LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — On a cool new morning, Dr. Carlos Ortuño hopped into a small electric car to go check on a patient on the outskirts of Bolivia’s capital La Paz, unsure if the vehicle would be able to handle the city’s steep, winding streets.
“I thought because of the city terrain it would struggle, but it’s a great climber,” Ortuño said of his experience driving the Quantum, the first electric car to be built in Bolivia. “It’s a big difference from a petrol car.”
Ortuño’s home visit in a golf cart-sized car was part of a government-sponsored program that brings doctors to patients who live in neighborhoods far from the city center. The “Doctor in Your Home” program was launched last month by the municipality of La Paz using a fleet of six electric cars made by Quantum Motors, the country’s sole producer of electric vehicles.
It’s a pioneering idea. “It helps protect the health of those in need, while protecting the environment and supporting local production,” said La Paz Mayor Ivan Arias.
The program could also help boost Quantum Motors, a company launched four years ago by a group of entrepreneurs who believe electric vehicles will transform the auto industry in Bolivia, a lithium-rich country.Cheap, subsidized imported gasoline remains the norm.
Built like a box, the Quantum moves no more than 35 mph (56 km/h), can be recharged from a household outlet and can travel 50 miles (80 km) before recharging. Its creators hope the $7,600 car will help revive dreams of a lithium-powered economy and make electric cars something the masses will embrace.
“E-mobility will prevail all over the world in the next few years, but it will be different in different countries,” says Jose Carlos Marquez, General Manager of Quantum Motors. “Tesla will be a dominant player in the United States, with its fast, self-driving cars. But in Latin America, the cars will be much more compact, because our streets are more like the streets of Bombay and New Delhi than the streets of California.”
But the company’s drive to boost e-mobility in the South American country has been a challenge. In the four years since it launched its first electric cars, Quantum Motors has sold barely 350 vehicles in Bolivia and an undisclosed number of units in Peru and Paraguay. The company is also set to open a factory in Mexico later this year, though no further details were provided on the scale of production there.
However, Quantum Motors’ bet on battery-powered cars makes sense when it comes to Bolivia’s resources. With an estimated 21 million tons, Bolivia has the largest reserves of lithium in the worldwhich is a key component in electric batteries, but has yet to mine — and manufacture — its vast mineral resources.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of vehicles in circulation still run on fossil fuels and the government continues to pump millions of dollars into subsidizing imported fuels compared to selling them at half price on the domestic market.
“The Quantum may be cheap, but I don’t think it has the capacity of a gasoline car,” says Marco Antonio Rodriguez, an auto mechanic in La Paz, though he acknowledges that people may change their minds once the government puts an end to gasoline subsidies.
Despite the challenges ahead, Quantum car makers are hopeful that programs like “Médico en tu casa,” which is set to double in size and extend to other neighborhoods next year, will help boost production and produce more electric cars across the region.
“We are ready to grow,” Marquez said. “Our inventory is sold out through July.”
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