Charged Hong Kong Members' Stories #007 -- Mr. Mark Webb-Johnson

Mark with the Bond girls at the Electric Vehicle Fiesta 2015

Mark Webb-Johnson, arguably Hong Kong's most notable spokesperson for EVs. He has appeared frequently on the media since the very first EV set wheels on Hong Kong soil. The Number 1 go-to person to ask anything about EVs, moderator of Tesla Motor Club forums and now the heart and spine of Charged Hong Kong. He's our guest of Charged Hong Kong Members' Stories #007, he's our James Bond, and he's the Charged Hong Kong chairman.

Here's our interview below:

Locky Law (LL): Hello everyone! Today we have our own Charged Hong Kong chairman Mr. Mark Webb-Johnson to appear in Charged Hong Kong Members' Stories #007 and talk about his views about EV developments in Hong Kong. So, welcome Mr. Bond, pleased to have you here with us!

Mark Webb-Johnson (MWJ): Great to be a part of this, Locky, and thanks so much for donating your valuable time to get these member stories documented and out there for everyone to see.

LL: You are most welcome! Everyone in Charged Hong Kong wants to contribute to promoting clean air in one way or another. We have previously had 6 heroes in 6 stories and now, Mark, as our chairman and Hong Kong's EV pioneer, you know you will be getting the toughest questions ever. But before I begin to literally torture you with them, please tell us something about yourself.

MWJ: I’m fortunate to have found and married the love of my life Jasmine, and we have three fantastic kids (aged between 7 and 12). Being 50+ years old, I’ve owned a few cars in my time, from a tiny mini in my youth, to my first car in Hong Kong, a Land Rover. Back then I was teaching a lot of scuba diving; we’d load the Land Rover up with petrol driven air compressor, tanks, and gear for five divers, and head north (sometimes off road) to dive the waters off remote Sai Kung beaches. After 10 years with the Land Rover, I traded it in for a Toyota Prius; great technology but lousy performance. After five years with the Prius, I sold that and switched to a Tesla Roadster. My wife drives a Tesla Model S.

LL: Lovely! Let's start with your Tesla Roadster, as I know, you have actually developed some very cool software and hardware for it, could you please tell us what it is and how it works?

MWJ: Back in 2011, myself and two other Roadster owners, Sonny Chen and Michael Stegen, developed an open source telemetry system for the Tesla Roadster called the Open Vehicle Monitoring System (OVMS). This was a small module that plugs into the car. With a 2G cellular modem, it could communicate the state of the car via the Internet to smartphone Apps running on either Android or iOS. The owner can use those Apps to do things like check on battery status, start/stop charges, see the tyre pressures, and get alerts when the charge is interrupted. It is a hobbyist project, and as such can do some pretty cool stuff - like automatically activating your homelink gate opener when the GPS says the car is approaching your home. Since then, the project has been extended to work on the Renault Twizy, Volt/Ampera, and a host of other EVs. Today, the project has a global development team of more than 40 active open source contributors, and has really helped bring smartphone telemetry to EVs that otherwise wouldn’t have it. It is just one part of my life goal of making EVs easy to own and operate.

LL: Few actually know about this, but I remember that in the past, no EVs were allowed to be driven on highways of Hong Kong, and you are the ONE person who sort of single-handedly fought for a change in the legislation and succeeded! So the fact that we can now drive an EV on highway is in fact because of you! Do correct me if I am wrong.

MWJ: I can’t take all the credit, but I certainly pushed hard for it and was likely considered a pain in the neck by many in the transport department at the time. The expressway permit situation does highlight how ridiculously rigid our government’s approach to the legislative process is. At the time, the legislation (CAP374Q) made it illegal to drive on expressways unless your vehicle had an engine bigger than 125cc. Of course, EV’s don’t have engines, so owners had to apply for individual exemption (expressway permits). The transport department had ignored the situation for years, completely failed to adapt the legislation to the arrival of EVs, and complicated things by imposing an unnecessary bureaucratic burden on the whole expressway permit process. Finally the legislation was changed, but only for private electric vehicles; commercial electric vehicles still require expressway permits to this day. We’re hitting the same issues with overly restrictive legislation and regulation regarding 3rd row child seats, auto-pilot, self-driving, summon, infotainment, etc. Our Transport Department still refuses to be proactive in anticipating support for emerging technologies; the reactive approach they adopt merely serves to delay each new technology by years (or decades in some cases).

LL: As we all know, some people who are skeptical about EVs will always ask challenging questions. The first one will be about battery degradation. Some claims that battery degradation happens exponentially, so say first year 5%, then next year will be 15%, then by 3rd year maybe 50%, so an EV will have to replace battery every 4 to 5 years, which is a very short lifespan compared to ICE, according to some research. How far do you agree with this?

MWJ: I hear this often, and it is pure mis-information that ignores the differences in battery technology. Simply put, you can make a battery that stores a huge amount of power in a small space, or you can make one that last a long time, but you can’t have both. It is a trade-off. That is the reason why cell phone batteries last a relatively short time, but electric vehicle batteries are made from cell chemistries designed to last. From my own point of view, I’ve been driving my Tesla Roadster for about 5 years and have put more than 50,000km on it. My battery is today 92% the capacity it was 5 years ago - so 8% capacity loss in 5 years, 50,000km, and the degradation has been pretty much linear. I expect the battery in my car to be good for many years to come. With a larger data set, Plug In America conducted a long-term study of hundreds of Tesla Roadsters, and came up with the conclusion that on average, a Roadster battery pack will have between 80% and 85% of original capacity after 160,000km. Those figures compare very favourably with Internal Combustion Engine vehicles.

LL: So EVs batteries actually do have a very long lifespan, that’s great news for all EV owners. Next claim, and we get this a lot. "EVs are not environmentally-friendly because it uses lithium which needs to be mined. When people throw away these batteries, it will pollute the environment."

MWJ: It is laughable that the very same people who complain that Lithium batteries are so expensive also say that they will be discarded and will pollute the environment. The truth is that the Lithium Ion batteries are (a) categorised as non-toxic, (b) recyclable, and (c) valuable. Every EV manufacturer is introducing programs to collect back these batteries at end-of-life and recycle or repurpose them for other uses.

LL: This one continues on lithium battery. Some say “Lithium is highly flammable, so it is very dangerous to use it in car batteries. There has been several reports of EV burning up in flame!” Seems like we need to show some numbers in this one.

MWJ: Batteries, hydrogen, petrol, diesel, whatever; it is all about storing large amounts of energy in as small and light a place as possible. Different fuels have different energy densities. For example, Uranium is at the high end, storing 80,620,000 MJ/kg. Hydrogen (at 700 times atmospheric pressure) is 142 MJ/kg. Diesel 48 MJ/kg. Petrol 46 MJ/kg. Down to rechargeable Lithium Ion batteries at less than 1 MJ/kg. Google ‘energy density’ for more information on this. So you can see that when releasing this energy (fire/explosion), for the same amount of fuel, a Petrol fire is going to release more than 46 times the amount of energy than a Lithium Ion battery fire. The other point to think about is flammability - how easy it is to ignite that release of energy. The truth is that Lithium Ion batteries store less energy than petrol fuel tanks, are harder to ignite, and they release that energy slower and in a more controlled manner. Each year in USA there are more than a hundred thousand Internal Combustion Engine vehicle fires, causing hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries. By comparison, there have been just a handful of Electric Vehicle battery fires, ever. The difference is that whenever an EV is crashed at 100 Mph, ripped into two, impaled against a building and the shattered remnants suffer a small controlled fire, it is shown on every news channel. When the same thing happens to a petrol car, a hundred thousands times a year, nobody says anything unless there is a celebrity inside. For those who think petrol cars are safer, I invite you to sit on top of an open petrol tank holding a naked flame, while I do the same for a Lithium Ion battery.

LL: Haha! That’s a wonderful example, and funny! Next one. Again, very common one. "If we EV owners strip down the whole EV and calculate each piece of material's carbon footprint during manufacturing and transportation to their destination, we will see that EV actually isn't green." What do you think?

MWJ: In the same way that an EV is greener than a comparable petrol car, a bicycle is greener than an EV. But even a bicycle is not green. There have been several recent studies comparing cradle-to-grave lifecycles of EVs versus petrol cars. For example, have a look at the well respected Union of Concerned Scientists 2015 report and their conclusions: “Electric vehicles already result in far less climate pollution than their gas-powered counterparts, and they’re getting cleaner. Optimizing EV production and the disposal or reuse of batteries could further increase their environmental benefits. And as electricity becomes cleaner -- which it is, the difference between electric cars and gasoline cars will only grow—cementing the role of electric vehicles in halving U.S. oil use and cutting global warming emissions.”


LL: Alright! Next statement goes "The electricity EVs use for charging are mostly from fossil fuels, so promoting EVs in Hong Kong is pointless. Promoting EVs in China is a nightmare!"

MWJ: An EV powered 100% from electricity generated from coal is still cleaner (less total emissions well-to-wheel) than one powered by petrol. Do you know how much electricity it takes just to refine petrol from crude oil? I can drive my EV further on just the electricity it takes to refine one litre of petrol than an equivalent petrol car, and that ignores all the other aspects. And where does the electricity for the refinement come from? The same power plants. Look at a picture of an oil refinery and you’ll see huge power lines coming in, leading to an electricity sub-station. Sure, we need to improve our electricity generation, and that is happening. The Environmental Protection Department of Hong Kong publishes a great chart showing 20+ years of electricity generation in Hong Kong. During that time the amount of electricity generated almost doubled (increased population, increased consumption), while the pollutants released during that generation: NOx, RSP, SO2, etc, were reduced to below 20% of their 1990’s levels. The reason for this is that it is easy to regulate and control a handful of large power plants in fixed locations. It is much harder to control a million little petrol engines spread around the roads of Hong Kong. The government is also working hard on long-term improvements to the fuel mix in our electricity generation. So an EV here today pollutes 1/10th that of the exact same EV twenty years ago, and the same cannot be said for a petrol or diesel vehicle. What we can say for sure is that over the coming years, the EV we drive in Hong Kong will get cleaner and cleaner.

LL: Agree! I think people should stop thinking that the fuel they use for their ICE is step 1: dig it out from the ground and step 2: pump it to your ICE’s fuel tank. Oil drilling is well-known for its eco-damage and oil refining is a huge, huge energy consuming process, a fact that oil companies do not want the public to know or admit.

LL: Mark, how are we doing? Do we need a break?

MWJ: No, I’m fine, but I can hear the Internet trolls champing at the bit… I hope the answers I’m giving are helpful for our community to answer back.

Mark's Tesla Roadster

LL: Brilliant! Now, bringing our focus back to Hong Kong again. This one’s on you. You own a Tesla Roadster, you own a Tesla Model S, you have ordered a Tesla Model X, you have reserved a Tesla Model 3. That puts you in the "Rich Man" category. You have more cars than you need, therefore you have many "Rich Man's Toys"

MWJ: Not quite. I have more cars on order than I need, not yet delivered. I live in a remote area, with very limited public transport, and work literally on the opposite side of Hong Kong. By public transport, my daily two-way commute would be 3 to 4 hours, while by private car is it about 1 hour. I drive the roadster and my wife drives our Model S. By the time the X is delivered in Hong Kong, my roadster will be almost six years old. It is fantastic thrill to drive, but with 3 kids it is time to give it up for something more practical, so I plan to trade it in for the X. I’ll drive the S and my wife will drive the X. Then, in 3 to 4 years when the Model 3 arrives, my plan is to trade in the Model S for that. That’s the current plan, but who knows - circumstances and requirements change and 3 years is a long time in the world of EVs. What I do know is that two EVs is perfect for my family, and I hope to never purchase a petrol car again in my life.

LL: So you are a “Rich Man”, but your cars are just not your “Toys”?

MWJ: When I first heard that “Rich Man’s Toys” statement, referring to EVs and the first registration tax exemption, I felt insulted. There I was, driving my EV every day, clocking up 10,000km/year with zero emissions on the road, and these ‘representatives’ stand up in the legislative council, knowingly lie, and have the gall to insult those trying to make a difference. Like someone puffing on a cigarette, blowing smoke in your eyes, and complaining about people giving up smoking. These ‘representatives’, taking home HK$93k/month base salary + expenses + medical + 15% bonuses, claiming to represent the poor. It is nothing short of hypocritical; just trying to score points to get themselves re-elected. Look at the costs of this air pollution. According to the Hong Kong University Hedley study more than 3,000 people here died prematurely last year, and 150,000 were hospitalized, due to air pollution related illnesses. In just one year, almost HK$40billion in medical bills and loss of productivity. Rich or poor, we all breath the same air.

LL: That’s crystal clear! Next claim is, "if more people in Hong Kong, or any other places, are switching to EVs, then we are just creating more and more unwanted cars which just pile up the dump sites."

MWJ: The goal is to replace the petrol and diesel vehicle fleet with electric vehicles, not to increase the number of vehicles on the road. Everything eventually ends up back in the ground - better that than in the atmosphere or in our lungs.

LL: But then they’ll say, maybe some people can afford 2 cars, or 3 cars or 10 cars in their garage, then how does owning an EV help the air quality for these owners?

MWJ: I know EV drivers in Hong Kong who purchased an EV as their first car - hopefully they will never have to drive anything other than EV. Others have switched their petrol car to an EV. And, yes, a small minority have no doubt bought an EV to add to their stable of Ferraris and Maseratis. But, to me, it is really simple. Better a rich person buys an EV than a Hummer. Rich, poor, it makes no difference; we will all benefit from improved air quality. We need to lead the way to displace the tailpipe polluting personal vehicles and replace them with emission-free EVs. Then, the commercial vehicles will follow, as will public transport. Every time an EV driver shows his car in public, or takes friends or colleagues for a trip, he is demonstrating that these vehicles work. Not toys, but real practical daily driver vehicles. And that is huge.

LL: Yes, and when such owners do drive their EVs instead of their ICEs that day, then they are contributing less emission that day. One person can't drive two cars at the same time, right? This is one of the latest. The Tesla Autopilot. There have been many demonstrations of the use of Tesla Autopilot caught on videos around the world, some correctly, some not. Even after the latest update, which basically does a few things 1) restricts the Autopilot to be usable only on certain highways in Hong Kong 2) at restricted speed 3) requires the driver to hold the steering wheel at all time, people still want to test the software's limits by going beyond what the instructions have stated. Now of course, this version of Autopilot is only approved by the Transport Department of Hong Kong after months of rigorous testing while working closely with Tesla HK engineers. What are your views on this? Are these daring testers right to perform their heroic act? Because their claim is mostly that they are doing it for the rest of the owners who are unaware of the potential danger and they are the ones helping to prevent accidents.

MWJ: I think that we, as a community, need to be very careful with what we say or do. The press, in general, love negative stories. Sexy catchy headlines that drive page views. I try to put forward the positives in everything I do, not the negatives. What these ‘testers’ are ignoring is the fact that this is a driver assistance feature, not a self-driving car. If an airline pilot sets his autopilot to 10,000 feet bearing East, leaves his seat to go to the toilet, and the plane crashes into a mountain of 11,000 feet height, is it the autopilot’s fault, or the plane manufacturer’s? The driver is in control of the vehicle, and it is quite simply his responsibility. The Transport Department’s actions in this matter exceeded the legislative requirements. Such actions were in response to those press stories, and were quite frankly ridiculous. There is already ample legislative control in these matters, and it is counter-productive to impose additional administrative restrictions.

LL: So then, would you agree that, if anyone is truly heroic and wants to really prevent others from accidents, maybe they should just call the car company and arrange engineers and technicians to get into his car, and under the supervision of the professionals, demonstrate what he considers as ‘imperfect’ or ‘problematic’? Because simply doing it in front of the press, as far as I can see, has two problems, 1) you may not be using the Autopilot function correctly in the first place, 2) you might not ever be able to reproduce the same scenario for engineers to work on, so there’s no data for the engineers to enhance the feature.

MWJ: I would see little benefit in going to the press, before even at least discussing the issue with the manufacturer/supplier. Remember that these are opt-in features - if you don’t like them, or don’t consider them safe for your use case, then simply don’t enable them.

LL: That is awesome! This one's on charging etiquette. Some EV owners do occupy the Superchargers way beyond the time needed to full-charge their cars, and I have an acronym for this: SPOT -- Superchargers Parking Over Time. So sometimes some owners waiting in line want to know if these cars are SPOTing, so they go to the Supercharger cable and give it a press on the button. Now, they do that because the car does not show the charging lights and therefore the charging status unless someone give the cable a press on the button. The big question is: To Press, or Not to Press? Because pressing it will temporarily stop the charging, harmless to the car of course, but will also send a message to the owner's phone through the Tesla phone app, which might trigger his return to his car or his annoyance. What do you recommend?

MWJ: I, personally, would not press. I would not interfere with anyone else’s car or charging system. I understand the frustration, but there are always two sides to a story and such actions just cause conflict within the community. I’ve seen people ranting on forums about an EV parked but not charging, for the owner to come back and say that he tried but the charger was broken so he reported it to management. Others have complained about EVs plugged in but not charging, when it turns out that the charger tripped and that particular EV doesn’t have a facility to alert the vehicle owner. There is a well know saying that ‘assumption is the mother of all problems’, and that is oh so true. We’ve got enough problems with ICE cars blocking our charging spots, without fighting amongst ourselves. In my view, it is better to concentrate on the bigger issue of getting these EV spots reserved for charging, and penalties introduced for those violating that (and enforced by the car park management, not community vigilantees). Make sure that we personally only park in charging spots if we need the charge, always plug in (irrespective of whether the charger is working or not), and move our car when the charge is complete or we have sufficient charge. Then, we as a community can work together to educate and encourage our less considerate members to change.

LL: Absolutely! I bet our viewers will definitely follow your advice from now on. So good that you have said it! Just a couple more questions left. EV FRT waiver will end on 31st March 2017. Now, Charged Hong Kong is working hard in so many ways in the hope of increasing the chances of an extension. But almost certainly, some politicians will use "Rich Man's Toy" as an argument against the waiver's renewal. Another argument they might have is, with so much money forgone, they are not seeing significant improvement in air quality, and why should the taxpayers of Hong Kong be, double-quotation marks, "sponsoring" a small group of people to buy their Rich Man's Toys?

MWJ: Let me give you an example. My Tesla Roadster is based on a Lotus Elise, so has a direct comparison. The Lotus Elise was ~HK$400k, including FRT. The Roadster was ~HK$1m, excluding FRT, or more than HK$2m if FRT wasn’t exempted. At the moment EVs are more expensive than petrol cars, and without incentives the fantastic momentum achieved will surely grind to a halt. So, let’s start from the premise that we recognize the problem of poor air quality -- 3,000 deaths, 150,000 hospitalized, HK$40billion in costs, annually, etc. (These figures can be found on Hedley Environmental Index, published by School of Public Health at the Hong Kong University). So, what is causing the pollution and how do we reduce it? The answer of course, at least for roadside pollution, is the commercial vehicles. But, we can’t make much progress there today. The government has been sinking billions into that hole and the results are dismal. Now, in just a few short years of the EVs finally becoming available, and FRT exemption, the people have spoken and the switch has started. Locky, you have the figures - the uptake of EVs is incredible, and we have such amazing momentum. We need to keep a FRT exemption in place to maintain that momentum, at least until the next generation of more affordable EVs with 300km+ range come in 2 to 3 years, at a price point comparable to petrol engine vehicles. In the coming years, it is clear that this progress will then leak over to the commercial fleets. Firstly private transportation services (we’re already seeing Uber and hotel limousines change the EVs), then taxis and commercial delivery vehicles. Eventually, the buses will be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century (first single decker buses and coaches, and finally double deckers). When every other vehicle around you is an EV, it is hard to say they don’t have the range, they are not practical, we can’t charge them, etc.

Mark and family at Tesla Rally 2014

LL: Finally, the last question. Pick a question to ask and answer it by yourself. But if it is not a good question, I will reject it and you'll have to think of another one. Haha!

MWJ: You've covered so much above, this is perhaps the hardest question. One thing I think we could ask is what difference can I make as an individual? The answer to me is that every journey begins with a first step. Everybody needs to make a commitment to themselves for change, then drive that change forward. For me, that commitment is to improve Air Quality. I’m doing that by both personal change :reducing my own energy consumption, as well as switching to sustainable transportation, but also going further to make owning and operating an EV easier for others -- via projects such as OVMS and Charged.HK. I’m driving my EV on the roads of Hong Kong every day, to show it is a practical means of transportation, and having a blast doing it. Because you and I both know that quite apart from the environmental benefits, EVs are simply better vehicles.

LL: That's all! Thank you SO SO much! Mark! Thank you for answering all these tough questions! I think you probably hate me by now?

MWJ: Not at all. You’re doing a fantastic job with these member stories and I look forward to reading what others say.

LL: Thank you! Oh! Oh! Hang on! Almost forgot! Any thoughts about the new Tesla Model S v2.0 which was announced late last night?

Tesla Model S 2.0 - Image from Tesla

MWJ: I’d like to see Tesla focus on getting Model 3 out the door, and improving service and support for their existing products.

LL: Thank you once again! I think we all can save a copy of this and use Mark's answers as reference when we go around EVangelising around the world! We hope to see you again very soon, Mark!

MWJ: Thank you.


Thanks for Locky and Mark, a very informative interview. Most of the rumors about EV are cleared with scientific data. Cheers!
In addition, I know more about the history of EVs in HK.

lx3h's picture

You are most welcome!