On the surface, it’s business as usual.

Perodua is already taking on-line bookings for its soon-to-be-launched SUV. 

Based on the Toyota Raize which was launched in Japan last November, Perodua’s new SUV is the first compact SUV produced by Daihatsu Japan.

As a compact SUV, this model which is the inheritor of the Daihatsu Terios aka Perodua Kembara, goes forward with the next-generation Daihatsu New Global Architecture (DNGA) platform featuring a 1.0 litre 3-cylinder turbo-charged engine and a fuel-sipping consumption of 18.9 km/litre. It is estimated that prices will start from RM62,000 to a range topping RM72,000. 

Expect about 50-70 new cars that will be launched through the year. Already 

But what’s really going on is that Malaysia is going to miss the new wave of electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles while its regional competitors especially Indonesia, roll out new investor friendly policies especially for the automotive sector including EVs.

You have to understand that the new cars which will be launched this year were conceived about 3 years ago and their market roll-out will likely go on as scheduled this year in view of the push-back of the Covid-19 virus by global vaccinations .

Car buyers will continue to be saddled with high taxes on cars and they will be getting the latest technology in the mainstream cars only after Thailand and Indonesia.

But since the Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin can pull off a pleasantly stunning policy to accelerate the roll-out of 5G telecommunications and launch Malaysia into the foremost in Asean, why not a liberalisation and decarbonisation policy to revolutionise the automotive industry in Malaysia.

The automotive industry is definitely a low hanging fruit for improvement.

With the Zhejiang Geely group as a technology-rich partner, Proton has a depth of products to be a regional competitor.

While the government will still need to underpin its domestic auto to a regional market, its support should be evenly distributed unlike previously where Proton was privileged with exclusive R&D grants.

With Malaysia acceding to the world’s largest free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), in November last year, it has also accepted competition from China, Japan and South Korea.

The distinguishing feature this time with the RCEP is that Malaysia’s free trade list includes cars and electric vehicles with a 30 per cent import duty unlike the superseded Asean Free Trade Area (AFTA).

While there are other trade barriers to navigate in the RCEP such as excise duties which are within a country’s right to impose, the single biggest obstacle to a free trade in cars is that the RCEP has yet to be signed off by Malaysia’s cabinet, said a senior official at the Minister of International Trade and Industry.  

But while this is not news to most industry participants, what this means for Malaysian car buyers is that they are being left behind in terms of choice, pricing and technology.

For instance, Honda’s latest big thing is its Traffic Jam Pilot which will be launched with its flagship Honda Legend by the end of March in Tokyo.

It will be the first car in the world able to operate nationwide using “Level 3” autonomous driving technology. Autonomous driving is categorised from Level 0 which means no driver assistance to Level 4 which means total automation of the driving of a car. 

While adaptive cruise control is available on even the Mercedes-Benz S400 hybrid and other premium cars in Malaysia, they are on Level 2 software that steers cars to stay in a lane and follow the vehicle in front, braking and accelerating when needed. 

Level 3, however, goes beyond Level 2 in that the car can take over all safety-critical functions in some cases, known as “conditional autonomy,” operating without driver supervision.

Japan’s stealing a march on the US and China in the area of autonomous driving was due to incisive strategy and execution, as analysed by Eri Sugiura, reporting in Nikkei Asia.

“To boil it down, it takes more than just advanced technology to bring self-driving vehicles into everyday use.”

 The story points out how Germany’s Audi was the first to unveil “Traffic Jam Pilot” technology in 2017, but that the car maker did not equip its cars with its Level 3 functionality — or “conditional autonomy” — due to regulatory reasons.

Thanks to deregulation moves by the Japanese government, Honda will be the first manufacturer to launch a car with Level 3 technology that is allowed to operate nationwide.

“Both Honda and Japan’s government clearly see a major opportunity to re-enter the game. The launch is the culmination of a six-year effort to modify the country’s road traffic legal code, regulatory framework and insurance industry in the service of commercializing Level 3 self-driving technology at a national level — not to mention the tolerance of Japan’s citizens to be guinea pigs in an extraordinary experiment with robotics,” reported Sugiura.

Coming back to Malaysia, there could still be a way out of the political imbroglio says Shahrol H, a consultant who worked at the top levels of Malaysia’s civil service for quite a while.

“For EV policy, there would need to be political cover because it’s a very big shift,” he chatted in a Clubhouse room yesterday. 

“The immediate thing that can be done will be to probably set up another government body similar to what the Thais did when they set up their National Electric Vehicle Steering Committee that is chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister. Then give the committee the teeth to do what it should do. It’s really committee effectiveness, clear rules, governance, transparency.

“But the Prime Minister himself must be able to direct and say, “ I want this to be achieved by this date, these are the members of the committee, etc and etc.

“It’s like a CEO who wants to do something and so let’s just do it. Fixing the auto industry is not really rocket science,” said Shahrol.