E-way to the future

At a time when everyone is seeking sustainable and permanent solutions that will have a long-lasting impact on the pollution levels in the country, the importance of electric vehicles is finally getting due attention

By: | Updated: March 19, 2016 7:49 PM

At a time when everyone is seeking sustainable and permanent solutions that will have a long-lasting impact on the pollution levels in the country, the importance of electric vehicles is finally getting due attention

At a time when everyone is seeking sustainable and permanent solutions that will have a long-lasting impact on the pollution levels in the country, the importance of electric vehicles is finally getting due attention

THE POTENTIAL of electric vehicles, also known as EVs or e-vehicles, seems to be higher than ever before now. With all the talk about rising fuel prices, air pollution, high emission levels and resultant health issues, the focus seems to be shifting towards green mobility solutions such as e-vehicles.

The situation is alarming indeed. India ranked at the bottom (155th) among 178 countries in the Environmental Performance Index released by Yale University and Columbia University at the World Economic Forum in 2014. Sadly, India is also home to 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world today, as per a report published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in December 2014.

More recently, India’s national capital has been enveloped in a thick haze of environmental concerns after pollution levels—especially PM 2.5 levels (these extremely fine particles, less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, are linked to increased rates of occurrence of chronic bronchitis, lung cancer and heart diseases)—were found to be 10 times more than the WHO’s safe limits. This led to the authorities concerned announcing a slew of fire-fighting measures, such as the Delhi government’s much-talked-about odd-even number-plate formula for private vehicles and the Supreme Court’s ban on registration of certain diesel vehicles, among others.

So it was but natural for the automotive industry to also turn its focus to alternative mobility platforms such as e-vehicles. “The time has come to migrate to e-vehicles in order to ensure a green and sustainable mobility solution. By migrating to e-vehicles, we will significantly limit pollution risks, reduce greenhouse emissions and move towards a better future without compromising on the pace of development,” says Sohinder Gill, director, corporate affairs, Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles (SMEV), the only registered industry body representing electric vehicles in India.

Apart from acting as a bridge between the EV industry and the government for enabling a conducive policy and regulatory environment for the green mobility roadmap in the country, the SMEV also aims to raise awareness about the benefits of e-vehicles. Recently, it organised a three-city ‘FAME India Eco Drive’ rally in association with the department of heavy industry and the Union ministry of heavy industries and public enterprises, in which a wide range of state-of-the-art electric and hybrid vehicles, including two-wheelers, cars and buses, took part.

“With zero emissions and running costs of less than a rupee per km, there is really no solution more apt than EVs to problems like the deteriorating state of environment, incessant stop-go traffic, rising fuel prices, etc,” offers Arvind Mathew, CEO of Mahindra Reva Electric Vehicles (MREV).

MREV was formerly known as Reva Electric Car Company (RECC) and was founded in 1994 by business magnate Chetan Maini as a joint venture between Maini Group of Bengaluru and Amerigon Electric Vehicle Technologies of the US. Mahindra Group acquired a majority stake in the company in May 2010.

“Under the Mahindra banner, we set up a new assembly plant in Bengaluru—one of the world’s most energy-efficient manufacturing plants and the first automobile plant to receive a ‘platinum’ rating from the India Green Building Council,” says Mathew, adding, “As on date, we have sold more than 5,500 Mahindra Reva EVs, which have travelled more than 224 million km, just about the distance between earth and the orbit of Mars.”

The company is now planning to launch electric versions of the Verito sedan and the Maxximo Light Commercial Vehicle (LCV) by February to expand its electric vehicle portfolio.

E-story in the making

The options might be limited in four-wheelers, but the two-wheeler segment has seen many companies launch several electric vehicles. Hero Electric, for instance, offers over eight products across three categories, namely, high-speed, super-economy and e-cycles. Then there’s Avon Cycles, Terra Motors and Lohia Auto, among others. These bikes can run anywhere between 40 km and 70 km per charge.

As per Hero Electric, the country’s market leader in the e-bike segment, the industry had picked up during 2011-2012 when the ministry of new and renewable energy (MNRE) offered a R4,000-R5,000 subsidy on electric two-wheelers. During this time, the industry managed to sell around one lakh electric two-wheelers. “Unfortunately, the subsidy ended in 2013. The industry faced a very bad phase then, with several major manufacturers shutting operations, as there were no takers for e-bikes due to a price hike and lack of government support,” says Gill of SMEV, who is also the CEO (global operations) of Hero Electric, adding, “With the government of India announcing the National Electric Mobility Mission 2020 in April last year, it has brought a lot of positivity in the industry—with a target to put up to seven million electric vehicles on the roads by 2020. Sales have picked up, but it will take time for demand to scale up in a big way.”

Automobile giant Tata Motors, traditionally dependent on diesel engines, is also working on partial hybrids and fully-electric systems for its future range of passenger vehicles, as per reports. The Mumbai-based company has been experimenting with alternative mobility platforms for quite some time now. In 2012, the company launched ‘Megapixel’—a four-seater car with the range-extended electric vehicle (REEV) concept—at the 82nd Geneva Motor Show. Megapixel combines a lithium-ion phosphate battery and an on-board petrol engine generator for recharging on the move. As per some reports, the car might see the light of day this month.

Tata Motors also plans to launch an electric version of its most popular light truck, Ace, this year, as per reports.

Meanwhile, start-ups, too, are getting the encouragement to tread new paths and are looking at creating new-age vehicles. Bengaluru-based Ather Energy, conceptualised in 2013 by IIT-Madras batchmates Tarun Mehta and Swapnil Jain, is building an electric two-wheeler (codenamed Ather S340) that will offer a top speed of 72 kmph with a one-hour charging time, making it far superior than any existing line of electric two-wheelers in the country.

The other big introduction will be its digital dashboard that will offer in-built navigation, personalised profiles, multiple riding modes and a ‘sync with personal devices’ function to share data on ride history, charge status, etc. “Monitoring individual riding patterns and optimisation will also be possible. On the whole, the vehicle will offer a lot of control over the way you want it to perform,” explains CEO and co-founder Mehta.

Ather received its first seed fund of $1 million in December 2014 from Flipkart founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal. It later received $12 million in funding from Tiger Global in May last year. The company aims to use the funds for development, testing, production and launch of its smart electric two-wheeler.

“EVs will certainly help, given the fact that they are true zero-emission vehicles. Even if you were to recharge them with 100% coal-fired power, which is improbable, you would still have up to 75% emission reduction than a normal diesel or petrol variant. This is quite astounding,” says Greg Moran, CEO and co-founder of Zoomcar, a Bengaluru-based self-drive car rental company.

Zoomcar was one of the first companies to register electric vehicles for commercial use in India way back in 2013. “We have several Mahindra e2os in our fleet and we see a very healthy demand for these. There’s broad appeal across segments, particularly among women,” adds Moran.

Not too long ago, in April last year, the e-vehicle industry in the country received a much-needed shot in the arm when the central government formally launched the FAME India scheme, offering incentives on electric and hybrid vehicles of up to R29,000 for bikes and R1,38,000 for cars.

FAME India (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric vehicles in India) is part of the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP). The scheme hopes to get R795 crore in support from the central government.

As per the government, by 2020, the FAME India scheme will help save R60,000 crore annually in the country’s oil import bill.

Initial statistics seem to indicate that the incentive scheme is working. The electric vehicle industry saw a 25% increase in sales for the quarter ended June 30, 2015, as per data from the SMEV. E-vehicle makers sold a total of 5,000 units as compared to 4,000 in the previous sequential quarter, the SMEV said.

Plug & play

Let’s understand the concept behind electric vehicles. These vehicles use batteries as an alternative to petrol or diesel to power their engines. Batteries are charged from the grid and by ‘brake energy recuperation’ (braking generates energy that is sent to the batteries instead of getting wasted in the heat).

The advantages of EVs are well-established since they reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and dependence on expensive oil imports. In addition to that, they have low fuel and maintenance costs, as there are no oil and air filters, spark plugs or radiators, among others. Moreover, they are energy-efficient. “At a time when everyone is seeking sustainable and permanent solutions that will have a long-lasting impact on the pollution levels in the country, the importance of EVs is finally getting due attention,” says Gill of SMEV.

Currently, EVs constitute less than 1% of the total vehicle sales in India. However, experts say they have the potential to grow to more than 5% in just a couple of years. Countries like Norway, the Netherlands and the UK—which have not been impacted by serious urban pollution so far—have also started adopting green mobility platforms in increasing numbers to demonstrate their commitment to a better, greener world. This is evident from the sharp rise in sales of electric two-wheelers or e-bikes in these countries in recent years.

Closer home, China, which faces environmental and urban commuting challenges like India, has been leading the way in encouraging citizens to migrate to e-bikes by way of laying down appropriate regulatory, municipal and taxation regimes. As a result, it has over 150 million e-bikes today (it had less than 50,000 in 1998). Nearly 80% of the world’s e-biking population is in China and, along with it, a growing e-bike industry. India, in comparison, still has a long way to go.

Going forward

The adoption of a new technology is always a challenge and takes a long time to gain momentum. As pioneers in the EV technology, MREV has seen this more closely than anyone else. “Consumers need the assurance of not just the technology that is backing the car or the plethora of benefits it offers, but also the commitment of the government in terms of infrastructure. Unless that happens, it will be an uphill task for manufacturers like us,” explains Mathew of MREV.

Although the central government has taken initiatives to rope in states to launch low-emission hybrid and electric vehicles on a pilot basis, says Gill of SMEV, the sector still faces many challenges such as non-availability of infrastructure, lack of support from state administrations and the dismal state of public awareness. “Banks are also apprehensive about financing such vehicles, leading to a decline in consumer interest. Thus, only with collaborative effort from the Centre and state would we be able to make this sector a success, which, in turn, would help the environment in the long run,” he adds.

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