This Bhutan-electric car partnership is both odd and interesting

Here’s Bhutan:

It’s near Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma, China and India. It’s extremely insular, and tourism only even began in 1974. To this day, you need to enter with some type of group; just booking a flight to Bhutan isn’t something one really does. The culture is largely Buddhist in nature, and much of the culture/traditions remain intact due to their literal disconnect from most of the world until the 1960s. A few different studies/surveys over time have deemed it one of the happiest countries in the world. It has a Gross National Happiness index, and most travel articles related to the country will clearly explain to you that happiness is a “way of life.”

While it’s certainly more open than it was 50 years ago, a new round of changes could be coming: it seems to be getting into bed with Nissan and Tesla. All the government vehicles in the capital city (which has a population of about 62K, FYI, meaning it’s half the size of Topeka, Kansas) are going to be shifted over to the Nissan Leaf. The goal is apparently to make the country into something of an “electric car hotspot;” car ownership in Bhutan has been growing. They are also apparently in talks with Tesla, and just recently lifted a ban on imported electric vehicles. Suzuki, based in India, is going to supply electric cars to local taxi outfits in the country.

It could be ideal for this project because electricity is cheap and most road trips are short; there is a fleet of 3,500 taxis in the city but introducing electric cars could take some of the pressure off those. (By the way, that article lists the capital population as 120K, which is now roughly 7K less than Topeka.) This is also a good move for Nissan (and perhaps Tesla), as global sales of electric cars are about four years behind expectations.

This is, indeed, kind of a “sea change.” Who would have thought Bhutan would aim for the electric car capital moniker, as opposed to California, or a Scandinavian nation?

Bhutan may have an unhealthy trade relationship with India, so opening their doors to the electric car movement could be a good thing for their bottom line as well. (Bhutan’s primary export appears to be electricity to India.)

I think this is interesting broadly because, once we hit peak oil (if we haven’t already) and we’re on the downturn part of the oil curve, maybe people will start to panic a little in the most industrialized, driving-centric parts of the world. If it’s working in Bhutan — that is to say, the electric car experiment — then maybe the notion of a U.S. urban center can shift, planning-wise, and cars like this can be the future. This would probably be bad for more sprawling U.S. cities like Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles, but it could be a real window of opportunity for a place like Butte, Montana (pulled that out of thin air, admittedly) to grow into something really dynamic as a hub. Or, it could just make places like NYC, SF, and Chicago — where cars are less necessary — more attractive, flooding resources there. Hopefully the whole game is a two-way street. There are literally no similarities between Bhutan and the U.S. on almost every conceivable level, but … there are elements of this experiment that could help redefine the new U.S. urban center in 50-100 years. It’ll be interesting to watch for that, if nothing else.

Ted Bauer