JAKARTA – The latest Indonesian electric car prototype stalled twice last week during a test drive by State Enterprise Minister Dahlan Iskan. But the much-touted program to make Southeast Asia’s largest economy a hub for eco-car production is just revving up.
The moody battery-powered car, which was built by a mechanical engineer named Dasep Ahmadi, is the latest in an ongoing quest for a locally-designed and produced vehicle in a country where Japanese brands have dominated the auto market for decades.
Mr. Iskan, a media mogul and one of the most popular government ministers thanks to his folksy style, says electric cars are the future for Indonesia. He said the country could start producing environmentally-friendly electric cars next year.
“If the infrastructure is ready, we can start mass producing the car with a capacity of 5,000 units per year,” he told the state-run Antara news agency. “We should now focus on quality, quality and quality. It’s my hope that quality will no longer be a concern in August and after that, we can talk about the cost.”
Last year, a handsome sport utility vehicle prototype built by vocational high school students in a small town in central Java sparked the imaginations of Indonesians. The mayor of Solo – Joko Widodo who is now running to become governor of Jakarta – used it as his official vehicle, before being told it wasn’t safe.
Other government officials and politicians quickly jumped on the bandwagon back then praising the car – dubbed the “Esemka” from the Indonesian pronunciation of the vocational school’s initials – as an example of Indonesian ingenuity. Few pointed out that the big black SUV was cobbled together using mostly Japanese parts.
There were similar calls to mass produce the Esemka, despite analysts warning that it was impractical. For the electric car project, Mr. Iskan has appointed the state-owned weapons manufacturer PT Pindad to produce cars starting next year. He has also requested the state-owned energy company PT Pertamina to build charging stations at its gas pumps.
Analysts and car company executives, however, say an electric powered vehicle would be too expensive to produce in Indonesia. The most important and expensive parts of the cars, the big batteries, would have to be imported because Indonesia doesn’t make them. Meanwhile, many people suspect few Indonesians would be willing to pay the higher sticker price that usually comes with a hybrid or electric car.