Cover story: Riding down the green highway

This article first appeared in Unlisted & Unlimited, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 9, 2015 - February 15, 2015.
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Eclimo Sdn Bhd, the producer of Malaysia’s first electric motorcycle, is looking to introduce its environmentally friendly products all over the world

 

Not many people may have heard of Eclimo electric motorcycles, but KFC Holdings (M) Bhd is already using them for deliveries throughout Malaysia and the Royal Malaysian Police are using them in a programme called Amanita for the female members of the force.

In addition, the UN is currently testing the motorcycles for use in Cambodia to replace the heavily polluting tuk tuks, while the Iranian government — which has banned the use of combustion motorbikes in its capital — is looking at these electric vehicles (EVs) as a viable alternative.

Eclimo Sdn Bhd is the producer of Malaysia’s first electric motorcycles. These bikes were designed by Penangites Datuk Dennis Chuah and Liew Chung Peng, who spent about RM20 million on R&D. 

Chuah was one of the founders of ETI Tech (M) Sdn Bhd, a Multimedia Super Corridor company that does R&D on intelligent battery management systems for rechargeable energy storage solutions using polymer lithium ion-based energy cells. These systems are used for various electronic applications that require lightweight high-powered rechargeable energy solutions in the telecommunications, healthcare, power, aero models and robotic sectors.

A mechanical engineer, Liew used to work for Tamura Electronics Malaysia. The company sent him to Japan as an R&D engineer, and he gained experience in developing prototypes for hybrid cars. 

The duo met while Liew was still at Tamura. “He was promoting its products to me as I was in the lithium battery business. We soon became friends. And after several years, we decided to be partners and develop Eclimo motorbikes, marrying our respective areas of expertise — his in electric cars and mine in lithium batteries,” says Chuah.

Neither of them, however, knew how to design the motorcycle itself. For that, they partnered with a Japanese consultant, Ichiro Hatayama, who is an automotive design specialist.

Chuah and Liew applied to the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (Mida) to help them fund the project and were awarded a RM3 million grant. The bulk of their capital, however, was their own funds. That was how committed they were to seeing the project through.

Eclimo stands for Eco Life Mobility. When the company started in 2008, the founders had a simple goal — to bring electric motorcycles to our shores. Four years and two government licences later, they did. After Eclimo was issued the Road Transport Department (JPJ) and Standards and Industrial Research Institute of Malaysia (Sirim) certificates in 2012, it leased its motorbikes to its first client — KFC Malaysia. 

KFC has leased 300 EVs to make food deliveries over the past three years. The bikes are used in all 13 states in Malaysia. Eclimo’s other client, the Royal Malaysian Police, have 33 units in the Klang Valley. 

While Eclimo is the only Malaysian company with electric two-wheelers on the road, Modenas is another homegrown company with a licence to produce such vehicles. Eclimo, however, is the only brand on the road on lease terms and is the only Malaysian-made EV with a worldwide patent, according to Chuah.

The patent is for its lithium battery component. Eclimo’s EV operates like any other 125cc motorcycle — except that it runs on an electric powertrain. 

While many EVs use lithium batteries to generate power, Eclimo has taken this technology to the next level. “Since the 9/11 incident, it has become a standard for all flights to disallow the shipping of big battery packs (that are fully assembled) for safety purposes,” Chuah explains. 

What this means is that instead of shipping an assembled battery pack ready for usage, companies are required to ship the batteries while they are still in individual cells and then assemble and weld them in their factories. 

But the design that Eclimo has come up with for their battery pack does not require spot welding and is easy to assemble. It acts as a housing unit for the individual cells.

“[Our design] is like Lego. You just put the lithium cells into the housing unit, screw it shut, and it is ready to be put into the power train. Anyone can do it,” Chuah says. 

Since the assembly of the battery packs is uncomplicated, the product is easily exportable, he adds. “All I have to do is send one of my men over with the individual lithium battery cells and shells to assemble them [or teach the the customer's employees to do so].” 

This gives the company an advantage over many of its competitors in the overseas market. “No one else is doing non-spot-welding batteries. As far as we know, we are the only one doing it in the world right now,” Chuah says. 

So if Eclimo isn’t facing any competition in the local market, why isn’t the company selling its EVs directly to end users? Chuah says although there is some demand, it is not enough to justify the cost of marketing to end users. 

“For a conventional combustion motorbike, you need to have dealers, showrooms and service centres to sell to end users. When we started our R&D, these vehicles were very new and the market was not ready for such a rollout,” he adds. 

According to Chuah, there is a misconception in the market that electric motorcycles do not perform as well as combustion bikes. “End users still think that these motorcycles run slowly and charging them takes a long time. These are things we have overcome with product technology,” he says. 

The first Eclimo EV model can easily travel up to 100kph, minus the noise and gas pollution, matching the speed of a 125cc combustion bike. The EV can run for 100km on a full charge that only takes four hours. 

Chuah says it will not be costly to recharge its EVs. When the company designed the vehicles, it wanted them to be as accessible and user-friendly as possible. As a result, Eclimo EVs can be recharged using a standard three-pin plug. 

However, little is being communicated to the public to create awareness of electric motorcycles. “There is this idea that such vehicles are very expensive and not worth the savings on petrol because the savings are not immediately realised. They always ask, ‘How much money can I possibly save on petrol for the money I spend on an electric car/bike?’

“They don’t see the added value and benefits of driving an EV,” Chuah says. Each litre of petrol can cost anywhere from RM1.91 to RM2.70, while each recharge only costs a few ringgit, he points out.

Since the company has ruled out selling directly to end users, it leases its EVs to clients. It thought KFC Malaysia would be a good place to start as the fast food chain already had a bustling delivery business.

“Once KFC came on board, it did not have to worry about rising petrol prices or the cost of replacing parts [which are normally imported from the US and priced in dollars],” says Chuah. “It only has to pay a fixed cost for the lease of the bikes and we will do the rest for them.”

Eclimo also leases out its motorcycles to courier companies, such as DHL. 

Recently, Eclimo started looking beyond local shores. Its first potential customer is no less than the UN. It wants these EVs to be used in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to protect the 800-year-old Angkor Wat, which has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. Each year, the temple attracts four million visitors who use environmentally polluting tuk tuks to get around. A tuk tuk is a passenger cabin attached to a motorcycle that can carry up to 550kg.

There are about 7,000 tuk tuks in Siem Reap and they expel tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which creates acid rain. This has started to erode Angkor Wat. Clearly, something has to be done and quickly, if the historical temple is to survive.

Unesco has been looking for alternative vehicles to replace the combustion bikes that pull the tuk tuks around Siem Reap. But so far its efforts have not been productive as there are not many electric motorbikes that can haul a weight of 550kg. 

Until now, that is. Because Eclimo’s EVs can do just that. Should Unesco give the greenlight, it would mean an order of 7,000 bikes for Eclimo.

For the most part, end users are oblivious of their impact on the environment. Chuah is eager to crunch the numbers. “For every litre of petrol burned, 2.36kg of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere. It doesn’t feel very heavy because we don’t see the effects here in Malaysia as badly as the people in China or Iran do,” he says. 

Right now, one tonne of carbon credit is equivalent to about US$20 (RM71.90), but that could easily double in the coming years. A carbon credit is a permit issued by national agencies to companies, giving them the right to emit one tonne of carbon dioxide or another greenhouse gas with an equivalent impact.

Eclimo’s motorcycles help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but the numbers are too small for us to see a significant impact. The impact is there, nonetheless. For instance, KFC’s 300 electric bikes are reducing the output of carbon dioxide by a whopping 2.5 tonnes a year. 

“Just imagine how much more we could save if we all drove electric cars or rode electric two-wheelers,” Chuah says. 

Countries worried about carbon emissions could be potential markets for Eclimo. Iran, for example, is so worried about such emissions that it has imposed a ban on combustion bikes, preventing them from entering its capital Tehran for the next five years. “Tehran is so polluted that the citizens cannot even see the beautiful mountains from the city,” says Chuah.

Having received interest from the Iranian government, Eclimo sent a prototype to Tehran for it to be displayed and marketed at an exhibition promoting EVs. “All the other booths showcased more than one model of electric two-wheelers. We only sent one model over because we believe it is the best,” says Chuah. 

Eclimo could face a whole new set of challenges if it lands such a big project as it is having some manufacturing issues. “We don’t manufacture our products. We come up with the design and send it to the manufacturers to produce, then we assemble them here. But few suppliers are willing to take up the job,” Chuah explains.

The reason for this is because the volume is often too small. “Volume is something we don’t have because of our leasing business model,” Chuah says. 

This problem would be solved if Eclimo sold its EVs to end users, but it is currently unable to because it has limited manpower, with only 20 employees. The company is also reluctant to ship to foreign distributors as the brand is still new in the industry. 

Chuah says there is no point in expanding too quickly and having to recall its vehicles, as that is both costly and detrimental to its image.

At the moment, Eclimo’s business model is something of a win-win — for the company and its clients. The contract for the lease of its EVs is only for five years. Clients have the option of renewing the contract, says Chuah. 

Eclimo tries to be as competitive as possible. “We cannot put a hefty price tag on our motorbikes just because it is ‘green’. Green may be an advantage, but a client also has to consider the financial implications,” Chuah points out.

As a result, Eclimo observes a potential client for a few months to see how much it spends on its combustion motorbikes. Then the company proposes to either match that expenditure or charge less by leasing the motorcycles. Each client has a different monthly usage, so the charges depend on its needs.

Eclimo’s EVs are exportable because they can be easily adopted in any country. In addition, the bikes have passed muster in some of the toughest markets in the world. In 2012, the motorcycles received the European Homologation Certification, which is recognised all over Europe and even in Singapore. This certification will come in handy, since Eclimo is applying for its motorbikes to be used for KFC deliveries in the city state.

Eclimo’s two founders are thinking ahead. For instance, what happens after three years, when the batteries are no longer operating at full capacity and the owners want to replace them with new ones? The duo have already developed a business model to prepare for this eventuality and make good use of what would otherwise be considered “scheduled waste”. 

The company plans to recycle the discarded batteries into Eclimo Power, a custom-designed portable battery-operated generator. “There is still 70% charge left in these batteries. It may not be enough to power vehicles, but it can still be used to power things that require less consumption.”

One possible use is as a power generator for night market vendors, who currently rely on fuel generators. Each vendor burns about two litres of petrol a night at a cost of about RM5. If they use the Eclimo Power unit, they will only need to spend about 20 to 30 sen a night to power their lights and fan. 

This generator can be charged in two ways — through a solar panel or with a three-pin plug like the one used by EVs. A full charge takes four to five hours, and can run two lamps for up to 10 hours. The generator is very light at only 7kg. 

It can also be used in rural areas that are not connected to the grid, where the inhabitants use their own generators to power their homes. The villagers have to walk a few kilometres to buy petrol to refill their generators.

The Eclimo Power is not sold widely because each unit costs about RM1,000. The company, however, has donated some of them to those living in rural areas.

“Often, people donate computers to rural schools for the teachers to use, but they don’t think about the electricity issue. With Eclimo Power, you can use the computer for a few hours,” says Chuah. 

The Eclimo Power generator also comes with a USB port, which acts as a fast-charging point for small devices like smartphones and tablets. “It’s like a next-level power bank,” Chuah jokes. 

There are many potential users for this product, he adds. “So many people could use this —  those who go camping or jungle trekking, or even those who travel to remote islands. But I think our biggest customer, potentially, is the Royal Malaysian Police. When they do roadblocks, they use petrol generators and this is costly for them.” 

During the recent floods, many found themselves without electricity. If they had had an Eclimo Power generator with an attached solar panel, it would have greatly helped their situation. An Eclimo Power generator can be used for up to five years depending on the usage of the recycled batteries. 

Going forward, Eclimo hopes to change the mindset of the public about EVs to increase their adoption rate. In the next five years, it plans to look into electric boats to preserve the cleanliness of seawater. “But this is only something we will focus on when we get our two-wheelers off the ground,” says Chuah.

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