“When we started, no one believed us”: Bolivia’s Electric Car - QUANTUM

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“When we started, no one believed us”: Bolivia’s Electric Car

Get to know the story and people behind Quantum Motors, the Bolivian company producing Electric Vehicles in Cochabamba.


In late September 2019 a story circulated the Bolivian press that caught my eye: electric cars made in Bolivia by Quantum Motors were being stopped and their owners fined because they could not provide the import documents. The story caused a lot of outrage among the Bolivian public – the lack of a bureaucratic category for cars manufactured in Bolivia seemed to showcase a lack of faith that such a feat could be accomplished at all. And yet – it had been done.

While Evo Morales fast-tracked the administrative changes necessary to allow Quantum’s E2 and E3 models to circulate in Bolivia the story stayed with me. I research lithium industrialisation in Bolivia, so the electric mobility market is something that I always keep in my peripheral vision. But usually it is something that stays very abstract for me. For example when I scroll through economist reports estimating how lithium demand will be influenced by consumer uptake or when I come across an announcement of a big car-manufacturer starting an Electric Vehicle (EV) production line. Much of this is anticipatory, EV uptake is expected to sky-rocket over the coming decade, increasing demand for lithium-ion batteries, and thus lithium. And – even though these projections are not baseless, they are still part of imaginaries. Imaginaries that lead to the construction of giga-factories and lithium extraction plants globally, but imaginaries nonetheless. So, when I opened a newspaper to a picture of a Bolivian electric car – one that was already being produced and which was not part of an ambitious, but far-off national plan to industrialise lithium, I simply had to find out more.


Carlos Soruco

In February 2020 I finally managed to travel to Cochabamba, where Quantum Motors was founded and has its headquarters. There I met Carlos Soruco, a lawyer by profession and one of the co-founders of the company. He works out of his legal office, in the center of Cochabamba, just one block away from the central plaza. He greeted me cordially and made us a cup of coffee each before we sat down at his desk for the interview. Soruco emanates a positive, friendly atmosphere and is well-spoken and it soon became clear to me why he took on the role of the public face of the emerging company. He is used to giving interviews, and even though he must have told the story of Quantum many times, he does it with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.


“When we started with this idea, we called lots of people, and no one believed us! We called YLB (Bolivian Lithium Deposits, the state owned company for lithium extraction): ‘Ah, yes, yes, of course’, the glass manufacturers: ‘yes… no we can’t’, insurance companies: ‘no, we don’t know and won’t insure these cars’. But when we made an entrance into public life they started calling us! YLB: ‘please come, we’ll come to an agreement’. The glass manufacturers: ‘the glass is ready now, just give us the measurements and we’ll make them for you’, the insurance companies took us to dinner, and even the banks… in the beginning we didn’t dream of having financing, and now we’ve got some of the lowest interest rates on our credit”


Quantum’s cars have also been brought into connection with Bolivian lithium industrialisation frequently. So much so, that already in 2019 interest had been declared on both sides to cooperate. The declarations of intent were interrupted by the political crisis of November. However, since the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) came into power again in November 2020, the negotiations have resumed. Most recently Luis Arce, the current president of Bolivia, mentioned that YLB was already providing small numbers of lithium batteries to Quantum for their cars. Several political commentators were quick to point out that Quantum had been using lead batteries, but they have in fact recently started using lithium-ion batteries. For now, these are imported, but when I reached out to Soruco again, he stated that Quantum is planning to build a battery assembly plant that will use lithium cells provided by YLB. The batteries to be produced there will be used in Quantum’s cars, as the company is expecting rapid national and international expansion.


The Electric Vehicle Made in Bolivia

Currently, Quantum Motors sells electric cars, scooters, bikes and two electric three-wheelers made for personal transportation as well as for small businesses. The scooters are imported from a reputable Chinese Electric Scooter company, all other vehicles are assembled in Bolivia. While some parts are imported, Quantum tries to get Bolivian parts when they can. In September 2019, about 35% of parts were made in Bolivia, now it’s about 60%.

The first series of cars produced by Quantum, the E-series, has the same design for all current cars, but different motors depending on the model. Two of them, the E3M and E4 are specifically designed for cities with steep climbs as La Paz. They are Low Speed Vehicles, reaching speeds of up to 55km/h, their main application thought to be in oft congested urban centres. Their reach lies between 50-80km, which might not seem like much, but is enough for the usual urban commute, including the running of some chores. They are, in essence, designed to be used in cities.

Quantum’s cars might not win any races for now, but any car company has to begin somewhere. Soruco told me that they even obtained SAE certification, an association that assesses automobile standards globally and grants a VIN Code, opening up the possibility for future exports.


For a greener tomorrow

As I listened to Carlos Soruco, I soon realised that Quantum is more than just a business opportunity for him. He’s been advocating for a less polluted Cochabamba for years before co-founding Quantum. Studying in Groningen in the Netherlands, he became passionate about biking and maintained the habit when he returned to Bolivia:


“I was going to do the same here, Cochabamba is flat, relatively small, and it doesn’t rain – perfect. But I would arrive at the corner here, every day, red with fury, because every time there were cars that almost hit me!”

So he joined the global cycling activism group Critical Mass in Cochabamba and started to pressure the mayor’s office. After several years they finally managed to get a municipal cycling law passed. But he says that the goal is still far off, now cars officially have to keep a distance of 1.5m, and construction of biking infrastructure are written into law, but in practice too little is happening.

The story does not end with cycling, however. Cochabamba is one of the most polluted cities in South America: “you know, the worst thing about it is that the high pollution index… it’s not like we just found out that it’s so polluted here yesterday, we’ve known about it! And what’s been done about it? Nothing!” He sees the solution in the promotion of cycling, electric cars and better public transportation:

“Like I’m telling you, it’s another way of thinking, it’s not about making money. No. José Carlos and me both have small children – are they supposed to be breathing this air all their lives?”

Carlos Soruco D. COO de Quantum Motors

José Carlos Márquez is another one of the co-founders. It was his idea idea to start an EV company. Now the general manager of Quantum Motors, he also owns a company that makes miniature electric trucks for the mining industry, each replaces about five push-carts. Márquez used to be a client of Soruco’s until they started seriously working on the idea in 2017. Soruco puts it like this: “And well, I loved the idea, and agreed to be a part of it. Since then it’s been more or less two years of investigation: about legislation, to get to know providers, bring prototypes, etc. Until finally on September 12, 2019, Quantum steps into public life.”


Bolivia – the new electro-mobility hub for South America?

But their vision also goes beyond Quantum Motors and its future: “we believe that Bolivia has the possibility of becoming a geopolitical center of electro-mobility.” Due to the easy access to clean energy, the large lithium reserves of the country, labor which is cheap in relation to the neighbouring countries and the geographic situation of Bolivia, Soruco argues that the Andean nation could become a mobility hub for the entire region.


An ambitious vision – but one that seems to be shared by Bolivia’s current president Luis Arce, who proposed a national lithium industrialisation strategy. It foresees the construction of a grand total of 41 factories allowing the entire production chain of electric batteries to take place in Bolivia. The agreement to construct a factory in which Quantum will use Lithium cells provided by YLB seems to be one step in this direction.


Quantum Motors and the people behind it embody an ecological consciousness which is increasingly present today. Their model is of offering affordable electric mobility, adapted to the Bolivian market and expandable to other South American nations. In understanding themselves to be part of a larger effort to fight pollution and mitigate the effects of the climate crisis, they provide an alternative to giants such as Tesla which cater largely to rich, Northern populations. And the fact alone, that an electric vehicle is now being produced in Bolivia, once one of the poorest of the Latin American nations, is a feat in itself.

Anthropologist, PhD Student, interested in practices of industrial labour and sovereignty claims in connection with lithium exploitation.