Dubai: Make room for the electric vehicle … and a lot of room at that. This could well be the defining year for electrically-charged vehicles to pick up pace — and range — on UAE roads. And carmakers on their part are willing to give that momentum some added push of their own with potential high-impact launches.

BMW has confirmed this will be the year when the i3 city-slicker — with a base price upwards of 38,000 euros — finally makes it to the UAE and follow that up with an all-electric X3 crossover in 2020. Tesla’s going to be there with the less-pricey Model 3 (from Dh150,000 or so), and Nissan turning out the new Leaf with production starting this quarter and deliveries from the second. Chevrolet is already here with the Bolt and so is Renault with Zoe.

What these models will do is widen the availability of electric car models beyond the premium Model S and Model X (Dh350,000 and well over) from Tesla, and BMW’s i8, which at full option gets off the blocks at Dh650,000 plus.

But will just having more models available for sale be enough to convince more buyers to shift their preferences to electric? There is still a steep cost element attached to acquiring and owning one — right now, none are available anywhere under Dh100,000. (One detail is clear — there can be no steep price drops on electric models until such time the battery costs come down. In the meantime, the dynamics of these vehicle can improve, most notably the range they can manage.)

So, would it need a range of incentives from the government to seal the deal for electric cars to go mass market?

Dubai has set a 10 per cent target for new vehicles to be either electric or a hybrid by the turn of this decade. And the stretch target is for that share to touch 25 per cent and more by 2030.

A staff member poses with a charging plug for an e-Golf electric car, outside the new production line of the Transparent Factory of German carmaker Volkswagen in Dresden, Germany. Image Credit: Reuters

Hamid Haqparwar, BMW’s recently appointed new managing director for the region, is convinced what still needs doing. “To actively promote electric mobility, all stakeholders — the authorities, manufacturers and dealerships — have to pull together and put their plans on the table.

“I think stakeholders need to offer incentives in a manner they seem appropriate. Collaboration between manufacturers and local authorities have proven successful in other countries in the past. We need to do the same here.

“We did pick up major fleet orders locally as Brand BMW, such as with Emirates airline, though not for electric cars. But— in May 2017, Dubai Police introduced the i3 and joining the already available plug-in hybrids and the i8.

“We are actually looking to more of such tenders from the government, and have an expanded portfolio not just with electric models, but even hybrids for the 7 Series and X range.”

But government fleet purchases can only help up to a point. More electric vehicles need to get into individual owner garages and also get picked up by fleets operated by private businesses to truly build up a presence.

ION currently manages the electric vehicle fleet — featuring the Model S — operated through the Careem app. A joint venture between CE-Creates and Sharjah’s environmental management firm Bee’ah, ION reckons that going electric not only meets “sustainable transportation needs, but can be a sustainable business as well”.

“Today, green transportation solutions are nice to have, but quite expensive,” said Samer Choucair, Director at CE-Creates. “But if they cannot go mainstream, you really can’t get an impact out of it. Today, the only operators in town of commercial electric vehicles are the RTA and ourselves. This is what we are trying to change here.”

ION will shortly be taking the first commercial deliveries of the Model 3 for the Careem rides. The services will be expanded shortly to Abu Dhabi and in some of the mainline Saudi cities.

But can an electric focused transportation business make money? Choucair has no doubts — “We can … but it’s not an easy ride at this stage. There is the first-mover advantage to root ourselves with regulators and end-users. And when costs do come down to a sustainable level, we would be in a position to make full use.”

Carmakers, meanwhile, are pushing ahead. General Motors has 20 models in the works by 2023, while BMW’s stated target is 25 by 2025. Just about every other manufacturer have stated their ambitions to expand on electric and simultaneously work on more longer term aspirations such as driverless/autonomous vehicle projects,

That’s the way it should be, says Haqparwar, adding that it’s better that “rather than waiting for things to happen, we want to have a broad array of products for electric mobility here in the UAE and elsewhere.”

So, when can electric cars truly go mass in the UAE? Michel Ayat, CEO of AWR Automotive, ventures this forecast: “I think Dubai’s target of 25 per cent by 2030 is quite doable... I think the electric car revolution will need that much time to take hold.”