Electric Cars Vie for Niche in Tico Auto Market
Amidst the endless swarm of bright red taxis and grunting motorcycles zipping through the streets of San José, automobiles rarely stand out in the blur of city traffic. But, in the last few months, the smallest car on the road is beginning to attract attention.
The Reva, pint-sized even by mini-car standards, is the first all-electric car to hit the streets throughout Central America. Since its debut on the Tico automotive market in March 2009, the appearance of the Reva on San José streets has generated the interest of environmentally conscious drivers. Last year, 20 Revas were sold in Costa Rica and, as their mini-profile becomes more prevalent, the little cars are attracting more attention.
“If there is a country in the world where electric cars should be able to work, it is Costa Rica because the electricity is produced so cleanly,” said Kate Cruse, sustainable operations officer at the British Embassy in Costa Rica. “We (the British Embassy) are in the throes of buying an electric car from Reva.
When we do get it, it is something we are going to be very proud of. We want to show people that we don’t need to have something big and luxurious to do some of the things that are needed as far as getting around.”
The Reva was introduced by the Zero Emission Electrical Vehicles Company of Central America, S.A., a private company based in San José. Founded in 2008, the company began a search for an automobile that would minimize environmental impact and would not require consumption of fossil fuels. What they found was the Reva, produced by the REVA Electric Car Company (RECC) of Bangalore, India. According to the company’s promotion materials, “reva” means “a new beginning” and also “one that
moves,” in Sanskrit.
“When we created the relationship with REVA, they were interested in Costa Rica because of the country’s commitment to the environment and our measures to decrease the amount of pollution in methods of transportation,” said Emilio Mora, president of the local company. “We wanted to bring in a car that could be used in the city and that would not require gasoline. The Reva is exactly that.”
The Reva is powered by an electric motor that uses a power pack consisting of eight six-volt EV-type lead acid batteries, or an optional lithium ion battery pack that provides greater range. To charge the batteries, the Reva must be plugged into a 110 or 220-volt electrical outlet. To fully charge the car, the Reva must be plugged in for eight hours.
With a full charge, the Reva can travel 80 kilometers (about 50 miles) on the standard batteries, and up to 120 kilometers with the optional lithium ones. The car can reach speeds of 80 km/hour.
Though the car will not travel great distances, and it cannot carry more than two adults, the Reva is designed for urban driving and areas of high traffic, such as San José and the Central Valley. The car is equipped with “smart” technology. For example, in stop-and-go traffic, electricity is used only when accelerating. That means that when the Reva is not moving, no charge is expended. If a Monday-through-Friday round-trip commute is around 10 kilometers, an eight-hour charge on Sunday night would provide sufficient energy for the entire week.
“Studies have shown that over 95 percent of all vehicles in the world drive less than 80 kilometers each day, all fueled by fossil fuels,” said Luis Echeverri, manager of the Reva offices in Costa Rica. “If someone who drives to work in a gasoline-fueled car every day were to switch to an electric car, that person would save several thousands of dollars on gas expenses each year.”
According to Echeverri, an eight-hour charge of the Reva costs less than $1 in electricity fees. Echeverri joked that one night at a party in Escazú, west of San José, he plugged his Reva into an outlet in a friend’s garage for a few hours to generate enough charge for the return trip home. Before he left, he gave the friend ¢100 (about $0.19) to cover the cost of the electricity used.
“That was my transportation cost for the day,” Echeverri said.
Benefits to Driving Electric Aside from the cost benefits of owning an automobile that isn’t subject to gas prices, the Reva also can boast other unique features. Its body is constructed completely of dent-proof recycled material and its air conditioning is powered by a second electric motor. Also, under existing law, Revas pays only a 17 percent import fee, considerably lower than the average 50 percent import fees for cars in the Costa Rican market.
But perhaps the most significant benefit of the Reva is its low environmental impact, including near-elimination of carbon emissions (in Costa Rica, over 90 percent of electricity is produced using hydropower and other clean sources). There are in Costa Rica an estimated 1.37 million cars that consume 1.8 million liters of gasoline and emit 5.2 million kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) every day.
Amid a worldwide push to reduce carbon emissions, other countries have taken measures to encourage the use of electric cars. In the United Kingdom, London, known as the “electric car capital of the world,” rewards drivers of electric cars by waiving certain fees. Drivers entering downtown London are required to pay a “congestion” fee, which is used to dissuade drivers from clogging the city’s interior streets. That fee is waived for drivers of electric cars.
But in Costa Rica, similar government incentives have not yet been put in place. “Reva is hoping for even miniscule fiscal incentives, but they haven’t been able to get them,” said Roberto Jiménez, strategy manager at CO2 Neutral 2021, a non-governmental organization. “Until the government gives some fiscal incentives, the market for the Reva likely will remain limited to a wealthy and sophisticated fragment of the population or to people who want to feel good about themselves by knowing they are doing good for the environment.”
Jiménez, who rented a Reva for six weeks, said driving the car enlightened him about the experience of driving a quiet car on noisy San José streets. He said he noticed how his driving habits were altered as he limited his commutes to shorter, necessary trips and he became accustomed to people stopping to look, smile and inquire about the car.
“When you are in a funny looking vehicle in a sea of cars, people stop and point and smile,” Jiménez said. “It made them want to laugh and smile. You are basically driving around creating smiles. The attention it generates is tremendous.”
Jiménez said that even small government incentives, such as free tolls or free parking, would assist in boosting the market for electric cars, or at least generate more awareness.
According to Jiménez, the Reva is an example of the type of technology that the government should promote if it is serious about meeting its goal of carbon neutrality by the year 2021.
In the meantime, Revas will continue to scoot around San José in small numbers, hoping that despite – or perhaps because of – their minimal noise, low cost and miniscule frame, they might one day catch on in a big way.
As Revas make their way into the world automotive market, they have garnered some national and international attention. Here’s where you might have seen them:
* Presidential frontrunner Laura Chinchilla, of the National Liberation Party, is a Reva driver. In October, Chinchilla said that, if elected president, she will remove import taxes for drivers of electric cars. René Castro, campaign manager for Chinchilla, said that throughout the presidential race, Chinchilla will drive different types of Revas to further the nation’s awareness and push for carbon neutrality.
* The 2007 movie, “National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets,” featured a scene in which a Reva is smashed by a speeding truck. Despite the unfortunate fate of the Reva in the film, its appearance on the big screen generated significant interest in the brand. After the release of the movie, sales of the Reva in Europe jumped considerably.
* According to Car and Driver Magazine, there will be 10 different models of electric cars in the worldwide automotive market by 2012.
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