The Indian government’s resolution to eradicate fossil-fueled cars from our market by 2030 has had us all talking about electric vehicles. But where are they? Sure, some government employees do drive around in e-Veritos and e2os, and Yo bikes exist for some reason. Yet regular folk fumble in the dark for reasons to buy an electric vehicle instead of a big, nice, comfortable car. Electric Vehicles look funny, are slow, have no comfort features, and are sure to drive up your power bill. But their most critical fault is that they cost many more lakhs of rupees than we want to pay for them.
The sorriest part about buying an electric car in 2019 is that you still have to convince people to buy it. The planet is on fire, but we demand reasons other than zero emissions to put down the deposit for you. Consider the Hyundai Kona – it costs nearly 24 lakhs because it has to have at least 400 kilometres of range, and that necessitates a 40kWh battery. But you wouldn’t walk into the showroom if the Kona didn’t have spacious and rich interior, comfy seats, ride quality, a name-brand sound system, and a sunroof.
What is Buyer’s Budget and Expectation with Electric Vehicles?
Car buyers fancy comfort, luxury, and gadgets. Petrolheads need electric cars to be fun, fast, and laden with clever technology. Most importantly, we all want them to be cheap. With our current policy on batteries, charging infrastructure, and cars in general, hopes of affordability are far-fetched. India’s careful protectionism severely retards the influx of technology. But that might not be a bad thing for the environment.
Our budget cars are more economical than anywhere else in the world. More than half of all passenger vehicles cost less than $8,000 or 5.6 lakh rupees. That’s a whopping 16.5 million vehicles. As soon as petrol and diesel cars are banned, our car market will comprise of a handful of vehicles with meager sales. And what’s best for the environment? Fewer cars, electric or otherwise.
It is easy to see the financial outcomes of EV ownership. – they might prove to be a preferred alternative to a petrol car for some people. If you are only going to drive one lakh kilometres in eight years, and take care of your car’s battery better than that of your phone, and can afford to purchase an electric car, maybe you should buy one. Because you will enjoy the low running costs and service-free drivetrain and bare-minimum maintenance. So go ahead. Track your mileage for a few weeks, and see if the Electric Vehicle you can afford can go that far each day.
Should Indians switch to Electric Vehicles?
That’s an easy answer – there’s no other way. Electric vehicles will provide a platform for newer and better technologies. For now, an electric car can’t do many regular car things. It can’t go cross-country, for example. Diesel cars are mile-munchers, and many of them can go on for 800-1000 km on one tank. And even if the diesel does run out, it doesn’t take even ten minutes to fill the tank back up with fuel. Even the most remote towns have access to a diesel pump. All cars these days have a real-world range that is only limited by the fatigue of their drivers.
In concept, Electric Vehicles will be able to do all of that if and when 350kW ultra-fast chargers become as ubiquitous as petrol stations. Cars that can charge at 800 volts are yet to see production, though some cities around the world are installing these chargers just to be ready. But the future comes a little late to India, and we are still trying to make sure that more and more people have access to 7.2kW chargers, at least as long as they live in major metropolitan areas. Cars here will be limited to commutes within the city.
This makes one thing pretty clear: fossil fueled cars are not going anywhere. Petrol and diesel and CNG vehicles will have to be sold at least to rental fleet owners, to compensate for the lack of infrastructure outside metropolitan areas. There would need to be special programs and offers for EV owners to help them feel more secure about ownership. Some of those plans will need to be enforced or at least encouraged by the government.
How can Government help expansion of Electric Vehicles sales?
While mother Earth will have reason to rejoice, millions of Indians will be left without a job, clutching on for life in the face of economic collapse. Because about 45% of our GDP comes from the automotive industry. We live and breathe and feed our children because we make and sell a lot of cars.
The government knows that and believes placing duties on imports will help Indian carmakers sell more electric cars. But the truth is that we can’t meet the demand for everyone to have an Electric vehicle, and still keep the prices low. Batteries need rare earth metals and complex hardware. Until we can figure out a way to strategically tax everything from raw materials to completely built electric sub-assemblies, the only way to get anyone to buy an Electric Vehicle is to subsidize electric cars.
In the UK you get an electric car grant worth £3,500. In the US, states like Georgia used to offer $5,000. Georgia’s tax credit was scrapped in 2015, and Electric Vehicle sales plummeted by 90%. Our government’s current focus to solely incentivize electric commercial vehicles is a significant effort. A consequence of this will be feeble sales of non-commercial electric cars.
The slower the adoption of EVs, the better it’ll be for their buyers. We only just started making some excess electricity. The demand raised by electric cars will drive up prices of power units. If you drive a Hyundai Kona every day for 50 km, you will need at least 160 units per month. That will double your household electricity consumption.
Is Electric Car Production Environmental Friendly?
Electricity production in India has grown in leaps and bounds and is still expanding rapidly. But the growth in this sector is a bit lopsided. About 76% of all our electricity comes from thermal power plants, most of which run on coal. Even if you look at the installed capacity numbers for June 2019, thermal energy at 56% still forms the major share.
And this is the next problem of the future that we must address – the balance between the cost of switching to Electric Vehicles and the benefit to the environment. The production of electric vehicles will cost the companies making them for research, development, production, and distribution. But producing electric cars is worse for the environment than producing a new petrol car. Carbon emissions from Electric Vehicle production are higher.
A standard gasoline vehicle can be produced by emitting as little as 5.6 tonnes of CO2. In its lifetime, if the car travels 1,50,000 km, an efficient modern petrol car will produce 24 tonnes of CO2. Compare that with the production emissions of a battery Electric Vehicle, which emits 8.8 tonnes, and during its lifetime can contribute to about 19 tonnes of carbon emissions.
So Electric vehicles, at least the way they are today, and with India’s current power grid, are still more efficient than petrol vehicles. But think of another factor – passenger vehicles only contribute about 11% of total emissions in our country. This means that the net change in pollution levels by switching to electric will not be immediately visible. This also means that much, much more has to be done to utilize the potential of zero-emissions vehicles in India.
For one, we have to stop burning coal to make electricity, or electric cars just won’t work. But for a country that only has four years to electrify itself, coal production will actually have to increase. Because any day now there will be a spurt in electricity demand. How do we meet that demand? By shoving more coal into the boilers, or diesel into generators. That means while cars down in the city will be polluting less, the emissions from the turbine will continue to grow.
Will buying an Electric Vehicle reduce pollution?
India is one of the world’s largest and most populous countries. There are several advantages of having a large stock of human resource – 466 million people contributed to the economy in 2015, with 4 million people entering the work force each year.
But the density of our population and our migration patterns pose a problem for the environment. Urban India is rapidly rising in population, and due to a lack of strong government policies and awareness, we are also adopting some of the worst practices and implementing them at too large a scale.
For example, if an old farmer has just finished harvesting his small field and burns the dead shoots, mother earth just shrugs it off. But if a commercial farmer does the same thing, he or she is creating a public health disaster. The smoke cloud pollutes everywhere it goes. The soil itself loses its fertility rapidly over time. Underground water gets contaminated, often in places where people still rely on wells or tube wells for their ablutions.
Thus, seemingly inconsequential activities can wreak havoc when performed on an industrial scale. Waste burning, unchecked industrial pollution, traffic congestion, and lack of regular vehicular pollution checks are doing irreparable damage to our cities and towns.
So no, even if a lot of people buy Electric Vehicles it would only dent the issue of air pollution in our cities. The effect on other forms of pollution – water and soil – might not even be measurable. In a time when scientists are calling for rapid action and severe decisions, EV two wheelers are not going to be the last thing we change about ourselves. But let it be the first. Why? Because you have to reduce your impact on the environment. It is never too early for that.
You can stop littering, start recycling and reducing waste, and when you have to go to the shops, take your Electric Vehicle instead of your car or motorbike. The system efficiency of vehicles consuming thermal-sourced electricity is higher, in that more of thermal energy is converted to mechanical energy by an electric vehicle, when compared with a petrol or diesel engine.
Thus, although the problem of pollution isn’t being eradicated, the air quality of urban areas will eventually improve. But many more difficult decisions stand in the way of our pollution problem. This is a much bigger fish than EVs can fry. For now, turn off the lights when you’re not in the room, conserve water, and help the environment in all the ways you can – the government will eventually come around, but the problem can’t be fixed without everyone’s cooperation and contribution.
Will Electric Vehicles ever make sense for the Indian buyer?
Yes, they will, and they already do. You see, the electric revolution has already started in India – with electric two wheelers. There is brand new segmentation in the market – based on speed limit. The smallest e-scooters are made for the places where people walk – town centres. These can go as fast as a widow-making 25 kilometres per hour. Then there are 40 kph scooters, regular scooters, commuter bikes and an entire array of two-wheeled vehicles. This kind of choice has never existed in the car market.
Ather Energy pioneered the electric scooter. It has a lot of Tesla-esque appeal – if Tesla was a budget scooter. Take a look at one of those. It looks futuristic and athletic. There is a big screen for all your information. It is not fast, but it is quicker than CVT petrol scooters. In addition, Ather is doing a lot to develop a charging network for the scooter. At the moment they have 30 charging stations in Bengaluru. If that sounds inadequate, remember that most people will charge their scooters at home. Lithium ion batteries don’t like to be loaded with voltage, so they will last longer if you charge them on a home circuit. Charging stations will encourage even more people to buy these scooters.
Recently, Revolt Motors launched the RV 400, India’s first all-electric motorbike. It will go 156km on a full charge – certified by Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI). Indian electric two-wheeler makers are developing unique products, and the Revolt has some interesting artificial intelligence in its bowels. It comes with a mobile app, and that’s something we have never seen before.
Revolt is the first among a range of connected bikes and scooters. Remember the thing about EV expectations? We need technology, and in the 21st century, decent hardware and reasonably good software are both easily available and inexpensive to integrate into vehicles. So having one screen that displays your map, speed, and range, is not something for which you have to shell out lakhs of rupees. What used to be the reserve of high-end luxury cars – a big screen infotainment system – can now be found on some of the most affordable little hatchbacks in our country. Touch screens are everywhere. The best of them is in your pocket, and both Ather and Revolt will use that to communicate with you.
How is the future for electric bikes and scooters?
Very bright. Because even the worst, most incapable, slow e-scooters have the advantage of being very cheap to buy with insignificant running costs. Ather’s 450 scooter is about rupees 40,000 more expensive than even the most pricey CVT scooters, but it is much faster than any CVT scooters (all of which are already quick for city use). It has twice the torque, and that makes a difference when you have it all the time at your disposal. And yet more people will buy it for the low running costs than the speed.
Electric scooters and bikes like Ather and Revolt have all the advantages of electric vehicles. They are quick, effortless, quiet, smooth, and modern in every way. And that’s why vehicles like these will be responsible for Electric Vehicle adoption in India.
Our automotive industry has seen a lot of bad decisions which have resulted in expensive failures for companies, namely with the launches of mediocre products which were too expensive (the non-turbo Forester, Nissan Teana, Opel Vectra, and so many others). Indian car companies are not immune to this either – the diesel Celerio is a recent, glaring example.
But the numerous EV startups all seem to have nuanced knowledge about Indian consumers, and have unique and/or interesting products. Like Emflux, who have a sporty motorcycle with a 200km range and a striking appearance – breaking the stereotype that there is little to Indian industrial design than affordability. Or Twenty Two Flow, a 160-kilometre scooter that is rupees 40,000 cheaper than the cheapest Ather. Tork Motors has the T6X which started out as a Yamaha FZ motorcycle with a battery and motor conversion. Tork’s trump card is their history of competitive racing.
Two wheeler companies with long-standing reputations are also perfecting their models before launching them. This makes these EVs even more lucrative – name brand reliability. Electric bikes have the advantage of fewer parts, moving or stationary, so they have much less of a chance of mechanical failure. How the startups and large corporations prove to be, we’ll find out in the next decade.
Petrol-powered motorcycles in the commuter segment have the lowest emissions of all vehicles. But there’s too many of them – a third of all vehicles are two wheelers. People use them to do their daily chores, or deliver goods and services and pizza. We would be able to cut down a significant chunk of our vehicular pollution. The government’s FAME-II scheme is going to be a catalyst for the switch to electric vehicles in India.
Hence, a lot of fleet bikes will be quickly upgraded to e-scooters. Scooter rental startups have already placed orders for their fleets. E-scooters are about to get some rigorous testing at the hands of delivery boys and day-renters. So if you’re wondering if you should postpone your EV purchase, you must know that the flagship products of Revolt and Ather are excellent options to consider.
This is the face of India’s electric revolution. A challenge EVs have is to last for more than 8 years. Mechanically, we can rest assured that they will be fine as long as they aren’t abused. This is because we already know that most startups are going to the same vendors as large OEMs for their components. But how do you know who made the parts on your two wheeler? Most startups will advertise the make of their suspensions and brakes and other components, just to let you know where they haven’t cut corners. This list will probably keep getting longer as those companies receive a good response from the audience.
What about the batteries? We will have to wait for this one. Lithium ion cells have some inherent advantages over other, more conventional battery designs. Many of the cheapest scooters – at the bottom of the pile – don’t come with lithium cells. They have a different (smaller) number of charge-discharge cycles. EV manufacturers claim one lakh kilometres, or about 8 years of ownership for lithium cells. This will be viable for a number of households.
Besides, we don’t know what’ll happen in 8 years – it is probable that batteries will become cheaper, and household incomes will increase. If that happens you may have a better chance to afford a battery replacement. A lot of people would just keep running it until the range starts measuring in meters, and the two wheelers would be able to withstand such use. It will be interesting to observe how many vehicles are up to the mark. Cars and two-wheelers which can survive an 8-year slog and still run fine will find many takers on the second-hand market.
How are we going to produce enough power for EVs?
This is important. For now we are all good to buy an electric two wheeler, at least in urban areas with fewer power cuts. With the conservative buying mannerisms of the Indian public, we can rest assured that as long as the power sector keeps growing, EV sales will not be able to overwhelm the grid. 2018 was the first year ever when electricity production – for a shining moment in the winter months – exceeded India’s total demand.
Right after independence our leaders decided that the primary goal for India was to become self-sufficient. Even today we produce almost everything we use – from food to phones to services. We also produce for export, though thankfully not on the same scale as China. Such a vast industry demands large energy investments.
In 2017 we produced 1303 Terawatts, and still fell short by 7,459 Mega Units. About 75.9% of these millions of watts came from thermal power plants, most of which run on coal. This demand can only be expected to rise as energy-intensive infrastructure development is in full swing. 1,234 villages that are still in the dark expect to get electricity this year. We have added 99.21 Gigawatts, of which 5.48 GW will be hydroelectricity and 2 GW will be nuclear power.
The government has planned rapid adoption of electric vehicles, but the need for electricity will be met by increasing thermal power production, since that is the only source that has the capacity for producing more. We get most of our renewable electricity from hydro projects (13.5%) and wind turbines (10%). If you live in an area where most or all of your power comes from these sources, you will greatly reduce your carbon footprint by using an EV for your commute. Even if you don’t you are likely to halve your own contribution to air pollution by using an EV instead of a fossil-fueled vehicle.
The government is contributing heavily to the development to renewable power production in India. However, private energy production isn’t up to the mark. 44% of our power is produced in privately-owned power plants. But this sector is under a lot of stress, with 2.24 lakh crores in debt from 75 companies. Fuel procurement and supply is also a problem. It is no surprise that growth of the private power sector has slowed down in recent years, and now stands at a meagre 3.77%.
Corporations don’t make much power today, but there will be some more revenue-generating opportunities for them. For example, setting up privately-owned charging networks powered by these private power units. At the moment the government buys all the power they make, and not for enough money. This will incentivize the growth of the sector. Hence, in all probability electricity price surges will be few and far between.
What are the Issues that Carmakers would face?
One issue that carmakers face because of the demand of governments all around the world, is that they have to channel their profits into the endless money pit that is EV conception. That leaves little room for development of engines which run on fossil fuels. Tightening emissions regulations push automakers to keep revising their designs to make their cars more efficient. They are forced to do so every few years by European, American, and in our country the Bharat-Stage norms.
But with the money that they don’t have, these improvements will be less significant than the past two decades. The 21st century has seen many improvements in thermal efficiency and total emissions. Cars today, even ones with large engines, run cleaner emissions than economy cars in the 70s and 80s. A 2019 Ford F-150 is as fuel efficient as our own Maruti Alto. But when faced with the immense cost of developing EVs, car companies will have to settle for routine improvements in their fossil fueled cars.
What about government policy? Consider E85 or E100 vehicles. Their exhausts are much less toxic than petrol cars (when comparing two cars of the same manufacturing). Or diesel particulate filters – fitted to our trucks they would significantly reduce particulate and toxic gas pollution on all our highways. But since we only have so many resources, fossil fuel vehicle improvements will take a back seat. Hence, within the next decade, regular cars’ efficiency will become disproportionately lower than electric vehicles. EVs would become more preferable by governments and consumers alike.
Back in 2019, however, it is daunting to see that this is going to be tough on all of us. The National Green Tribunal rules with an iron fist. Bans like the 10- and 15-year rule never cared for the fact that some people can’t afford to replace their vehicle. Or that privately-owned vehicles aren’t the primary cause of air pollution. Or that we ache to see comprehensive reforms in addition to these movements and orders. Or that this move disproportionately hurts poor people. So if they do ban – yes, it’ll be a ban and not a sales restriction – petrol and diesel vehicles, you’ll just have to take the train.
What should you be doing to prepare for the EV revolution? Working harder and saving more money. Support your local government’s efforts to expand the charging network in your city. Not that you’ll necessarily need to use it at least for the first few years of EV adoption. Like your phone, you will usually plug in your car at the end of the workday and remove the charger when you wake up.
What are the issues EVs will face in India?
The Indian automotive industry is a mixed-bag. On the one hand the market is flooded with affordable vehicles, with new ones coming in every few months, with even better prices and more features. Yet our market is tiny compared with other countries, and our options are limited to commuter cars which are just boring.
The global automotive industry’s best years were lost to the last century. Today it stands grey and sober, with every move slow calculated, taking no risks, with a singular goal of increasing total income. There aren’t even as many manufacturers any more. New companies can’t permeate the market. Small manufacturers are like the Asiatic cheetah – there certainly aren’t any in India any more.
But times are changing. Because thirty years after Al Gore schooled us about irreversible climate change, there is a stir. The biggest change is the government’s FAME scheme, which has encouraged development of brand new vehicles to quickly replace fossil-fueled vehicles. There is excitement in India like we have never seen.
The era of automation-ready smart vehicles is here. There is new development happening in every state and every metro city. Consumers are desperate to know all about them, mostly because of the immense savings. Companies are on the lookout for small manufacturers to swallow. Innovations and ideas are flooding the marketplace. Indians are demonstrating their excellence in all areas of new vehicle development.
The last time the automobile was being conceptualized in such an way, with car-makers popping up everywhere and scrutinizing the most basic aspects of personal mobility, it was the 1910s. India missed that revolution to some extent, and that’s what makes these times so special. Millenials keep complaining about the problems of being young in this half of the 2010s – having fewer opportunities. But the EV revolution is picking their spirits up. The 1910s saw the development of durable gasoline engines and reliable cars that could be driven by one person. The Model T happened – the first assembly line was created.
Another thing we have in common with those times is that we are looking once more toward household energy sources to power our cars. In the previous century they had few petrol pumps, because nobody was sure that petrol was the future. Cars ran on everything from kerosene to coal to alcohol. Electric cars were abundant as well, at least for the time. Those ones also had arrays of cells under the carpet. EVs were simple but they could not go very far. Charging those cells must have been a pain, too. Petrol emerged as the answer. But it could very well have been ethyl alcohol. Or kerosene.
So why do we still cling on to fossil fuels? Sure, for those times it was okay. But in 2019 the abilities of the electric car have far surpassed those of the best gasoline cars. They are just better, so why are we still waiting to accept this? Alternating current is the new kerosene. There couldn’t possibly be a better time than right now – only last year did India produce excess electricity for the first time. Power cuts are fewer and farther between. The government has new plans for budding businesses. There is a slump in the market right now, but that’s because nobody knows what the government’s next move will be. Will they allow you to run BS-4 cars (that you can buy today) for the full duration of 15 years of registration? Hazy policymaking aside, slumps like these will provide EVs with the opportunity to flood the market.
In addition, new Lithium batteries can now store more charge, last more years, and charge more consistently than ever. Sure, they are expensive. But the alternatives are all much worse than these novel batteries. As EV production gains momentum and the EV industry gets more money in the form of profits, we are going to see prices of lithium cells drop slowly.
Electric circuits now need very little power. With gigantic strides in automotive technology, all-electric vehicles aren’t hobby items any more. Tesla sits at the top of an entirely new and highly capable food chain. Control systems are so advanced that they can comprehend the world you live in, steering to keep you in your lane, reading the road to give you the best ride, following the vehicle in front of you, demanding but an occasional tap on the steering wheel just to show you’re there. More importantly, we are reducing our dependence on coal and natural gas and getting more of our energy from sustainable resources like the waves and the sun.
All these factors are helping companies to harness the potential of electric vehicles and establish them not just as alternatives to conventional vehicles, but value propositions that the average consumer would choose over and above traditional transport. To accomplish this we have locked horns with the two big challenges for EVs – reducing production costs to compete with mass-market vehicles, reduction of battery replacement expenses.
The best Indian E-bikes have batteries that last for about one lakh kilometres. That translates to about three years of usage. After that the vehicles will have to be sold, salvaged, or have their batteries replaced. The cost of new batteries is almost 40% of the vehicle’s value. This cost is expected to fall with mass production.
India has developed manifold in the past few years. We have built more roads, connected more places, provided basic needs to more people than ever before. And we did all of that on a tight, tight budget. This is one reason why our environment has suffered. It makes us all happy to see that there is a debate going on about EVs – it opens up conversation for all aspects of ecological conservation. We have only exploited our environment for the past few decades, and we are the worse for it. Severe health issues in our urban population is a clear indication that India can’t take any more.
The future demands action that promises blue skies and clean air and drinkable ground water. We need to come together and do as much as we can to contribute to this cause, including communicating to India’s leaders our concerns and suggestions. On a personal level it is important to establish the environment as the basis for one’s talisman – all your future decisions must be weighed against the parameters of carbon emissions and global warming potentials.