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The guest of honour at DreamEDGE’s Empowering the Nation’s Automotive Industry seminar yesterday was none other than the ‘father’ of the industry himself, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

In his keynote address, the Proton chairman talked about the challenges faced by the national carmaker with regards to public perception, and the industry’s need for home-grown research and development.

“When the first Proton Saga came out in 1985, the total industry volume (TIV) was 50,000 units a year. From commanding 80% of the market (then), we are down to 18% today. Now we import more foreign cars than produce local cars,” Dr Mahathir said, adding that Malaysians object to high-priced local cars, but not high-priced foreign cars.

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“We (Proton) are trying to produce cars of world standard, and for the most part, we have succeeded, but Malaysians are still not convinced,” the former PM lamented, adding that some still hung on to the infamous ‘power window‘ belief. “Today, the power windows in a Proton jump up and down efficiently,” he joked.

“I can assure everyone, the (Proton) car today is far better than the one we had ten, or even five, years ago. We are constantly improving the quality and efficiency of our cars. The new blueprint for Proton is to produce cars of the same standard as those from Germany, Japan and Korea.

“We want to produce electric and hybrid cars. We will produce them sometime soon, but (they) cost a lot of money. We have not managed yet to build up a useable (business) case for EVs (electric vehicles), but we are still researching,” Dr Mahathir said, pointing out that some of the world’s biggest companies have failed to make EVs commercially successful.

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And it’s not just the development costs – the cost of the car will also be very high, placing it out of reach of most Malaysians. Dr Mahathir cited the batteries as a big contributor to the overall cost, and said he hopes battery prices will come down.

“The hybrid car holds more promise – we have been researching range extenders,” he said. Range-extended electric vehicles (REEV) run on electric power only, but carry an internal combustion engine that is solely used to charge the batteries, and not to provide drive.

Proton has experimented in the past with the Exora REEV and Persona REEV, and recently displayed its Preve REEV prototype at the Alami Proton carnival. It is also developing an all-electric Iriz EV with South Korea’s LG Electronics.

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Dr Mahathir also highlighted the importance of local research and development, saying that Malaysia is falling behind in terms of engineering and technology because not enough money is being spent on research. The government, he lamented, is concentrating more on making Malaysia a high-income nation and not enough on local research and innovation.

“The mindset of Malaysians must be attuned to research. (Currently) we would rather buy technologies and knowledge from others; we’re not willing to do our own research and development, which would produce a unique result that will make us stand out from the crowd.

“The automotive industry is a great catalyst for our goal to become a developed nation by 2020,” he said.