Green drive, underpowered

Last week has clearly been the week of electric cars. With Mahindra & Mahindra acquiring a 55% stake in the Bangalore….

Last week has clearly been the week of electric cars. With Mahindra & Mahindra acquiring a 55% stake in the Bangalore-based Reva Electric Car Company, it is apparent that the country is beginning to take the concept of e-vehicles seriously. Several companies, including the Chennai-based Murugappa Group, have been manufacturing e-bikes for several years now with small technologically agile niche setups. A Coimbatore-based company Ampere Vehicles Pvt Ltd has been designing and manufacturing a wide range of electric vehicles for ?providing economical, comfortable, stylish and well-performing electric mobility solutions for all categories of people and businesses in Asia and beyond?. Ampere Vehicles Pvt Ltd is a wholly owned subsidiary of Ampere Vehicles Pte Ltd, Singapore. It has been around since 2008 and has recently announced its expansion plans.

General Motors India had tied up with Reva to develop a small test fleet of 15 electric ?Spark?. However, after the M&M-Reva tie-up,GM India has pulled out of the project and will now bring in an electric car independently to the country. The company?s president, Karl Slym, has said, ?Worldwide, General Motors has the capability to develop electric cars. Now we will look at internally utilising those capabilities for electric small cars in India, which could be Beat or Spark.? He has not given a time frame for when an electric GM small car would hit the Indian market.

GM, like most major global auto manufacturers, is serious about going electric. It has formed New Vehicle Engineering Organisation for hybrids, extended-range electric vehicles and batteries. GM has been at it for years. The results have been mixed. According to an article published during last year?s Frankfurt auto fair, Mercedes, BMW and GM spent four years on a project called ?Two Mode?. It outdid Toyota?s hybrid system considerably in terms of complexity ?and also ended up being far too expensive. The elaborate electromechanical systems created in the project will be used in a few hefty sport utility vehicles and then disappear from the market again. All the participating companies have agreed not to continue developing the system.

In spite of all the excitement and the acute necessity to develop electric vehicles, their viability remains a problem. Automobiles are major pollutants. Air pollution is a truly serious problem and with petrol prices sky-rocketing, the internal combustion engine may soon become so expensive that alternatives have to be found.

An electric vehicle requires a battery that runs everything. So it has to be powerful and long-lasting enough to take people where they need to go with a minimum of recharging. So far no reliable mass-producible batteries have been manufactured that could make electric cars competitive with petrol-powered cars. But a lot of work has been going on to build batteries that are cost-effective.

Last year, Mercedes showcased a 392-kilowatt concept electric sports car, while Audi was presenting a similarly powerful electric version of its top-of-the-range R8 model. BMW has developed alternative engine systems with its ?vision efficient dynamics,? a hybrid composed of a three-cylinder diesel engine flanked by two electric motors, which is supposed to have a top speed of 250 kilometres per hour. But such high horsepower electric cars are not market-ready and not a serious option even in the long run. Even the best batteries would run out within a few minutes of being driven at full power.

Consider the problems. Electrochemical parameters still set rather narrow limits on the potential of electric cars. The best batteries are made of lithium-ion and they currently weigh slightly less than 10 kg per kilowatt hour. The first small-series production cars, such as those from Smart or Mitsubishi, have a capacity of 16-20 kilowatt hours. That?s the equivalent of the energy content of about two litres of petrol.

Manufacturers calculate that this can provide a driving distance of 100 kilometres or more. But this will work only if the vehicle is driven slowly.

Will anybody want to buy a car whose range is so small that even a short trip to the suburbs might drain the batteries. To make matters worse, this extremely limited mobility does not come cheap. Lithium batteries with a capacity of 20 kilowatt hours cost around $29,000. That price should drop to about a third when the batteries go into mass production one day. The batteries eventually need to be three times as good and cheap as those available today. Then things start looking more promising for the electric car. Until electric cars really do hit the streets the hybrids present a practical interim solution. These are cars that include a conventional internal combustion engine along with the electric motor. Toyota, the pioneer in hybrid technology, has followed this path with its successful Prius. This partially electric vehicle has a comparatively small battery pack, which is charged from an electrical outlet and can power the car for about 20 kilometres (12 miles). Once the charge is used up, the gasoline-powered motor kicks in, and the ride continues with an economical hybrid system that continues to switch between the electric and combustion engines.

Many in the automobile industry feel that the gradual evolution of hybrid technology to eventually reach purely electric-powered vehicles is the only practical strategy. Although the industry is full of doubting Thomases about the future of the electric cars, there are also an equal number of optimists. However long it takes, the world cannot rely on fossil fuels forever to keep it mobile. China is racing ahead. There are now 22 million e-bikes in China. Europe has also made considerable progress.

Although e-bikes are not selling in great numbers here, manufacturers are convinced there is tremendous potential in this area. The Murugappa Group is perfecting the models. Says Hema Annamalai, founder & CEO of Ampere Vehicles Pvt Ltd, ?We are growing month on month. Some issues remain to be resolved. Like the cost and availability of the battery. This is an area where the government has to step in with tax subsidies and introducing stricter rules over carbon emission.?

Nationally and globally most expect more electric cars on the roads by 2020 if all goes well.

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First published on: 31-05-2010 at 20:49 IST