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Business trends

Automakers head to Thailand as new green-car frontier

Government seeks to bolster industry with tax breaks for producers, consumers

Daimler showed off new plug-in hybrid models with great fanfare at the Bangkok International Motor Show this month.

BANGKOK -- Global automakers are exploring new avenues for environmentally friendly cars into Thailand, drawn by incentives from a government intent on maintaining the competitiveness of Southeast Asia's largest auto producer.

Starting upmarket

New plug-in hybrids enjoyed pride of place at Mercedes-Benz's booth at the recent Bangkok International Motor Show. Daimler, the German automaker behind the luxury brand, began assembling the new models last year at a plant in the central Thai province of Samut Prakan.

In conjunction with the start of local production, Daimler stopped selling gasoline-fueled versions of its flagship C-class sedans and station wagons in Thailand. These lines were consolidated into the C350e plug-in hybrid, which features a nearly 2-liter gasoline engine alongside an electric motor. With prices starting at 2.57 million baht ($74,800), the C350e targets wealthy, environmentally conscious consumers.

One Thai consumer praised the fuel efficiency of plug-in hybrids. "I want to trade up as early as this year," the self-employed 54-year-old said. "The price is around the same as the Lexus [from Toyota Motor] I'm driving now -- it's not that expensive."

Rival BMW is getting in on the act as well. It began producing two plug-in hybrid models in Rayong Province late last year, including the 330e Luxury sedan, priced at 2.59 million baht. The German automaker imports the motors and batteries for these models from Europe.

Plug-in hybrids are best suited to Thailand, where public charging stations are scarce, since they can keep driving even after the battery runs out, said Jeffrey Gaudiano, CEO of BMW Manufacturing (Thailand). BMW aims to have plug-in hybrids account for 15% of its Thai sales volume this year. It sold about 8,000 vehicles in the country in 2016.

German automakers have taken the initiative on eco-friendly cars in Thailand, targeting the high end of the market. The country's auto industry rolls out around 2 million vehicles a year, on a par with France or the U.K. After a late start, the government has laid out a number of measures to promote plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles, seeking to broaden the market and accelerate the creation of industrial hubs.

Supply and demand

Central to this effort are investment incentives for manufacturers. The government exempts automakers from corporate taxes if they produce at least one major electrical component locally, such as batteries, motors or battery controllers. Depending on the number of different parts made in Thailand, longer breaks are offered, topping out at 10 years for electric vehicles and six years for plug-in hybrids. Production equipment for these vehicles can be imported tariff-free as well.

These measures seem to be winning over previously cautious Japanese automakers. Mazda Motor unit Mazda Sales (Thailand) said it will conduct a comprehensive study of the country's electric-vehicle market. The government's policies "match our midterm business plan," said President Chanchai Trakarnudomsuk.

Toyota recently informed the Thai government that it plans to begin testing electric vehicles soon in partnership with Chulalongkorn University. Candidates likely include Toyota Auto Body's Coms single-seat electric vehicle.

Bangkok is working on the demand side of the equation as well, with such steps as cuts to the 10-30% excise tax on vehicles. A flat 2% rate will be applied to electric cars, while hybrids will be taxed at 5-15% depending on their carbon dioxide emissions.

The Energy Ministry plans to spend 76 million baht to set up 100 charging stations by next year. The government will also offer companies incentives to invest in charging infrastructure.

Data from the International Energy Agency shows that adoption of plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles is heavily concentrated in a few countries. The U.S., China and Japan together account for nearly 70% of global sales volume, and adding a few European countries, such as the Netherlands, brings the total to more than 90%.

Southeast Asia has long been a blank spot on the map. Promoting both sales and production of cutting-edge eco-friendly cars will be a big challenge even for Thailand.

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