SPARK

The idea of an electric vehicle revolution seems rather untimely, a topic of little to no significance in Western Europe, where electromobility has become the norm. But within the Balkan Peninsula, a shift in entrepreneurial, cultural and environmental importance is yet to take place. This is the story of a silent revolution, strong not in numbers, but in its implications for the future.

To understand these changes, however, we are to ask those standing at their forefront. Boyan Bakardjiev is the corporate communications manager for “SPARK”, a company operating more than 1600 vehicles, within three separate markets:

“Before it was unlikely to see more than two electric vehicles on the same street, but with a 100% electric car fleet, we laid the foundation for accessible electromobility. When entering the market, we created a niche that did not exist five years ago, as the predominant means of transportation were peoples own cars, and much less public transport or taxi services.”

The Vilnius-based Lithuanian company does not sell electric vehicles but instead offers an alternative to traditional car ownership in the form of a complete car-sharing service. 

“We addressed a certain need with a solution that was previously unknown on the market, changing the transportation mix in Bulgaria for so many people. And of course, the partnership with “ElDrive”, the largest public charging network in the region, was key for “SPARK” as it allowed for the needed infrastructure, initially unavailable within the Balkan Peninsula.”

Bakardjiev refers to the more than 450 directly accessible charging points in Bulgaria, an insignificant number compared to Western European countries like the Netherlands, with more than 80,000 points, but sufficient for the car-sharing model of the company. Thus, fostering the idea of a circular economy, in which the creation of excess waste is prevented by circulating products at their highest value, in turn limiting consumption.

However, the opposite is equally true. It is similar to the chicken and egg situation – at an early stage of market development, where electromobility was virtually nonexistent, in a seemingly natural way both projects, “SPARK” and “ElDrive”, were created, developed and expanded together.”

Large-scale charging infrastructure would be virtually impossible without sufficient traffic from electric vehicles. But their proliferation was itself an issue, as of 2019 there were less than 5500 in total throughout the Balkan Peninsula, a possible overestimation considering the lack of distinction between BEVs (battery electric vehicles) and PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles). Bakardjiev then proceeded to elaborate on the importance of the service.

“Is the company creating a path to electromobility? Definitely so. Most of our users experience electric vehicles through “SPARK” for the first time, and then become reliant on them in their day-to-day lives, by driving one of the hundreds we make available. Moreover, through our service, any electric vehicle on the market can be tested and driven in real-world conditions.”

In making electromobility easily accessible the company has also brought about a cultural shift in the perception of electric vehicles, whether that be driving habits or ultimately purchase decisions. Rather than an exotic alternative, reserved for a select few, they have become a viable alternative, matching the performance of traditional ICEs (internal combustion engines).

“Simply put, more and more people are shifting towards electromobility by replacing their personal vehicle. Whether this has become more accessible in the sense of direct ownership compared to usage, is hard to say. For many, buying a new car is rather an exception than a rule. The used car market dominates, with most new vehicles belonging to corporate car fleets. This is worrying for several reasons. Older vehicles mean more emissions and greater damage to the environment, hence a greater risk for the health of people. Electric vehicles promise zero emissions, and are thus the best solution for city driving, silent and eco-friendly”

Consequently, this bares the question of whether the electric vehicle revolution will truly have an effect beyond densely populated city areas, bringing about the same benefits to those living in smaller towns.

“SPARK” began operating in 2016 in Vilnius, Lithuania. Bulgaria was the second market in which the company expanded; Romania was the third one. Every country has certain specificities, and every market is different. We have further planned to expand our presence in various cities, but simultaneously this is a complex question, dependent on various factors, including adequate charging infrastructure. We cannot state for sure, but it is definitely within our long-term goals.”

Until then, options for electromobility remain limited as buying new proves to be unattainable both from a financial and time-based perspective. Hence, the introduction of a specialized used car market, focusing exclusively on electric vehicle sales. George Gatev is an entrepreneur in the field, having founded “AutoBoutique” the only dealership in Bulgaria dedicated exclusively to electromobility, about which he explained the following.

“It’s a very unique market, a market of the seller if you will, where people are determined to secure an affordable electric vehicle. They want it immediately and they want it hassle-free, without having to deal with the entirety of the administrative process. Instead of waiting upwards of six months to take delivery, with no real guarantee of arrival, they come to us. It’s a question of immediate availability and complete service, which is traditionally rare in the used car market.”

In understanding electric vehicle ownership in the Balkan Peninsula, the average buyer profile must also be considered. Traditionally a preference for powerful ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles dominated in the region.

“Two years ago, when we started, we would focus mostly on smaller vehicles like accessible city cars, however currently we have shifted towards larger models that have surprisingly been easier to sell. It makes sense, as buyers are often early adopters, who seem to be passionate about technology and innovation. It’s not just a question of sustainability or convenience, even though they are important, but of enjoyment as well. Many people want to experience electromobility, but it can at times be unattainable. Over the years I’ve turned down buyers, it might sound counterintuitive, but with electric vehicles, it is also a question of infrastructure. If a person has nowhere to charge if their living situation does not allow for it, it can be a hard recommendation to make – ultimately charging at a public parking lot is not really an optimal solution, nor is it beneficial to the end user.”

As with any type of innovation, electric vehicles also require a period of transition. A fundamentally different technology that demands a fundamentally different approach to driving.

“From a cultural perspective, electric vehicles also require an adjustment of sorts, in the region, we tend to be dismissive of speed limits, focused on overtaking so that we get to our destination as quickly as possible. But when having to plan to charge stops along the way, or trying to preserve energy, that is no longer the case. People are interested in this mode of transportation, and they are willing to change their driving habits, and perhaps be a bit more conscientious in order to benefit from electric vehicles.”

Gatev continued with a reflection on the differences between Western Europe and the Balkan Peninsula, providing insight into the developments have taken place in the region.

“The past few years have shown immense progress in electric vehicle adoption. However, a consistent trend with innovation in the Balkan Peninsula is that we start, later on, there is this persistent lag. If Western Europe began to push for electromobility back in 2012, here we needed another 5 years. In the region government involvement is scarce. And yet, in a much shorter time span, I would say we’ve made great progress, some countries more and others less, but ultimately it is a question of catching up.”

This qualitative overview speaks of a broader trend in the region, one of entrepreneurial forces opposing traditional cultural understandings, to provide a better living environment through technological innovation. It is a revolution driven by individual people rather than governments, by those confident in the future of the Balkan Peninsula.