Time to plug in

Written by Roudra Bhattacharya | Updated: Nov 24 2012, 08:16am hrs
Electric cars havent been able to make a mark in the Indian market, and major manufacturers are still not excited about bringing these to India. But, in a power-deficient country like ours, does it really make sense to own an electric car, or are hybrids the answer

Electric cars and two-wheelers are very much in the global limelight today, but does it make sense for us here at home as well A closer look will remind us not to jump the gun.

What is very clear is that India needs to reduce its dependence on fossil fuelstoday, about 80% of our crude oil needs are imported, pushing up the current account deficit. Oil imports particularly get more expensive when the rupee weakens against the dollar and a focus on electric/hybrid cars may initially save as much as R30,000 crore a year, as per official estimates.

But, in a country that does not have electricity either, could electric hybrids and not pure electric cars be a better idea At a national level, India faces a peak power deficiency of 13%, while the voltage is not constant and power outages are common. Charging pure electric cars is thus an obvious challenge and the situation is not likely to change over the next 4-5 years eitherthe 12th Five-Year Plan aims to add 80,000 MW to the current 2 lakh MW capacity, but this may just remain numbers on paper, given the myriad challenges of fuel availability (gas, coal), land acquisition and environment/forest clearances. This means an additional investment (about R80,000) on solar panels for charging.

There are definitely many benefits of electric carsthey hardly pollute since they are zero-emission vehicles and need far less lubricating oils. They are also quieter, more reliable and cheaper to own, owing to far lower maintenance costsas compared to an internal combustion engine, the electric motor has far less moving parts. Plus, the torque delivery is much quicker and more linearwhat that means is the pick-up will be almost instant to 60 kmph from 0, versus a petrol/diesel car.

In the US, there is the Chevrolet Volt hybrid and the Focus and C-Max electrics from the Ford stable. The Japanese also have a lead in electric technologythe Toyota Prius was reported as the third most sold car globally for the first three months of 2012, while Nissans Leaf did well at least initially after its 2011 launch. Though electric cars remind us of weird shapes, todays vehicles need not be the ugly cousins of yesteryearthere are electric-only niche companies such as Fisker, or Tesla, which is making waves with sports cars such as the Model S. In Europe, BMW is launching a totally new line of vehicles called i Series. The first model will be the i3 city car that will be unveiled next year, followed by the hybrid i8 sports car.

All this seems to be painting a very rosy picture for this sunrise industry, but the truth is really much further apart. Despite multiple launches, the segment has failed to take off globally with sales far below expectations despite generous government subsidies. There are many issues, such as cases of battery packs catching fire (which creates fear among potential buyers), the low range/travelling distance of such cars on limited charge and the high price for the technology.

Apart from the lack of electricity, there is also the problem of how this power is produced. Now, the main push for electric cars is based on the presumption that they are environment-friendly. What turns this argument on its head is that half of Indias power today is produced through thermal or coal-fired power stations, and ecofriendly means such as solar, wind and hydel power have a far smaller share. Now, if the pollution happens at the power plant end and the electric car uses that same power, is there really any difference apart from pushing the pollution from the cities to the outskirts Electric cars will thus require a thorough change in the policy on power production.

Electric hybrid technology may be a better bet for India. Here, the car is driven through electric motors, but the batteries are actually charged by a far smaller internal combustion engine than otherwise needed in a traditional vehicle. These cars do not need to be plugged in to any external power source and are thus not dependent on your home power supply.

Hybrids make more sense for India as they are not restricted by range, like electric cars. They have internal systems like a small engine and brake force regeneration to charge the batteries. They can be made much cheaper if taxes are lowered, Shekar Viswanathan, deputy managing director, Toyota Kirloskar Motors, says. Toyota, currently, doesnt have a full electric car in India.

Hybrids, which can be made cheaper on mass production, are not as efficient as pure electric cars but promise 30-40% more fuel efficiency than a petrol/diesel car. How it works is that at low speeds and in city traffic, the electric motor delivers power, but at higher speeds an internal combustion engine adds its might while charging the batteries at the same time.

Till now, the Mahindra Reva-i is the only pure electric car available and all other domestic manufacturers have generally held back from launching such cars because of a small market and high price for the technology. R Chandramouli, chief of operations at Mahindra Reva Electric Vehicles, defends the decision to focus on pure electrics, Hybrids are slightly more efficient but far more expensive because of the dual drivetrain and switching electronics. Electric cars make more sense in India as they can be charged at night when power is actually wasted on low demand, as most industries are closed.

However, the Indian market has seen few hybrids; Honda launched the Civic Hybrid a few years back but pulled it back on low demand, while Toyota currently sells the Prius at about R28 lakhthe high price for the size of the car has resulted in very low sales (only 6 units between April and October this year).

The government is, though, very bullishit is currently building an ecosystem for electric and hybrid vehicles with plans to commit investments of about R24,000 crore, in partnership with the industry. Many companies such as Mahindra, Tata Motors, Maruti Suzuki and Toyota are believed to be interested. A formal launch will happen by the middle of next year with charging stations and price subsidies for those interested in buying electric and hybrid vehicles.