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Bolivian EV startup hopes a small car will grow big in a lithium-rich country


LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — On a recent, cold morning, Dr. Carlos Ortuño boarded a small electric car to go check on a patient in the outskirts of the Bolivian capital of La Paz, unsure if the vehicle would handle it. can the steep, winding streets of the perched city.

“I thought it was going to be difficult because of the topography of the city, but it’s a great climber,” Ortuño said of his experience driving a Quantum, the first electric car ever made in Bolivia. “The difference with a petrol car is huge.”

Ortuño’s home visit aboard a golf cart-sized car was part of a government-sponsored program that brings doctors to patients living in neighborhoods far from the city center. The Doctor at Home program was launched last month by the municipality of La Paz with a fleet of six electric cars from Quantum Motors, the country’s only electric car maker.

“It’s a groundbreaking idea. It helps protect the health of people in need, while protecting the environment and supporting local production,” said La Paz Mayor Iván Arias.

The program could also boost Quantum Motors, a company founded four years ago by a group of entrepreneurs who believe EVs will transform the auto industry in Bolivia, a lithium-rich country.where cheap, subsidized imported gasoline is still the norm.

Built like a box, the Quantum moves at no more than 35 mph (56 km/h), can be charged from a household outlet and can travel 50 miles (80 kilometers) before recharging. Its makers 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 predominate globally in the coming years, but it will be different in different countries,” said José Carlos Márquez, general manager of Quantum Motors. “Tesla is becoming a dominant player in the US, with its fast, autonomous cars. But in Latin America, cars will be more compact because our streets are more like Bombay and New Delhi than California.”

But the company’s quest to boost e-mobility in the South American country has been challenging. In the four years since it released its first EVs, Quantum Motors has sold barely 350 cars in Bolivia and an unknown number in Peru and Paraguay. The company will also open a factory in Mexico later this year, although no further details have been provided on the scale of production there.

Still, 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 lithium reserve in the worlda key component in electric batteries, but it has yet to mine—and industrialize—its vast resources of the metal.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of vehicles in circulation still run on fossil fuels and the government continues to spend millions of dollars subsidizing imported fuel which is then sold at half the price in the domestic market.

“The Quantum (car) may be cheap, but I don’t think it has the capacity of a petrol car,” said Marco Antonio Rodriguez, a car mechanic in La Paz, though he acknowledges that people may change their mind once the government makes an end to petrol subsidies.

Despite the challenges ahead, the makers of the Quantum car hope that programs like “Médico en tu casa,” which is expected to double in size and expand to other neighborhoods next year, will boost production and drive more EVs. will produce throughout the region. .

“We are ready to grow,” said Márquez. “Our stock is sold out through July.”

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.