in the region. Let's move beyond the buzz and delve into the practical solutions that can truly transform ASEAN's transportation landscape for the better.

Hybrids: A Pragmatic Pacesetter, Not the Finish Line on ASEAN's Sustainability Journey

While the BEV siren song beckons ASEAN's transportation sector towards a seemingly zero-carbon future, a different melody whispers beneath the surface – the steady hum of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs). Often relegated to the shadows of their fully electric counterparts, HEVs offer a nuanced and pragmatic approach to tackling the region's mobility challenges. 

Let's explore why.

Immediate Emissions Reductions, Not Just Promises

The climate clock ticks relentlessly, and ASEAN urgently needs solutions that deliver results today, not tomorrow. HEVs, by combining electric and gasoline engines, achieve immediate emissions reductions of 30-50% compared to traditional gasoline vehicles. Imagine Singapore's iconic skyline bathed in cleaner air thanks to a widespread shift towards HEVs, with tangible reductions in respiratory illnesses and improved public health. These are not distant possibilities; they are measurable improvements that HEVs offer right now.

Paving the Way for Future Electrification, Step by Step

A complete overhaul to all-electric vehicles can be daunting, both for consumers and manufacturers. HEVs act as a gentle bridge, familiarizing people with electric driving experiences while easing anxieties about range and charging infrastructure. Imagine driving through the lush landscapes of Cambodia in your hybrid, enjoying the quiet efficiency of electric power on winding roads while still having the comfort of gasoline refills readily available. This smoother transition fosters greater acceptance and understanding, accelerating the overall shift towards full electrification in the long run.

Building Blocks for Progress, Not Waiting for Miracles

The BEV revolution hinges on robust charging infrastructure and advanced battery technology, both of which require significant time and investment. HEVs, leveraging existing gasoline stations and electricity grids, bypass this infrastructural hurdle, allowing for faster and more inclusive adoption, particularly in developing regions. Imagine traversing the remote islands of Indonesia, relying on familiar gasoline stations while still benefiting from the cleaner, quieter electric boost when available. This flexibility minimizes disruption and allows for progress even before ideal conditions are met.

Stepping Stone, Not Stopping Point

It's crucial to remember that HEVs, while valuable, are not the ultimate solution. Their reliance on gasoline still generates emissions, and their limited battery range restricts their potential. Therefore, embracing them as a stepping stone is key. Let us envision bustling Manila with a seamlessly integrated network of electric buses and trams complemented by HEVs efficiently serving peripheral areas. This multimodal approach, incorporating various solutions tailored to specific needs, maximizes the advantages of each while minimizing limitations.

Conclusion: A Measured Pace for Sustainable Progress

In ASEAN's race towards a sustainable future, HEVs offer a pragmatic pace setter, not just a glamorous finish line. Their immediate emissions reductions, smooth transition to full electrification, and infrastructure compatibility make them valuable tools for progress. Let us celebrate their contributions while acknowledging the need for a broader, multimodal approach that leverages various solutions like public transport, active mobility, and smart urban planning. Remember, the key to success lies not in blindly chasing hype, but in charting a measured, balanced course that ensures ASEAN's journey towards sustainable mobility is swift, equitable, and lasting.

By incorporating personal anecdotes, vivid imagery, and compelling statistics, you can further solidify your message and appeal to the emotions and intellect of the sustainable portal's audience. Encourage thoughtful discourse about the role of HEVs alongside other solutions in shaping ASEAN's sustainable mobility future. Remember, the goal is to ignite meaningful conversations and pave the way for a future where clean transportation thrives not just in headlines, but in the lived experiences of the region's diverse communities.

Call to Action: Beyond the Buzz, Building a Sustainable Mobility Symphony in ASEAN

The melody of sustainable mobility in ASEAN rings out, its notes weaving a complex symphony of challenges and opportunities. While the electrifying hum of BEVs holds undeniable promise, the true harmony lies in a chorus of solutions, each playing its role in orchestrating a cleaner future. Let us heed the call of this action:

Beyond Battery Hype, Cultivating Sustainability

The lithium-ion batteries powering our green dreams carry hidden burdens. We must invest in cleaner, more sustainable production and recycling processes, minimizing environmental impact and ethical concerns. Imagine verdant landscapes in Thailand untouched by harmful mining practices, instead nourished by responsible and innovative battery lifecycles. This requires collaboration between scientists, engineers, and policymakers, crafting a future where battery power resonates with true environmental responsibility.

Expanding the Recharge Symphony, Harmonizing Accessibility

Charging infrastructure, currently a scattered archipelago in the vast ocean of roads, must be expanded and diversified. Imagine a grid of charging stations gracing city streets and rural villages alike, making clean driving accessible and convenient for all, regardless of income or location. This requires innovative solutions like solar-powered chargers, mobile charging units, and affordable home charging options. Let us ensure that the clean future doesn't leave anyone behind, stranded on an island of fossil fuel dependence.

Beyond Private Journeys, Embracing the Chorus of Multimodal Travel

A sustainable symphony thrives not on soloists, but on a united ensemble. We must foster a multimodal transportation system that integrates personal vehicles, mass transit, cycling, and pedestrian infrastructure. Imagine bustling Jakarta transformed by a network of clean, efficient buses and trams, seamlessly intertwined with dedicated cycling lanes and pedestrian-friendly walkways. This holistic approach reduces reliance on individual cars, creating a vibrant tapestry of interconnected mobility options.

High-Speed Harmony: Could Trains be the Melody of Future Progress?

Amidst the clamor of the automotive revolution, the graceful hum of trains often goes unheard. Yet, their potential resonates deeply. Modern train networks emit a mere 4% of the emissions compared to domestic air travel. Imagine sleek, high-speed rail lines connecting the vibrant cities of ASEAN, whisking passengers swiftly and cleanly across the region. This "train-based renaissance" could not only reduce emissions but also foster regional integration and economic growth.

Concluding Movement: Let the Symphony Begin!

The future of mobility in ASEAN is not a pre-recorded track, but a dynamic symphony waiting to be composed. The melody is ours to create, the instruments ours to choose. Let us move beyond the BEV buzz, beyond the hype and headlines, and together orchestrate a future where clean air, vibrant communities, and equitable access to sustainable transportation intertwine in a harmonious masterpiece. Remember, the true power lies not in individual notes, but in the collective resonance of a well-conducted symphony. Let us take up the baton, raise our voices, and together craft a sustainable mobility symphony for ASEAN that echoes through generations to come.

This call to action goes beyond mere words. It's a rallying cry for researchers, policymakers, businesses, and individuals to band together and take concrete steps towards the solutions outlined. You can further strengthen this section by:

  • Providing specific examples of ongoing initiatives or potential projects in ASEAN that exemplify the different strands of your call to action.

  • Highlighting inspiring examples from other regions that can serve as models for ASEAN.

  • Offering actionable steps that readers can take in their own lives to contribute to a more sustainable mobility future.

  • Including engaging visuals such as infographics or diagrams to illustrate your points and make the information more accessible.

By tailoring this call to action to the specific audience and context of the sustainable portal, you can transform your commentary from a thought piece into a powerful catalyst for change. Remember, the true measure of success lies not in the applause after the final note, but in the lasting impact the symphony of sustainable mobility has on the lives of people and the fate of our planet.

Future Scenarios: Glimpsing ASEAN's Sustainable Mobility Mosaic

While the sleek allure of BEVs casts a long shadow on the road to net-zero, the future of ASEAN's transportation holds a kaleidoscope of possibilities, each vying for a place in our sustainable symphony. Let's peek through the windshield and envision some of these exciting scenarios:

The Networked City: A Ballet of Connected Cars

Imagine bustling Bangkok transformed into a living, breathing organism, where interconnected autonomous vehicles glide through smart streets, guided by an invisible hand. Traffic lights synchronize like a conductor's baton, optimizing flow and minimizing congestion. Buildings brim with renewable energy, powering these silent dancers and bathing the city in a soft, green glow. This isn't just a futuristic fantasy; Singapore is already piloting autonomous vehicle programs, while Thailand is actively developing its smart city infrastructure. The Networked City beckons ASEAN towards a future of seamless, efficient mobility woven from the threads of technology and sustainability.

The Hyperloop Revolution: Warping Through Time and Space

Imagine zipping from Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta in mere minutes, not hours. The Hyperloop, a futuristic pod propelling passengers through near-vacuum tubes at supersonic speeds, promises to revolutionize intercity travel. Picture sleek pods gliding effortlessly through verdant landscapes, leaving minimal environmental footprint in their wake. While still in its early stages, Hyperloop technology has garnered significant interest in ASEAN, with Indonesia and Thailand exploring its potential. This warp-speed future not only shrinks distances but also holds immense potential for regional integration and economic growth.

The Micro-Mobility Mosaic: A Symphony of Two Wheels

Imagine vibrant Hanoi streets humming with the gentle whir of electric bikes and scooters, weaving through a tapestry of dedicated lanes. Car-sharing services offer convenient, affordable options for short trips, reducing reliance on personal vehicles. This micro-mobility revolution isn't just about convenience; it's about reclaiming public spaces for pedestrians, reducing air pollution, and fostering a healthier, more vibrant urban landscape. Cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Manila are already embracing micro-mobility solutions, paving the way for a future where compact, clean vehicles rule the urban jungle.

Beyond the Buzz, Building the Symphony

The beauty of these future scenarios lies not in their individual melodies, but in the harmonious blend they create. The Networked City's efficiency complements the Hyperloop's speed, while the Micro-Mobility Mosaic adds a touch of human scale. Remember, the key to a truly sustainable future lies not in singular solutions, but in a holistic, systems-oriented approach that embraces diverse technologies, fosters multi-modal infrastructure, and prioritizes accessibility and equity.

A Call to Action: Orchestrating the ASEAN Dream

These future glimpses are not mere mirages; they are concrete possibilities waiting to be realized. Policymakers, investors, and individuals must join hands to:

  • Invest in research and development for cutting-edge technologies like autonomous vehicles and Hyperloop.

  • Develop smart city infrastructure that integrates data, renewable energy, and intelligent transportation systems.

  • Prioritize public transport and micro-mobility solutions, making them accessible and affordable for all.

  • Foster collaboration and knowledge sharing across ASEAN nations, ensuring equitable development and progress.

By embracing this symphony of solutions and moving beyond the BEV hype, ASEAN can orchestrate a transportation future that is not just clean and efficient, but also inclusive, vibrant, and uniquely its own. Let the curtain rise on this sustainable performance, and together, let's write the soundtrack to a future where people and the planet move in harmony.

Remember, the image you sent serves as a powerful visual aid, prompting the reader to imagine the possibilities of future transportation scenarios. Use it to your advantage by incorporating specific details from the image into your descriptions, making the future scenarios even more vivid and relatable. By weaving these elements together, you can craft a commentary that is not only informative but also inspiring, urging readers to become active participants in shaping ASEAN's sustainable mobility future.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Alex Hong is the Executive Director of Digipulse Data and strategic advisor. He is the Chief Sustainability Coordinator of the Youth Networking Business Committee (YNBC). Alex is LinkedIn’s Top Voices (Green) in Singapore 2022 and represents the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) as the Ambassador of Southeast Asia.

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