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Two years on with BlueSG: Has electric vehicle car sharing improved in Singapore?

By PY Ho - on 07 Mar 2020, 9:34am

Note: This article was first published on 24 January 2020.

BlueSG cars in Funan

Now that it is 2020 and it has been close to one and a half years since my initial experience on BlueSG, I thought now’s a good checkpoint to see how BlueSG has progressed and assess the whole electric vehicle car-sharing scheme in Singapore’s context. Within this period, they have increased their charging locations from 72 to 325 (as of this writing; includes both operational and planned), well on their way to complete setting up 500 charging locations in Singapore by the end of 2020. To recap on what BlueSG is: it is part of LTA’s pilot programme on a national-level electric vehicle (EV) Car Sharing initiative, in which BlueSG, a subsidiary of Bolloré Group, will install 2,000 BlueSG charging points at 500 locations by 2020. In fact, they have recently celebrated the commissioning of their 1000th EV charging point, so that’s certainly progress.

So, what else has changed in the past 1.5 years?

So many stations that I could easily use Python to render this heatmap.

Everything New


1) New location: Shopping malls! Sentosa! Hospital!

In the early days of BlueSG, their charging stations were confined mostly to within HDB and URA car parks, with a select few office building spots. Lately, they have expanded their scope to cover major shopping malls, particularly those owned by Capitaland, such as Funan and Plaza Singapura. They even have three stations in Sentosa and also one in Tan Tock Seng Hospital! Wait, did I mention that entry to Sentosa is free if you drive using a BlueSG EV car?

 

2) New subscription plans

Previously, there was a $15 monthly plan and a $0 weekly plan – in which the weekly plan was pointless for regular users as they would need to revalidate their documents when the week expires. Starting this year, BlueSG has revamped its plans into the following:

  • Basic $8/month – no commitment period
  • Premium $18/month – minimum 6 months commitment period, bundled with 45 minutes of usage per month, along with other seasonal promotions and perks

Both offer the same $0.33/minute usage rate.

Which plan is better? 45 minutes of usage equates $14.85, which is marginally higher than the price difference between Basic and Premium plans. Factoring in the raw cost of using BlueSG for 45 minutes and that the Premium plan comes with 45 minutes of free usage per month, the Premium plan is ideal for those who’ve plans to drive BlueSG at least once a week and will do so in the long run. Conversely, it can be seen that the Basic Plan is best for ad-hoc usage those who are unsure whether they will commit to driving BlueSG on a regular cycle.

 

3) EV points open for public use

With electric cars making a slow but steady appearance in the Singapore market, BlueSG started opening up some of their stations for other electric vehicles to use. This is also part of the agreement with LTA to eventually open 400 points for public use. Electric car owners can sign up for a BlueSG charging-only account for $20 per year, and they can charge at allocated charging points. Charging is time-based; it costs $1/hour for the first 3 hours, and then $2 / hour subsequently.

Do note that not all locations have lots for public charging. Currently, there are only 60 out of 322 operational locations that support public use. Also, note that BlueSG stations use Type 2 AC charger, which is not of the fast charging variety, so you might need more than a quick meal if you intend to charge to 100% from ‘empty’ using a BlueSG station.

 

4) Queue-pop

Ever just wanted to reserve a car under your block, but no cars are available? Previously you must ‘camp’ within the app to try your luck and secure availability. Now, there is Queue-pop, which is a virtual queue for either a BlueCar or a lot when there are none at the moment. Queue-pop will automatically assign to the first person in the queue once there is availability. This is a much-appreciated feature update.

 

5) Rental packages

In my last post, I mentioned that BlueSG primarily provides direct-point-A-to-B service, and hence they are very different from other car-sharing services that book by the hours. Late last year, BlueSG piloted ‘Rental Packages’ where users can book in blocks of 3 hours or 5 hours, for $39.90 and $59.90 respectively. While pricing seems steep, remember that for BlueSG, mileage is not priced. How far the BlueCar can go is still limited by its battery capacity (while taking note that the BlueCar must be returned with at least 30% charge as stipulated in their usage policy).

The only disadvantage over other car-sharing systems is that the user cannot pre-book the destination parking lot at the point of booking of the rental package. Users may encounter a situation where they cannot return to their desired lot after, say, shopping using the BlueCar.

 

Challenges and shortcomings

 

  • New direct competition

Somewhere in late 2018, Smove has experimented on this similar direct-point-A-to-B model by offering Super Short Rentals, whereby users can, at the last minute (last minute being 3 hours before, or less) rent a Smove car for a short duration, instead of conforming to a minimum rental period of 3 hours. The scheme has evolved since, but the basics remain. This pits Smove in direct competition with BlueSG, as they both provide similar direct-point-A-to-B services. The main difference is that BlueSG charges by the minute, while Smove charges by both time used in 15-minute chunks, and mileage.

As to which is better, I will dedicate a future blog post for a detailed analysis. Still, in general, both have their competitive edges and pitfalls: Smove has lesser locations than BlueSG, and it is much harder to get a Smove car via Super Short Rental, but there are issues unique to BlueSG that dulls its edge over Smove.

 

  • Asymmetrical distribution of cars across the time

On weekdays, cars are generally rented out in the morning from housing estates to the CBD and downtown areas and remain as such until the evening, whereby the reverse occurs. This results in a good chance in not being able to rent a BlueCar from housing area in the morning, or even if one can, they are likely to face the problem of finding a lot in their destination, i.e. their workplace. A similar situation arises in the evenings, just reversed whereby it’s difficult to rent from downtown and find suitable parking in the housing estates.

However, the problem has dramatically alleviated since 2018 as there are now several more charging stations in operation. Where I once had to book before 7:30am to guarantee the use of BlueCar, there is currently little worry about not getting a BlueCar even at 9am. I do, however, still face issues of finding destination lots, as there are not many BlueSG stations nearby my workplace.

 

  • 45 minutes race to the destination

A quick recap: a user can only reserve a destination parking lot for 45 minutes, regardless of the distance needed to travel to arrive at the destination. I lamented in my previous post that 45 minutes might be too short, especially when there is a jam, or when the drive is between extreme ends of Singapore. 1.5 years have passed, and this problem has yet to be resolved. Drivers still face the risk of losing their destination lot if there is a jam. What is worse is that with the Queue-pop system, there is a higher risk of losing the lot in ‘hot’ locations, as the system will automatically offer the lot to the next person in the virtual queue once the reservation expires. Drivers will then have to race to the lot, which is no doubt, dangerous.

 

  • Limited number of lots per location

Did you notice that for all the BlueSG stations, no one site has more than 4 lots? While it may seem counter to car-lite ambitions, one has to understand that every lot reserved for BlueSG is another lot forgone for general public use. This is also why it is generally much harder for BlueSG to set up stations in private spaces, and hence why there are usually lesser BlueSG stations near workplaces in general.

 

  • Non-BlueCar taking BlueSG lots

This brings us to the next related point. With the appearance of BlueSG stations in popular carparks, particularly in shopping malls, there are many incidences where one might find non-BlueSG cars parked in lots reserved for them (and other EV-charging capable cars). This is not the fault of BlueSG, but inconsiderate behaviour of such offending car owners, be it intentional or not.

Haven't heard of any EV taxis other than HDT, so this taxi does not belong here. (Photo credit: BlueSG Users Group)

Nevertheless, whenever a BlueSG user is unfortunate enough to encounter this, he or she must

  • Call BlueSG hotline via the intercom in the car
  • Report to mall’s security, or HDB/URA
  • Find a vacant lot elsewhere in the carpark
  • If in a mall, have security clamp the offending car

All of this is a huge hassle, especially if the mall’s carpark is close to full capacity.

 

  • The first mile/last mile problem

Unless one is in a perfect scenario where both your housing estate and the workplace has a BlueSG station within easy reach, otherwise, there is still the first mile/last mile problem to tackle. Generally, users will still have to walk, take the bus, or even MRT/LRT to get to the desired starting BlueSG station, and then factor the same upon returning the car. While new HDB towns are ‘greenfield’ enough to accommodate a lot of BlueSG stations, thereby minimising the first mile/last mile journey concerns, mature HDB estates have less of such luxury, and even less so for CBD and Downtown areas. Orchard, for one, has only two BlueSG stations, and are located on extreme ends of the shopping belt.

Such first mile/last mile problem is crucial for users determining whether to use BlueSG for daily workplace commute. Using the Orchard example: if one’s workplace is, say, at Ngee Ann City Tower, even if assuming the user’s housing estate has a BlueSG station, it makes no sense for the user to drive to Claymore station, park, and then walk 10 minutes to Ngee Ann City. Or drive to Plaza Singapura, park, take the MRT from Dhoby Ghaut to Orchard (another 7 minutes of walk), and walk another four minutes to Ngee Ann City. In this case, the user might be better served by engaging ride-hailing services instead.

This isochron map was generated using Mapbox API based on a 7-minute walk radius coverage of all BlueSG stations available at the time of publishing. Click to view a larger image.

Also, if you observe from the heatmap below, you can see that areas predominantly populated with private estates, such as Thomson and Bukit Timah, have virtually no BlueSG stations.

Red indicates no BlueSG station; translucent indicates very few, with deeper shade of blue indicating several. With the exception of controlled and uninhabited areas, note that Orchard, CBD, business parks, and industrial areas have little to no stations. This is also noticed in areas like Bukit Timah, Thomson, Moulmein and Marine Parade. (Data source from BlueSG; map generated from OneMap.)
 

  • Inconsiderate usage of BlueCar

All car-sharing platforms have their fair share of inconsiderate users. For some reason, BlueSG seems to have a bigger problem with thoughtless usages, such as:

  • Not turning off headlamps
  • Door or boot not closed, or windows wound down
  • Car parked very close to the adjacent car (as if to block the driver side of the adjacent car purposely)
  • Hubcaps disappearing
  • Charging wires crossing each other, confusing users on which car to retrieve
  • Mobile phone mounts stolen
  • Glaring damages to the car

Where's the hubcap?

 

  • No measures to track the state of the car

Other car-sharing platforms have some means to track the state of the car across use by multiple users. Tribecar demands user to take photos of the car before use, CarClub uses a dashcam, while Smove uses a combination of both, presumably due to the potentially higher usage arising from Super Short Rentals.

It is thus perplexing why BlueSG has yet to implement any of such measures. At the very least, BlueSG could have installed outward-facing dashcams. This can set the minds of BlueSG users in peace, knowing that at least there is ready evidence, should there be an unfortunate accident and dispute case.

Perhaps it is because such measures are lacking that there isn’t any accountability on the part of users too. This is why BlueSG has significantly more problems with inconsiderate usage as listed in the earlier point.

 

  • ‘Surge pricing’

Some eagle-eyed BlueSG users spotted in the updated BlueSG T&Cs that BlueSG could levy a surcharge of up to $2 each for reserving a car and a lot at certain indeterminate times. While they mentioned they could, they have yet to do so.

Such surge, if implemented, will be a small step back from promoting car-lite society. The whole point of car-lite is to ensure that even without ownership of cars, citizens can still travel from point A to B seamlessly with the uncertainty of both travel time and cost minimised.

As stated in their T&Cs. Thankfully it has yet to be implemented.
 

Closing Notes

I am glad that the plans have been revamped since the early days. There exist users who use car-sharing services sparingly (like me) and having a plan with no commitment period allows such users to keep the membership. I was actually on my way to cancel my subscription, as the previous plan mandates one-year commitment, but decided to continue with the Basic one when the new plans rolled out – even if I now own a car.

Having installed another 250 stations within the short span of 1.5 years, BlueSG is undoubtedly on track in completing their target of 500 stations by the end of this year. Mobility will certainly be more fluid with that many stations in our small island– in general.

The crux is where the remaining 175 stations will be located. If the majority still go to HDB estates, it will do little to reduce the last mile commute problem. Or worse, an amusing situation where there remain just too many BlueCars unrented in HDB estates, simply because the lots in common work areas and other desired destinations are filled up. Some workplaces may not even have any stations in the first place, such as Changi Business Park and Mapletree Business City to name a few; thus there is no point using BlueCars to commute to these destinations. However, that will be a considerable challenge for BlueSG (and LTA) to face, as private entities own workplaces, and they are not always managed by JTC nor Capitaland.

As such, it remains to be seen whether BlueSG – or car-sharing in general – is a viable full replacement for car ownership in the government’s relentless push towards a car-lite society. Already, Bollore is quitting two more cities, London and Indiana, from similar BlueCar sharing services, citing low ridership as a cause in the case of Indiana (and the departure from London is so quiet that there were no known press releases on this matter). While one can argue that the demographics and population distribution of Indiana and London are different, it still is very indicative of how successful car-sharing can be when BlueCar services have stopped in 3 out of 8 cities (with Paris being the first casualty in 2018).

Having said that, I believe that BlueSG, or car-sharing services in general, is still an excellent supplementary option to car ownership (or even complement it) for occasional commutes and I hope the listed concerns improve further over time. The newer no-commitment plan helps retain such casual commuters or car owners who may need car-sharing services in times of car downtime.

PY Ho

PY Ho / Freelance Writer

Primarily developer. Enthusiastic on new mobile products, especially on the Android ecosystem. Will even pay out of his own pocket to buy and test new products if they are not sold in Singapore.