At a recently opened Caltex gas station on the dusty fringes of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, a gleaming white-and-red electric vehicle charger sits idle.
About a fortnight ago, a crowd looked on as the solitary ribbon-draped charger was declared open by the minister for transportation and the U.S. ambassador.
Now, as rusty old trucks rumbled over potholes nearby, pump attendant Panha paused as he pondered how many people had charged their EVs in the days since the ceremony.
“Maybe five,” he said, agreeing with the suggestion that, perhaps one day, the numbers will increase. “Yes, in the future, maybe there will be more.”
Cambodia is in the early stages of efforts to encourage electric vehicle adoption, rolling out a handful of charging stations across the country as part of its push to meet emission reduction targets.
The Southeast Asian state reduced EV import duties last year and is mulling further incentives as it aims for 40% of all cars and urban buses and 70% of motorbikes to be electric by 2050.
The push is led by Cambodia’s Ministry of Public Works and Transport and supported with funds from the United Nations Development Program, which built the country’s first charging station at the ministry in March.
The country last month switched on its second and third public charging stations, including one installed by Caltex and another UNDP-funded site in the coastal city of Sihanoukville.
Caltex plans to add another 50 sites within three years, and energy companies Total and PTT are also expected to build charging stations, according to comments by Transport Minister Sun Chanthol. Two more UNDP-funded sites are slated to come online this month in Siem Reap and Battambang.
“We hope to have at least ten EV charging stations in Cambodia by the end of this year,” Chanthol said in March.
Currently, import duties on electric vehicles are about 50% lower than on vehicles with internal combustion engines. The government last year reduced the special import duty for EVs from 30% to 10%.
Additional changes under consideration include reducing the road tax and registration fees for electric vehicles.
Such moves would provide a boost to Cambodia’s nascent EV scene, though the cost will likely be another barrier to widespread adoption. Cambodia has some 920,000 registered cars and 5.2 million motorbikes, Chanthol said in December. However, with an average household income of less than USD 7,000 a year, ownership of cars—particularly newer models—is more common for well-off families or the government-connected elite.
So far, two companies are producing electric motorbikes for the domestic market. South Korea’s Tada last year set up a factory to produce electric tuk-tuks in Kandal Province, which skirts Phnom Penh. Chanthol has appealed for more EV manufacturers to set up in the country.
Electric cars are slowly appearing on Cambodia’s roads. A Tesla distributor opened a dealership in October. Chinese company BYD is present in the country, as is a distributor for China’s Hongqi. A selection of other models from importers is also available.
Data cited in local media suggests sales are small but growing: Two electric vehicles were registered in 2020, 62 in 2021, and 47 in the first three months of this year.
Zhu Shuai, founder of Ming Yang Auto, is keen to see those numbers increase. His company, a car service center and luxury vehicle seller, became the official Hongqi distributor in 2020.
Since last year, it has sold five units of Hongqi’s luxury electric vehicle, the E-HS9, which retails for USD 188,000. Next month, the company will begin importing the more affordable E-QM5, which will be sold at around USD 40,000, depending on taxes.
“We will order the EVs from the factory, even if we have to take a risk. As you can see, the market is very small, but we are trying to bring it here and improve EV sales,” he said.
With gasoline prices rising—the National Bank of Cambodia recorded a 40% jump in the price of liquid fuel between December and January—the time is right to rethink sustainable transportation in Cambodia, said an energy specialist at the UNDP based in the country.
The specialist said the government’s targets are “uncertain but achievable.” If fuel prices rise further and EV infrastructure expands, the targets could even be surpassed, he added.
Ng Kawai manages the Tesla distributor in Cambodia, TX Auto Center, and he acknowledges the challenges he faces in growing sales of the famous U.S. brand.
The company opened its Tesla-branded Phnom Penh showroom in October after its owner, a Canadian, struck a deal with Tesla in Shanghai to import the company’s cars to Cambodia.
While the high profile of founder Elon Musk helps generate interest, Tesla models start at USD 80,000, making them only affordable for the country’s small wealthy elite.
Kawai said Tesla had given them a target of reaching sales of at least 1,000 units per year. So far, they have sold out of stock, including 12 Model 3s and seven Model Ys. But as a small distributor, they are not at the front of the line for factory resupplies.
“Of course, they’ll give it to the big dealers first,” he said. “We’re not selling as much as they are, so we don’t get as much support yet.”
TX provides home and mobile chargers to customers and helps install the former. An additional challenge, however, is that the chargers require circuits to be earthed, which is often not the case in Cambodia.
Kawai, who has driven about 10,000 km in his own Tesla Model 3 in Cambodia, said he has had no problems with running out of battery power.
“At first, I was worried, like everyone else, about charging, but now I only charge it once a week,” he said, adding that a recent trip to the coastal city of Kampot, about 150 km from Phnom Penh, had gone smoothly. “From Phnom Penh to Kampot only used 15% of the battery,” he said.