The name Samer Choucair will be familiar to long-term readers of T&MFE. Last interviewed in 2018, the head of self-styled incubators of businesses Crescent Enterprises CE-Creates has continued to oversee the development of the region’s first sustainable transporter.

T&MFE caught up with Choucair recently just as ION was announcing its collaboration with French company, NAVYA to operate and maintain the company’s electric and autonomous shuttles, as well as promote its vehicles and related activities in the UAE and the GCC region.

It also announced in January that the joint venture with Bee’ah is partnering with the Sharjah City Municipality, and Sharjah Electricity and Water Authority (SEWA) to supply, install and operate public electric vehicle charging stations across the emirate.

The new charging stations will play an important role in accelerating the UAE’s ongoing agenda of electrifying its transportation and supporting the current electric vehicle network.

With a mandate to promote green mobility solutions in the region, ION said it will build a vast network of charging stations across the emirate in a phased approach.
In more ways than one, this is a company on a charge.

Remind readers, what is ION and what makes it the region’s first sustainable transporter?
About two years ago, we started thinking about building a sustainable transportation business. Crescent Enterprises is a global diversified business headquartered in Sharjah. We operate through four platforms: CE-Operates, CE-Invests, CE-Ventures, and CE-Creates across several sectors including ports & logistics, business aviation, power & engineering, healthcare, private equity, venture capital, business incubation, food & beverage, and sustainable mobility.

About 10 years ago, we decided to make the conscious decision to start investing in the sustainability sector, making sustainability part of our ethos of the group.

As such, we built various platforms that invest in different stages of businesses and one of them is CE-Creates, which is a very early stage incubator of new concepts.

Part of that platform is ION – which was an idea of creating a sustainable transportation business that we can roll out across the region. We took a strategic decision to partner with Bee’ah, which is today a sustainable living business rather than a Waste Management company.

As you probably know 30% of global CO2 emissions come from the transportation sector so this needs to be tackled immediately and that’s how ION came about. We want to make electric vehicles and sustainable transportation accessible to the public rather than a niche offering.

Looking at the announcements such as your link-up with Careem, there’s clearly been a lot of progress made within the organisation.
We were looking at industries and ride-hailing made sense at the time. It’s a fairly big market, at about a $180 billion dollar in value last year and growing to about $320 billion over the next few years. In the UAE alone, we estimate it’s at about $3 billion, going to about $7 billion. So, this is a space that we thought would be a good entry point. It gives us access to the masses, as part of our idea of making sustainable transportation accessible to everyone at an affordable price.

So everything has gone smoothly…
Electric vehicles are very different in terms of maintenance and the driving experience. There is definitely a shift needed for adaptability.

And then it’s very different when it’s personal use versus fleet. With fleet, you’re running a vehicle down to the bone but for commercial use, you need to really understand every little twist in it. So from a technical perspective, we went through a lot.

We’ve been working closely with all the regulators across the UAE to make commercial electric vehicles more viable. Tesla competes with Lexus which is less than half the price yet we’re charging the same fees. So, from a business viability perspective, it’s also quite challenging.

Generally, in the region we are very used to having governments do this work for us. I think those days are long gone. We’re at an inflection point where the private sector needs to contribute.

We have a major crisis on our hands with global warming and climate change that people don’t seem to take seriously enough. And we cannot rely entirely on governments to do this for us. As a private sector company, we’re striving to pave the way for others to see that this can be done. This can be viable. There is money to be made even in doing good. Our mandate as a platform at CE-Creates is to do good while also doing well. The idea is sustainable business and profitability are not mutually exclusive.

So, this is a commercial operation in the truest form…What advice do you give fleets that are facing an electrified future?
The transformation is inevitable, it’s a matter of whether you stay ahead of the curve or be left behind. I think the big shift to be getting ready for – and that’s why and how we position ourselves at ION, is ultimately getting into the autonomous driving space. From a business perspective what people need to prepare themselves for is not necessarily the technology itself and how to deal with it as much as the impact this technology is going to have on the economy and on the space that we’re in.

This is a massive impact on the economy in general as drivers make up a big part of the workforce today. So we cannot continue denying the fact that it’s happening.

There’s no need to oppose or fight it. Technology is advancing at light speed. For example, the autonomous vehicle fleet (Navya) will start running in the next couple of months in the UAE.

What do you think the impact of better charging infrastructure like your Sharjah initiative will be?
Infrastructure is being built but some areas in Dubai for example are quite advanced; somewhere in the vicinity of 300 charge points. However, there is still a need for development. As the infrastructure develops and the price of technology and vehicles decreases, there will be reduced barriers to adoption.

Should we be looking to encourage the use of electric vehicles in the market as they do in other regions such as Europe? 
Absolutely. Some cities have banned vehicles over weekends for example or in certain areas. We do not need to go to that extent but we need incentives. Regionally, the cost of electric vehicles remains a challenge. In Europe and the US, subsidies make these vehicles on par. There is definitely a need for support on that front, especially for fleet operations, for example, or incentives on the licensing fees. With regulatory support, we will see a lot more adoption from the private sector.

Would it be fair to describe ION as a disruptor?
What we are doing is adapting, bringing the future forward and doing what is absolutely necessary.

30% of today’s CO2 emissions come from transportation. The IPCC recommends that we cut our emissions by 45% over the next ten years, a recommendation not to be taken lightly. There’s a lot of work to be done and we can’t sit back and expect others to do it for us. It really comes down to each and every individual to do their bit for tangible change to manifest.