Toyota is proceeding with its first model to be produced under the Thai government’s new slew of investment privileges for electric and hybrid models as it promises to turn Thailand into a key hub for hybrid model production – which will include building a plant to produce batteries locally.
That first hybrid will be the CH-R crossover, which will begin Thai deliveries in March.
The Thai government has been a long-time proponent of switching Thailand into a hub for the manufacturing of electric vehicles, seeing this as the third generation of what it dubs “product champions,” following its success in first making the country a base for production pickup trucks and then more recently eco-friendly cars.
Toyota, as the dominant OEM in the market here, has however pushed back at that, seeing hybrids as a stepping stone to full electrification in the future. With hybrids being granted investment privileges alongside EVs, that’s something of a victory for the Japanese OEM – but one it’s won with the promise of significant investments.
With its plan approved by the Board of Investment, Toyota will be the first OEM to produce a hybrid or EV under these new privileges – with the forthcoming CH-R – and it’s gearing up for mass hybrid production here as it looks to aggressively regain lost ground in the market as this model will put it into one of the fastest growing segments here for the first time.
Says Michinobu Sugata, president of Toyota Thailand: “We will do our best to popularize hybrid models. We are thankful to the Thai government for the opportunity. We will localize battery production, and we will introduce new hybrid models.”
Apinont Suchewaboripont, executive vice president, says CH-R pre-bookings “are quite high.” The order book opened at last December’s Thailand International Motor Expo and currently stands at 3,000 units. It splits 75% in favor of hybrid versions and 25% for the conventional engines.
Wichien Emprasertsuk notes, “We launched pre-ordering to understand the market.” But he cautions normally when introducing new models, “customers making bookings go for high- end models so that proportion won’t be retained forever.”
However, Toyota is pleased with that emphasis on hybrid as it starts working to shift consumer perceptions.
The hybrid CH-R also will be exported from Thailand to around 100 countries, meaning it’s expected to eat into the OEM’s excess capacity here.
A central plank to turning Thailand into a global Toyota hub for hybrid model production will be construction of a new battery manufacturing facility at its Gateway plant in Chachoengsao province.
That’s already on the way, confirms Preecha Photi, general manager. “We are studying how fast we can produce them, (but) within 2019 we will start to localize battery (production).”
Toyota, however, remains convinced EVs aren’t relevant here yet. Sugata says there are “challenges and difficulties,” such as a lack of charging stations.
But he admits: “The government will provide more privileges for EVs, but they want a transition so we will promote hybrid. There will be a gradual change from hybrid to EV.”
Board Chairman Ninnart Chaithirapinyo agrees and reckons the cost of “super chargers” is currently too high to attract investors for a major rollout of charging infrastructure in Thailand. He too sees hybrids as the direction the market is headed globally.
Toyota does have an EV pilot already running in Thailand, dubbed “Ha:mo” (“Harmonized Mobility”), and it is being run in association with Chulalongkorn University. In use are ultra-compact single seat EVs, along with 12 parking stations, 33 parking points and 10 charging stations.
The pilot started last month, with a first batch of 10 cars, but Toyota says it’s already reaching expectations. So far, Chaithirapinyo says “343 members have applied for Ha:mo.” The fleet will be expanded to 30 cars in May.
Toyota is happy with this pilot. “We see demand at Chulalongkorn and also at National Stadium as people exercise each evening.” They plan to expand this project with the sprawling “government complex at Laksi” under close consideration. There could eventually be a much bigger program for Ha:mo, which stems from a similar scheme in Tokyo. The budget at present, Chaithirapinyo says, is 25 million baht ($792,000).