Indonesian Minister's Electric Car Project Shorts Out

Last Saturday, Indonesia's State Enterprises Minister Dahlan Iskan managed to crash the country's most recent high-tech aspiration, an all-electric prototype sports car named the Tucuxi, named after an endangered freshwater dolphin.

The car could be endangered as well. Dahlan, who has unspecified aspirations to run for the country's presidency at some point although a source in Jakarta says he may be "trying a little too hard," crashed the car while attempting to drive 1,000 km from Solo in Central Java to Surabaya in East Java. He was ascending a steep slope when the brakes gave out and he tried to bring it to a stop by driving it into the mountainside, pretty much reducing it to a total wreck.

Police are now questioning why the car was being tested on normal roads with a minister at the wheel instead of a professional driver, and why it was carrying a fake number plate. It is a major embarrassment for Dahlan, one of the founders of the highly respected Tempo magazine and one of the officials at the Jawa Pos, one of Indonesia's top daily newspapers, which was awarded the 2011 World Young Readers Newspaper Prize as well as prizes for reporting.

The minister has an abiding interest in technological advancement, a kind of Indonesian dream, and has been pushing various permutations of electric vehicles for a year. The country has been seeking to skip most of the rungs in the technology ladder since B J Habibie, the Indonesian former director of a large Aerospace company in Germany, convinced the late strongman Suharto of what he called his leapfrog theory of development, bypassing low-skill industries and going straight to the high-technology stage.

In the 10 years of Habibie's reign as technology minister, Suharto gave him his own government department and unlimited funds to build South East Asia's first aircraft industry. He developed the N250, a wholly Indonesian designed and manufactured airliner, of which few were sold despite attempts to barter them for commodities like rice.

With a population of about 240 million and a growing middle class, Indonesia's car sales have been soaring upwards, Sales were up by 28 percent in September to return to near record monthly numbers, as strong growth and low interest rates got an extra boost in the wake of the country's annual motor show. Sales have been surging since April, also helped by comparisons with a weak year in 2011 when an earthquake and tsunami in Japan resulted in supply disruptions.

An electric car appears to be another dream too far. Despite the fact that the country is now pushing its own effort to come up with a more efficient battery, at this time they still must be imported and probably will continue to be far into the future. Other components must be imported as well, driving the cost above what Indonesians probably would be willing to pay, including for a car that looks vaguely like a kit version of the Bugatti Veyron, the fastest production car in the world, but doesn't stop as nearly well. Previous attempts to come up with a conventional national car have failed, not only in Indonesia but in a flock of other countries. In the 1990s, Suharto's son Tommy launched the Timor national project with the help of the Korean manufacturer Kia Motors. It lasted only a year among intense controversy over protectionist policies that crippled multinational manufacturers. It lasted only a year before it was shut down in the middle of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998.

Likewise, Perusahaan Otomobile Nasional Sdn Bhd, or Proton in Malaysia has been a multi-billion dollar millstone around the neck of the country since former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad brought in Mitsubishi as a joint venture in the 1980s. Despite recurring calls to scrap it, it has become tied in with Malaysia's prestige and it continues to bleed money and to distort the market through big tariffs on international manufacturers.

The Tucuxi, an unconventional design, had never passed rigorous road-worthiness tests that would have allowed it to be driven on public highways. The law also requires cars to have vehicle registration documents or a test drive permit. The DI 19 number plate also was said to have been made by a street vendor in Yogjakarta, since getting an authentic plate was impossible since the car hadn't been passed as roadworthy.

The car was designed by a local firm, Danet Suryatama and modified by a local company, Kupu-kupu Malam Autocustom of Jogjakarta. Although it wasn't a government project, a source in Jakarta said it is a Dahlan project. While the designers said it has a top speed of 240 km/h and a driving distance up to 300 km with a fully charged battery, it appears that they didn't pay as much attention to stopping it.

Last July, Dahlan Iskan demonstrated another electric car, apparently developed from a kit supplied by a Chinese company that stopped moving twice as reporters looked on as its battery died. Yet another one, called the Esemka, was developed at a local vocational school, Dahlan told the government news agency Antara that said the country could start producing electric cars in 2013 and predicted that it could start mass-producing as many as 5,000 units a year. That promise seems to have faded although Dahlan 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. It is likely to be a long time before cars start to show up to be charged if they are going to be produced locally.