Motorbikes swamp the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, taking advantage of the dangerous porosity among cars, buses and curbs to weather ever-more-obvious traffic jams. Almost all run on gas. They make noise. And they pollute.
This year people in the 9-million-population major financial center Ho Chi Minh City as well as the capital Hanoi are griping about air quality as it tests hazardous levels, especially late in the year. Some of it comes from coal burning for industry, per this research report. But a lot comes too from the exhaust of idling vehicles, the report says. Motorcycles are a prime source.
Now the Vietnamese conglomerate Vingroup is trying to beat the problem by offering its first run of e-bikes. Its investor relations office says that 30,000 bikes have already been sold. Its subsidiary VinFast is manufacturing the vehicles at its 335-hectare plant in Hai Phong in northern Vietnam on an initial $1.5 billion investment. Sales started in November 2018. The factory has a capacity of 250,000 units per year with sights on an eventual 1 million units per year.
Sales are happening, but uptake is slow because unit prices are hard to afford and recharge stations few and far between.
“We do have electric scooters now, but it’s not as efficient as the old ones and they have to make charging stations,” says Do Van Chanh, 20, a university student in Ho Chi Minh City. “You cannot drive for a long distance with that kind of battery. And it’s quite expensive, to be honest.”
Slow pickup among consumers
During a Tuesday lunch hour in November, Mike Lynch sat in a coffee shop on Nguyen Hue Street in the touristy downtown tract of Ho Chi Minh City watching motor bikes pass to see if he could pick out something electric. He couldn’t.
More people would buy VinFast bikes if they had outdoor electrical outlets for battery recharging, Lynch says. Ho Chi Minh City lacks the battery swap systems of Taiwan, for example, where riders find a swap-spot every two to five kilometers. “It hasn’t taken off yet,” says Lynch, who follows Vingroup’s stock for his work. “I think people want to go green if they can,” he says, but “most people don’t have an outlet.”
VinFast’s bikes are designed to run for 80 kilometers at 30 kph per charge.
The company is now putting in place what the investor relations office calls “ a complete charging-exchange battery station equivalent to petrol vehicles.
More on Forbes: Why Americans Don’t Buy EVs
Nearly everyone you talk to notices the air pollution building up in Ho Chi Minh City and the capital Hanoi. On what locals described as a typical day in November, the city received a World Air Quality Project score of 149, meaning “moderately polluted” and that children, the elderly and people with certain diseases should avoid strenuous outdoor activities.
“A few years ago we had only 7-8 million people and every year we have a new generation from other provinces who head to the cities,” says Phuong Hong, 39, a Ho Chi Minh City travel sector worker. “More air pollution from vehicles is for sure.”
But it’s hard to afford an e-bike on wages of as little as $171 per month, Vietnamese citizens and country analysts explain. A VinFast e-bike sells for VND39.9 million ($1,719). A lot of Vietnamese report they prefer to save money by repairing a bike over 20 to 30 years instead of getting even a new gas-powered machine that would burn cleaner.
Vingroup’s IR says VinFast is “applying the competitive price policy” to speed sales.
“We received a lot of feedback from our customers,” the IR office said for this post. Customers, it says, “are very satisfied with VinFast E-scooters” because of the underlying technology. “In addition, the operating cost for VinFast E-scooters is only 20%-30% comparing to the fuel cost for gasoline motorbikes,” the office says.
Ryan Citron, senior analyst with Navigant Research in Vancouver, estimates a “very low” total of 20,000 VinFast e-bikes sold this year. “These consumers will be very price-sensitive,” he says.
VinFast’s chief competitor Honda has indicated it will sell its PCX Hybrid bikes for VND90 million per unit.
Growing conglomerate with seven arms
The profitable, 25-year-old Vingroup with 2018 revenue of VND122 trillion is also breaking into cars and smartphones in addition to its malls and convenience stores. The cars – high end and powered by gas – loom larger for now following the first release of a first batch in June with a patriotic fervor.
“I think there’s a national pride thing about getting this business going, and the government is supportive of getting an automotive industry taking off,” Lynch says.
Vingroup, headed by Vietnam’s wealthiest person Pham Nhat Vuong, became the country’s first mass automotive producer. Now it’s eyeing e-vehicles that run on four wheels: VinFast signed a contract in May with German engineering services firm EDAG for “complete development” of the first electric vehicle for Vietnamese drivers, the country’s Vietnam Investment Review reports.
Someday two-wheeled vehicles will come around, Citron forecasts. “The potential market size is still strong over the longer-term due to the huge population that already uses 2-wheelers for transportation,” he says.