Strategies, opportunities, and natural limitations to EV infrastructure in Lebanon

The egg and the chick

Based on discussions with the two Lebanese gas station network operators—Medco and IPT—it seems fair to describe the first step of the journey into this particular private-sector infrastructure construction as based on the understanding that electric vehicles will make their appearances in Lebanon sooner or later, and that the country could ill afford to fall behind global developments in electric mobility.

Notwithstanding, however, the faint hope for a sustainable electricity solution among large parts of the Lebanese population, there are clear technical possibilities to solve Lebanon’s electricity infrastructure and road quality problems. It appears paradoxical then that the nation’s electricity supply problems feature heavily in popular perceptions as a barrier against phasing in electric cars. By comparison, the much less mutable geographical size and population distribution of the country combine into an issue that is not much talked about in connection with the viability of e-mobility approaches.

Lebanon is a very small country if one thinks about distances that need to be covered—driving time is a different consideration. From practically any starting point in the country, there is simply no direction in which a person can drive for 250 km straight and still find themselves in Lebanon. Also, Lebanon, by international comparison, has high urbanization, high population density, and relatively short internal distances when compared with any non-small-island nation.

On one hand, this means that establishment of electric driving infrastructures and charging units are not nearly as challenging in Lebanon as they are in thinly populated territories or nations where long stretches of roads lie between settlements—whether one thinks of geographies in Africa and Australia or countries like Norway that face automotive e-infrastructure issues.

To illustrate the point, Lebanon’s gas station network is estimated at about 3,200 units, of which 2,500 are officially registered. In a country where the population density is assumed to be around 600 persons per km² spread across 10, 452 km². European countries with gas station networks in the similar range of 2,500 to 3,000 in total are, for example, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Bulgaria. However, Sweden is 45 times the size of Lebanon by territory, Bulgaria 11 times, and Austria eight times. Population densities in these countries range from just under 30 persons per km² in Sweden, to 64 in Bulgaria, and 101 people in Austria.

Such data suggests that exceedingly few people in Lebanon would have to cover as large a distance as typical Austrians, Bulgarians, and Swedes when they want to visit relatives or business acquaintances across the country, and that the average hamlet dweller in Sweden, Bulgaria, and Austria has to drive much farther than the typical Lebanese to get to the nearest fuel pump.

The move to future mobility will economically be marked by new winners and creative destruction of old realities.

So, in relative terms, Lebanon does not look like a territory that will face particular economic cost barriers when it comes to the establishment of a charging unit network. Recalling the experience with the rollout of mobile telecom infrastructure during the country’s post-conflict restoration of communications in the 1990s reinforces the notion how fast the nationwide mobile networks could be built in regional comparison.

On the other hand, the shortness of distances and high concentration of people in Lebanon also means that economic feasibility of mobility options involving high initial acquisition and comparatively advantageous, or even low operation costs, is not easily achievable. It is, apart from a few people who drive for a living, quite a rare feat for any motorist in this country to cover more than 100 km or 200 km on a given day and reach an average annual count of more than 20,000 km or 30,000 km.

This, in turn, means that vehicles with a trade-off between elevated acquisition cost and low operations cost make little sense in Lebanon, if lifetime cost of a car is the main consideration. Electric vehicles (EVs) of certain power, quality, and comfort, cost more than similar cars with an internal combustion engine, at least in 2019 and probably for some years to come. This means that an average Lebanese with daily driving needs of 25 km to 35 km (9,000 km to 12,500 km per year) will hardly ever save enough money from e-charging (vs. filling up with gasoline) to recover the higher acquisition cost of the e-version of his compact or middle-class car.

Such factors illustrate that overall feasibility of automotive electric mobility is a complex scenario by which barriers and opportunities will differ widely from country to country. Moreover, in the current situation of undeniable mobility needs that clash with old, economically, and environmentally no longer tenable solutions, engineers, tinkerers, and visionaries are crowding the field of radical inventions with solutions that have technical potential.

Contenders that are visible from the cognitively very limited vantage points of media range from cars with integrated solar cells, where a long-range passenger sedan prototype this summer was introduced by a Dutch manufacturer, to hydrogen-powered vehicles using the fuel cell technology that is often mentioned in the discussion and is available internationally in some vehicles on the road. But in all probability there are many not-yet-discussed inventions that are looming just beyond the horizon as solutions in both the in-car and infrastructure technology realms.

As the market constitutes the economy’s cognitive laboratory for discovering the most feasible practical solutions for an economic problem with great social and financial implications, i.e. profit potentials, the move to future mobility will economically be marked by new winners and creative destruction of old realities. State interferences in this market process in form of regulations and sometimes unintended nudges will additionally influence the mobility developments and sometimes distort them, but public interventions are inevitable due to the great importance of mobility for society.

Mobility of self is much more than automobilism

The entirety of automotive mobility and diverse digital mobility is thus being immersed in an ocean of change that is concealing a wide variety of challenges but also is already witnessing all the mobility perks, trimmings, and side shows—from hybrid cruise ships to Formula E car racing—that the world has become addicted to in the 20th century.

Also, it pays to remember that this is not just about cars. Socially and financially profitable digital mobility trends relate to everything with wheels. Biking fans can look—and buy in Beirut—top of the line electric bicycles, which today means digitized two-wheelers with pedals, advanced and often very well-concealed batteries and minimalistic electric motors that support and amplify human pedal power. While pricey for a bicycle, quality specimen are engineered to transform both urban and cross-country pedaling efforts into paradisiac experiences. Moreover, sleek e-bikes of recent manufactures—and Europe is right now brimming with startup producers and avalanches of fascinating new e-bike designs‚ reach serious speeds (some versions do not lose thrust until 45 km/h) without the stigmas of being clumsy, unsightly, or retiree mobility focused transport tools that had once limited the attractiveness of e-bikes to some buyer segments.

In the Lebanese market, retailer Bike Generation says they sold somewhere north of 120 e-bikes over the past five to six years. As Bike Generation co-founder Georges Bouez tells Executive, the market here has rational potentials for use of e-bikes in commuting. He concedes, however, that this potential is still restrained by apprehensions about e-bike prices—which are high in comparison to mass-market conventional bicycles but actually, at $3,000 to $9,000 for an imported machine, are not exorbitant when one takes a look at what some e-bikes go for in European countries—and by misperceptions that a bicycle is exclusively for leisure and not suited for daily transport to work.

Then there is an entire realm with heavy electric mobility disruption potentials in micro-commercial and personal urban transport. This realm extends on one side from e-versions of transport scooters to three-wheeled vehicles used on private properties such as hospital and university grounds. E-mobility in this segment can ease transportation of goods and persons in specific environments, but they appear to be in need of clear allocations on what spaces they can circulate and also better regulations as to which uses require what safety precautions, driver training, and insurance covers.

The same need applies to the adjacent mobility segments of electric kick-scooters and e-versions of conventional scooters, the latter long having acquired a well-deserved reputation of being threats to any organized and rule abiding traffic in Lebanon.

There is an entire realm with heavy electric mobility disruption potentials in micro-commerical and personal urban transport.

Constituting additional options for urban personal mobility around the world’s cities (and arriving with the concomitant news of accidents involving electric kick-scooters), these fast-rolling stand-on mini-vehicles, which are jumping from being mobility toys of preschoolers to choices of grown-up urbanites, could emerge as the layer of one-risk-too-far in local traffic if they are not subjected to adequate regulatory frameworks and actual enforcement of such frameworks. Similarly, an increase in the population of electric scooters in Lebanon might easily become the new menace dimension of obnoxious and no-rules-respected delivery guys that make streets in any Lebanese city become risk accumulation cauldrons.

In short, all these realms of new, up-scaled, and old mobility bring added risks, and although these diversified transport and mobility options tend to bring benefits and perhaps increase urban productivity, the expectation will only have merit if Lebanon’s national and municipal frameworks of informal traffic conduct, formal regulations, and effective and respectful enforcement are seriously enhanced.

Without even embarking on a discussion of what mid-term future scenarios involving e-trucks and e-buses, autonomous delivery fleets, taxis, and goods or passenger drones could mean for Lebanon, the digital mobility scenario that is starting to solidify here is one of a transitional sense—meaning not one of economic determinism or dialectical paradigms. The chick of the new digital mobility is contained in the egg of the country’s existing mobility; namely the, historically unprecedented, progress inducing but also problem-laden 20th century mobility. The emergence of the new will be a challenge, and it will take all the investments of structure and sanity that Lebanon’s state institutions can muster.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.