India needs a different road map for its transport going all-electric, writes S Muralidhar
It is ironic that the automobile industry is today so upbeat about the future of electric cars, even though some of the earliest automobiles, built more than a century ago, ran on batteries. Until the internal combustion engine took over, the motive power came from electric motors and batteries. But, the auto industry now speaks about the coming revolution in electric cars like it is some new propulsion system or the equivalent of an alternative fuel.
Often, like in the case of India, the hype surrounding the environmental benefits of going electric overshadows the ground realities. Consumer adoption is the least of the problems if the bigger issues like infrastructure can be dealt with first. Yes, some of these can only happen in parallel like setting up the charging infrastructure. But, imagine if there is no plan to replace our ageing, polluting thermal power plants with sustainable, renewable energy sources or even nuclear power. Then electric cars will effectively only be displacing the pollution from the cities with their big concentrations of electric cars to the hinterland where the power plants are located.
Worldwide, new electric car registrations are clearly speeding up and 2016 was a record-setting year with as many as 7,50,000 new EVs (electric vehicles) sold. But the base of electric cars continues to be a minuscule 0.2 per cent of the total number of cars in circulation, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). However, the projections for growth are optimistic and by 2025, the number of electric cars on the road worldwide is expected to be over 40 million from the two million at the end of last year. The IEA says that EVs have had remarkable success in becoming the mobility solution of choice in small countries with a manageable fleet size such as Norway where today every fourth car sold is an electric.
Diversity of conditions
While the world has decided that the IC engine is singing its swan song, I think we in India have to look at the prospect of going all-electric with a very different road map. It has to be one, which embraces the diversity of conditions, the limitations in infrastructure, and of course affordability. The car is still viewed as a luxury product and the Government is going back and forth about the taxes that need to be levied on cars based on that assumption.
Yet, that hasn’t stopped an arm of the Government from claiming that it has set, what is clearly an unachievable target, of becoming an all-electric car market by the year 2030.
Affordability is a big factor for electrics to go mainstream in India and that is why we will need to look at incremental growth and incentivise interim solutions such as plug-in hybrids and electric two-wheelers, which will help promote a culture of choosing electrics and an organic growth of the charging network will follow.
Today’s most talked about, supposedly mass market, electric car is the Tesla Model 3. And the rumour mill claims that as many as 3,000 Indians have booked the car without so much as seeing it in the flesh and without any official confirmation from Tesla that it is launching in India. Even if the Government decides to offer incentives, the final price of the Model 3 could well exceed $75,000 here. That can hardly be called mass-market. From the user’s perspective electric cars are still in an elitist niche. Yes, the cost of Lithium-ion batteries, which currently constitutes the biggest input in electrics is expected to fall by more than 60 per cent over the next five years. Even after that kind of reduction in costs, EVs will still be faced with multiple other stumbling blocks.
To better understand the problems faced by EV owners first-hand, I sought to test drive the Mahindra e2o Plus for a week, and for comparing that experience with something more practical and manageable, I also tested the Okinawa Ridge e-scooter. The Mahindra e2o is really India’s only and most suitable all-electric car.
While the majority of electrics around the world, with the exception of cars like the Nissan Leaf, focus on performance and luxury, the Mahindra e2o offers an apt solution for Indian buyers looking for a practical solution with the least compromise compared to a regular fossil fuel car. The trouble though is you need to choose the top end P8 variant to get four doors, air-conditioning, a sensible driving range of between 120 to 140 kms and other smart features, which come in handy during everyday use.
There is absolutely no compromise in the comfort and convenience offered by this electric, especially since it has extremely efficient air-conditioning and power steering. There is no dearth for power and torque too, with its 30kW motor and instant torque delivery (generic to all electrics). So, drivability is very much like a regular car. I drove the e2o mostly in the city, but also attempted to take it out on the highway. The driving range offered by electrics is growing every year with improvements in battery technology, which have focused on increasing the energy density. Yet, range anxiety is still inevitable especially in India where there is no charging infrastructure in place to talk of.
With the air-conditioner on constantly, the e2o I was driving displayed a potential range of 90 kms. So, charging it midway on the highway was necessary and that is where the situation became dire. There are almost no designated charging stations in Chennai. Bengaluru, Mahindra e2o’s home town, only has about 16 stations. To make matters more difficult, the e2o can only be charged using a 15/16amp socket. And finding a spare socket of this kind near a parking spot is extremely difficult. I had to request a restaurant on the highway to unplug a water cooler, so that I could get an hour’s worth of charge.
Early electrics had removable batteries, which could have then made it possible to be carried upstairs to be charged in your apartment. But, in the interest of safety, today’s cars and even e-scooters come with sealed lithium or lead-acid batteries. But, offering almost the same driving range as the e2o, my other test mule – the Okinawa Ridge e-scooter –was comparatively much easier to charge, because finding access to a three-pin 6amp socket is easier and you can even drop an extension line from your apartment upstairs.
Indian policymakers need to incentivise more practical solutions like e-scooters where the price is not an entry barrier and the current lack of a charging infrastructure won’t be a deterrent. While the e2o is a small electric hatchback at the price of a regular family sedan, the Okinawa Ridge is cheaper than a regular petrol engine scooter. Yes, it features a valve-regulated lead acid battery, which is not technologically superior and needs replacement (possibly every three years). But, it is an economical and practical solution. And unlike earlier e-scooters, this one can even do a top speed of about 60 kmph.
The Okinawa Ridge or the other e-scooters and bikes currently available are only an example of the kind of e-mobility solutions that when repositioned and incentivised can make going electric mainstream. It would also make a privately run charging network profitable to own and run.
These and affordable plug-in hybrids can be the interim solution that India needs, even as development of the backend infrastructure takes its own time to reach criticality.