Electric vehicle pioneer Dasep Ahmadi was jailed for a failed experiment that terrified the innovation
Ten years ago, a charismatic Indonesian minister named Dahlan Iskan set out to develop a domestic electric vehicle (EV) industry. It was supposed to boost the economy, clean up Indonesia’s air and fight the climate crisis.
But things didn’t go according to plan. First, Iskan crashed an electric sports car into a cliff during a test drive. Then one of its chief engineers, Dasep Ahmadi, was sentenced to seven years in prison for wasting state funds after his electric vehicles were found to be inoperable.
A few years after this belief, Indonesian entrepreneurs were too scared to approach the industry, leaving drivers with a choice between polluting household models or expensive imported electric vehicles.
“After this [Ahmadi’s] In this case, the research program has been relatively shut down, ”said Agus Purwadi, an EV researcher at the prestigious Bandung Institute of Technology in Indonesia.
Traffic accounts for around 28% of Indonesia’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, and air pollution kills an estimated 120,000 Indonesians annually. Although most Indonesians still ride a motorcycle, the demand for cars is booming, especially in large cities. Only 0.15% of the cars sold in Indonesia in 2020 were electric.
“When you come in [Jakarta] For half an hour you will feel the pollution from the vehicles, ”said Julius Adiatma, a Jakarta-based EV researcher at the Institute for Essential Services Reform. “You can see the smoke, by breathing you can feel it, the smell of the air is not fresh”.
This week, the International Energy Agency said if the world is to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, 60% of global auto sales should be electric by 2030. Indonesia still has a long way to go.
Iskan became known as the football-mad editor of the Java Post in the 1980s, with a reputation for humility and youthful demeanor that he attributes to a 21-year-old’s liver transplant.
He gained popularity by prioritizing Indonesian rather than foreign football in his newspapers. He paid for food for his local team’s fans when they traveled to Jakarta to play games – and compensation when they smashed trains.
After two years in the state electricity company, Iskan was appointed Minister of State Enterprises in 2011 and set out to promote the development of a cheap electric vehicle.
One of the men he turned to was Dasep Ahmadi, 46. Ahmadi was raised as a mechanic by his father and studied mechanical engineering at the renowned Indonesian Bandung Institute of Technology and received a scholarship in Germany. He had worked for large auto companies and won a national robotics competition.
In 1998, as Southeast Asia was rocked by the financial crisis, Ahmadi quit a comfortable job at Astra to become self-employed and offer motorcycle testing equipment. When Iskan was looking for an electric car manufacturer, his name came up.
Although he admits that he was once “very embarrassed” to drive an electric car, Iskan was so personally interested that he insisted on testing the prototypes himself.
While a group of journalists drove around one of Jakarta’s busiest roundabouts in Ahmadi’s bright green Evina, the car broke down. On a later test drive, he failed to get up the hill to Bandung.
It could and got worse. While Iskan and one of his engineers were testing a sporty red electric car at a speed of around 70 km / h, he turned off the road and later blamed the failure of the brake.
The prototype Tuxuci, developed at Iskan’s request, hit a power pole and destroyed the car. The minister was unharmed: “Not even bubbles,” he said. He claimed he would rather be used as a guinea pig for new technology than let the public take the risk.
Dahlan Iskan’s electric car that had an accident. اَلْحَمْدُلِلّهِ he is saved. pic.twitter.com/l51sezSF
– 𝓐𝓰𝓾𝓼 𝓢𝓮𝓽𝓲𝓪𝔀𝓪𝓷🇮🇩🇲🇾 (@agusjurnalis) January 5, 2013
The incident did not deter him from using electric vehicles. A few months later, Iskan persuaded three state-owned companies to sponsor the construction of 16 Ahmadi electric vehicles to promote the world’s leading companies at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bali.
The cars were meant to advertise the new Indonesia to visit bigshots like Xi Jinping and John Kerry. They were homemade, modern, and (literally and figuratively) green.
But they never made it to the top. The attorney general later said their brakes were too strong, their rims too wide, their engines overheated when they tried to drive uphill, and they were too similar to the Toyota Alphard.
The cars were donated to Indonesian universities to help with their research. In most countries, this would be considered a promising start or, in the worst case, a failed experiment. It took Tesla, the pioneering American company founded by Elon Musk, five years to bring out its first car.
But Indonesia has a law against Kerugian Negara, a financial loss to the nation. After a change of government, Ahmadi was arrested and detained in the attorney general’s office in July 2015.
He was sentenced to seven years in prison and fined RP 200 million (US $ 14,000). Iskan, now ex-minister, was also questioned by investigators and his old ministry was raided, although he was not convicted.
Ahmadi and his lawyer Vidi Galenso argued the conviction was unfair. In court, Ahmadi told reporters, “We do our best, if there are still shortcomings, that’s normal. But if this is labeled a crime, I don’t accept it. “His lawyer Vidi Galenso added,” In research, failure cannot be viewed as wrongdoing. “
Indonesian supplier promises to stop building coal-fired power plants beyond the existing pipeline
Ahmadi was also supported by prominent commentators. Indonesian economist Faisal Basri said it would be ridiculous if those behind every state-sponsored project were prosecuted for poor performance.
Should the organizers of the Java Jazz Festival, which is sponsored by a state bank, be prosecuted if no one shows up to hear the music? Basri asked.
Elrika Hamdi, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (Ieefa), said several CEOs of state-owned companies were convicted of corruption “when they simply made wrong or easily deranged business decisions”.
“A mistake in business decisions shouldn’t mean corruption,” she said. “But if you do it all in one [state owned company]This means (in the Indonesian legal system) that you are causing losses to the state, which translates into corruption. “
Purwadi suggested that there was political motivation for persecuting Ahmadi and Iskan. After Joko Widodo was elected president in 2014, Iskan was ex-minister of an opposition party and Ahmadi opposition candidate for the West Java regional parliament.
The effects of Ahmadi’s belief went beyond the engineer himself. Fear of the same fate and the drying up of research funds prevented engineers from developing Indonesia’s answer to Tesla.
A 2018 report by the Jakarta-based Institute for Essential Services Reform (IESR) found Indonesia “is at a very early stage in the adoption of electric vehicles” and the outlook for electric vehicle adoption is “bleak” . Electric vehicles are 2-3 times more expensive than fossil fuel cars, mainly because they have to be imported and are subject to import duties.
FOR @elonmusk, that man who was punished by law, DASEP AHMADI, A CREATOR ELECTRIC CAR IN INDONESIA https://t.co/wPHYLFlk1W
– ammangDSY 🇮🇩 (@MacoanaBawalipu) August 25, 2016
Ahmadi’s Indonesian electric vehicle should be priced in the region of IDR 200-300 million ($ 14-21,000), while Nissan, Hyundai and Toyota electric vehicles in the region will cost IDR 400-700 million ($ 28-49,000).
Putra Adhiguna, an Indonesian energy analyst at Ieefa, said, “The case set a bad precedent for inventors … it tarnished some of the great ambitions.”
To promote the kind of domestic EV industry that India, China and Malaysia have, the government will have to support the industry for decades, he said.
According to Adiatma, the government has taken some measures to address the price gap between electric and fossil fuel cars, but they haven’t gone far enough.
In 2019, the government introduced measures to encourage investment in electric vehicles and battery manufacturing. Even so, and even if foreign companies avoid import taxes by making their electric vehicles in Indonesia, Adiatma said an electric vehicle would still cost over $ 30,000, compared to $ 10-20,000 for a conventional car.
“We have to do something with the conventional cars to make electric cars competitive,” said Adiatma. “The conventional car price is too low”. He proposes a carbon or luxury tax on conventional cars and increases the price of fuel, which the state oil company Pertamina regulates.
As Indonesia’s response to Elon Musk wears off in prison, any government initiative on electric vehicles on social media is greeted with a chorus of skepticism.
In response to President Joko Widodo, who praised a student EV project, a Twitter user wrote: “Hopefully it will not have the same fate as Dasep Ahmadi’s electric car.”
Hopefully it doesn’t have the same fate as Dasep Ahmadi’s electric car pic.twitter.com/cT6QwRjvAZ
– Abuzhafir (@budiagani) December 20, 2017
In 2019, the government published a “fact-checking” claim that an article titled “Only Indonesia Has Electric Car Maker Detained for 7 Years” was “disinformation.” But it did not disprove the basic facts of the case.
Indonesian ministers are weighing scenarios to achieve net zero emissions between 2045 and 2070, and the country’s largest utility has pledged to stop building new coal-fired power plants.
The more environmentally friendly the country’s electricity system becomes, the greater the climate benefits of electric vehicles. The IESR’s research found that an ambitious EV transition could provide 6% of the emissions reduction needed to change a 3C global warming curve to 1.5 ° C.
Unfortunately, the companies benefiting from this EV transition are likely overseas giants like Hyundai, and the price of these overseas cars means the transition is slower than the melting polar ice caps and Indonesian lungs.