The popularity of CNG vehicles in Singapore is fast waning – who’s to blame?
Bad Case of Gas PHOTOS: TORQUE

The first concrete steps towards introducing compressed natural gas (CNG) as an alternative vehicle fuel in Singapore were taken way back in 2000, when an inter-ministerial group was formed to study its feasibility. The first trial kicked off three years later, with a limited number of taxis and public buses running on the relatively clean propellant.

But it wasn’t until 2004 that commercial application started. A newcomer to the taxi operating business, Smart Taxis, led by Indonesian businessman Johnny Harjantho, decided to take up an incentive scheme devised to kick-start the proliferation of CNG vehicles – tax breaks equivalent to 100 per cent of a taxi’s Additional Registration Fee (ARF). This was because the Government had sought to drastically reduce the amount of particulate matter in the air. Singapore has persistently failed to meet world standards for this pollutant, deemed to cause serious respiratory ailments. Diesel cabs, along with diesel commercial vehicles, were found to be among the top contributors to particulate matter in the air.

In 2007, similar incentives were extended to private passenger cars, equivalent to a 40 per cent reduction in the ARF. In 2008, the first CNG refuelling station opened on the mainland. This was to make it more convenient for users, who up till then had to go to Jurong Island to fill up.

For the first time, things were looking up for CNG. But hopes for natural gas started to deflate quite soon afterwards. Most observers point to the introduction of a CNG pump duty, which took effect earlier this year, as the reason for gas losing its shine. But there are many other reasons for its short-lived success, and blame has to be shared by each and every player.

THE MOTORIST

Blinded by a deep tax cut, drivers flocked to buy CNG-converted cars without fully understanding the limitations of such retrofitted vehicles (reduction of space, extra weight, power loss, etc). And not many motorists realised that such cars have an appreciably lower scrap value, which is pegged to a vehicle’s ARF. Not only that, they are harder to resell, too.

THE MOTOR DEALER

Car sellers, led by parallel importers, were quick to latch onto the ARF cut and offer CNG-converted cars. Many failed to paint the full picture to customers. Some even converted models that were obviously unsuitable for conversion, such as the Honda Jazz/Fit. Being a light and fuel efficient subcompact, the Jazz does not benefit from CNG conversion. In fact, there were more downsides – such as a severe loss of interior space and a hefty weight gain. Motor fi rms, with the exception of Mercedes-Benz, also failed to import purpose-built CNG cars.

THE CNG CONVERTER

Attracted by the fast-growing demand for conversions, workshops rushed to offer the service. Many did not have the technical expertise to do a proper job, which requires tuning skills as much as reliable equipment. Faced with competition, many resorted to importing cheap parts. Stalling engines, severe ineffi ciency and feeble performance plagued many CNG car users as a result.

THE GAS SUPPLIERS & RETAILERS

Those who wanted to set up CNG refuelling stations – such as Smart Taxis’ Mr Harjantho and Trans-Cab boss Teo Kiang Ang – found the going tough. They faced reams of red tape and prohibitively high costs (especially for land). A lack of pipe infrastructure meant stations could only be set up in certain places in Singapore, limiting access to motorists. Trucking gas was not only less effi cient than piping it, truckers also faced many restrictions due to security and safety concerns.

The relatively high import cost of gas (dictated by long-term contracts with suppliers in Indonesia and Malaysia), plus the expense of setting up a refuelling station, meant CNG was never going to be much cheaper than the other automotive fuels here. In turn, retailers were keen to recoup their investments as quickly as possible, thus gas prices, while lower than petrol rates, weren’t exceptionally low.

THE POLICYMAKERS

Presumably, the decision to give CNG a go was made after careful study and robust discussion. If so, the authorities could have held off the introduction of a CNG pump duty or extended the tax break on CNG cars, to ensure that the population of such vehicles reaches a sustainable level. To cut off these leg-up measures before that is not fair to those who have ventured forth to embrace the technology.

The reason cited for the policy change was that CNG cars were not found to be significantly “cleaner” than their petrolpowered siblings. This is true, if one were to compare them with petrol cars that meet the newer emission standards and are using fuels compatible with those standards. We know that isn’t the case with the vast majority of petrolpowered cars on the road here. Even so, this discovery – if indeed it is a discovery – should have been made at the outset.

The argument is also incomplete because even if we assume that CNG vehicles aren’t significantly cleaner than petrol models, they are far cleaner than the old diesel vehicles we have here. Some of these diesel models do not even meet Euro 1 standards.

Right now, the Government seems to be embracing clean-diesel technology. While this is progressive as far as reducing the carbon footprint of Singapore’s vehicle population goes, the move may pave the way for higher levels of other toxic pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides. Yes, future standards (such as Euro 6) will mitigate the amount of such pollutants from diesel tailpipes, but these models are costlier to acquire and costlier to run. Ditto hybrid and electric vehicles.

CNG vehicles, while not the last word in environmental cleanliness, offer decent bang for the buck in that respect. So, instead of favouring one technology over another, Singapore should accept a variety – if nothing else, to avoid putting all the eggs in one basket. And while judging a vehicle’s “greenness” by the amount of CO2 it produces and therefore arriving at the tax or rebate sum it deserves may be straightforward to
administer, it is far from a holistic approach.