Tesla could benefit as South Korea pushes to update EV incentives

South Korea is the world’s 11th largest car market according to IHS Automotive but 5th in sales of luxury cars like the Mercedes S Class and BMW 7 Series. That means it could be an important market for Tesla’s Model S and Model X. The country ranks in the top six in terms of the number of reservations for the upcoming Tesla Model 3 midsize sedan.

South Korea offers buyers of electric cars a subsidy equivalent to 22 million won or approximately $18,000 dollars but the incentive only applies to cars that can be recharged in 10 hours or less using 220 volt household current.The rule was enacted in 2012 and was intended to encourage manufacturers to limit the charging time required for electric cars. But electric cars today have much larger batteries than they did then. Those larger batteries may take more than 10 hours to recharge on household current, making them ineligible for the subsidy.

Minister of Environment Cho Kyeung-kyu says it may be time for his country to revisit that rule. A ministry official tells Reuters that a government appointed panel will submit recommendations “by June, but it could be much earlier. We haven’t decided whether to keep the rule alive, or kill it, or come up with complementary rules.”

Last month, opposition lawmaker Lee Sang-don called the rule an “unreasonable non-tariff barrier” that discourages drivers from considering long range EVs. “The rule is meaningless,” Kim Pil-soo, president of the Korean Electric Vehicle Association, told Reuters. “We have kept telling the government they should remove it.” In October, Tesla Vice President of North Asia and SEA Nicolas Villeger said the company is working with the government to change a “unique rule” that does not reflect advances in battery technology.

Tesla is about to open its first showroom in the upscale Starfield shopping district east of Seoul. In fact, it was supposed to be open before the end of 2016, but a sign in the window saying “Opening Soon” was still in the window as of last week. A delay in obtaining the permits required to begin sales has pushed the opening to early next year, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Tesla has been accepting orders from Korean customers since August for its Model S and Model X as well as reservations for the Model 3. With the present rule in place, a car that the company expects to sell strongly in the South Korean luxury car market — the Model S 90D — will not be eligible for the electric car incentive because its battery is too large to recharge in less than 10 hours on household current.

Chinese automaker BYD also intends to offer its long range electric car, the e6, for sale in Korea but has delayed starting sales until the incentive rule is amended. The e6 also will require more than 10 hours to fully recharge on household current.

Sales of electric cars in South Korea have been weak so far. To date, there are only about 4,000 EVs registered in the entire country despite the generous subsidy. South Korea has been proactive when it comes to building charging infrastructure. There are 750 fast chargers available to Korean EV drivers at present and the government plans to increase that number to 3,000 by 2020. Tesla is also planning to construct Supercharger locations in Seoul, Busan and Pyeongchang.

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