The transportation sector has witnessed rapid growth in the last few decades. While this growth has contributed significantly to the mobility of the population and their economic progress, the development has come at a huge cost to human well-being and sustainability. Road transport is alone responsible for about 67% of eCO2 emissions from all “internal combustion engines” (ICE) worldwide. Here are some hard-hitting facts about India:
1. Every year 1.2 Million people lose their lives early in India alone, due to poor air quality. 25% of this, on average, can be attributed to road transport! In other words, 3 lakh people potentially die every year because of pollution created by vehicles you and I drive!
2. In the W.H.O’s list of the 15 Worst Polluted Cities of the World, India has 14!
3. An estimated 3% of India’s GDP is spent on healthcare expenses for ailments related to pollution.
No one desires these ill-effects and hence the focus on electrified mobility. There has been a lot of talk around EVs – the GoI’s vision of only electric new vehicles by 2030, setting up charging infrastructure, issues of range anxiety, high overall price and so on. Electric cars might seem like the vehicles of the future, but they are really a symbol of the past. Innovators in Europe had been working on battery-powered vehicles since the 1830s. In fact, by 1900, electric cars were so popular that New York City’s fleet of electric taxis, and electric cars accounted for one-third of all vehicles on the road! Did you know that from about 1896 to 1930, as many as 1,800 different car manufacturers functioned in the US alone? And today EVs account for under 3% of all vehicles sold!
I must say, the more I dive deeper into EV technologies, the more I think that vehicles should only have been electric. Let’s pause for a second and admire the brilliance of an electric vehicle design. The complexity of the traditional ICE-based vehicle is mind-boggling. There are approximately two thousand interconnected moving parts that need to be constantly oiled and cooled. Air must be continuously pulled in to mix with the fuel to achieve combustion. While the engine is large and heavy, the electric engine counterpart is exponentially simpler. It is lighter and smaller, and can you guess the number of moving parts? Twenty!
This removes a lot of complexity in vehicle design. In fact, while the engine is the most complex and most prone-to-fail system of the ICE vehicle, it is one of the least complex parts of the EV and, thus not surprisingly, the most dependable. An ICE needs to be revved up ~3000 RPMs to get optimum torque, shifting gears results in the desired speed on the road. The electric engine driven by an electric motor, instantly gets to maximum torque (peak torque at 50 RPM); by increasing or decreasing RPMs, the desired speed/power is achieved without any gear shifts. After all, every time you add gears between the engine and the wheels, you add complexity and lose efficiency (even small).
With all these positives, when can EVs come mainstream in India? EV manufacturers need to instill confidence in the minds of the prospective buyer that EVs can be rugged, and compete in price and performance against conventional ICE vehicles. The task is especially uphill since it is an entirely new “paradigm”. It takes time for owners to move from an area of certainty (gasoline & ICE), to one of multi-dimensional uncertainty (batteries, motors, electronics, charging)! The first step to building robust EVs (vehicles and components) is the recognition of the unique needs of the Indian geography viz., limitations in road infrastructure, extreme environmental conditions, semi-professional driving behaviors (especially in commercial vehicle / last-mile transportation segment) and overloading. Further, India is an extremely price-sensitive market; therefore the right balance of performance vs price needs to be struck.
EVs has three main parts: Mechanical which include the rolling chassis, wheels, brakes, steering; Propulsion system which includes the motors, the electronic and software controls, transmission and the vehicle auxiliaries; and the Battery pack. Innovations are needed in all three areas e.g.,
(i) We need to make our vehicles lighter using new materials, composites and frame designs. Most road transport vehicles with combustion engines have heavy chassis to reduce vibrations and noise.
(ii) The manufacture of drivetrains that are cost-effective, can withstand environmental & usage abuse and are easily serviceable, needs to be encouraged. FAME-II subsidy by the Govt of India is helping push the agenda for domestic value add.
(iii) Current battery market is dominated by lead acid, and more recently, lithium ion variants, but there are several new technologies being tested, such as graphene, sodium air, aluminum air, fuel cells and so on, where energy density is much higher. When and how they become commercially viable should be closely watched and proactive steps taken to promote competency in such future technologies in India.
It is imperative to also emphasize the need for IoT and Application software on our vehicles, since EVs are essentially (a network of) computers on wheels. Therefore, another key direction for innovation involves artificial intelligence and machine learning useful in repetitive driving profiles, synthesis and analyses of (big) data being generated from various propulsion components, driver aids on and off-board vehicles (ADAS) and baby steps towards achieving autonomy in driving vehicles.
US, China and Norway are taking huge strides in electric mobility. US leads in innovation and pushing the boundaries of EV performance; China in terms of making EVs affordable and manufactureable on large scale; and Norway leads Europe in its vehicle policies that enabled the fastest adoption of EVs globally. We should understand similar influencers here and other countries to see if / how policies and best practices can be adapted for India.
Apart from the technical areas, business & financial models also need to evolve continually. Models need to be developed that allow the leasing of electric vehicles and/or batteries separately. This is important because although the upfront cost of electric vehicles is high (primarily due to the cost of the battery), the total cost of ownership over a vehicle lifetime is 35-40% less when compared to a similar ICE vehicle.
India needs to be a visionary leader in the still nascent and rapidly evolving field of electric mobility. Creating the right framework and policies are of utmost importance in institutionalizing change. We need policies to support domestic R&D in areas where India is different from the rest of the world – either through tax breaks, import subsidies on raw materials, upfront incentives or inversely through Pigouvian taxes in the industry. The “feed-in tariff” approach that hugely boosted roof-top solar movement in Germany over a decade ago, is a classic example of the latter. Instead of broad-brush approaches to electrification (doing a little bit of everything), we should focus our attention on market segments that are most likely to adopt EVs sooner (e.g., last-mile transportation). Further, we must realize that all new technologies have lengthy gestation periods.
Therefore, it is important for policies to consider large-scale funding for R&D or “guarantees” against future policy swings. Case in point: In January 2010, the Department of Energy issued a $465 million loan to Tesla Motors to produce EVs, battery packs, electric motors, and other powertrain components for powering them. R&D in educational institutions should also be encouraged, through industry participation, and joint initiatives.
Author – Dr. Amitabh Saran – Founder and CEO, Altigreen
IIT Kanpur study on pollution
Poor air quality related deaths: Information sought through RTI by Greenpeace
Most polluted cities in India: WHO data
Road transport and CO2 Emissions (School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University)
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author. These views and opinions do not represent those of The Indian Express Group or its employees.
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