At the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) which ended yesterday, the delegates were ferried in electric cars. It was the first time the UN used an all-electric vehicle fleet to act as its passenger-car shuttle service at one of its climate summits. Renault-Nissan provided the vehicles. Among other things, this put the spotlight, one more time, on non-fossil-fuel vehicles. In India, while such vehicles are evincing interest, the issues of economies of scale and how to get the adoption go-through are big question-marks. Prof Ravi Bollina from the Mahindra Ecole Centrale engineering college believes economies of scale can be achieved by providing the right infrastructure and incentive for the use of electric vehicles in India. In an interaction with Vikram Chaudhary from The Financial Express, he adds that incentives can also be in the form of higher surcharge on petrol and diesel cars. Excerpts:
At the Paris climate summit, delegates were ferried in electric cars. Do you see this small development as a major step towards electric mobility or was it more of a token statement?
Awareness and perspective are important when it comes to employ and deploy new technologies. One could see being ferried in electric cars as a token statement, but one should not overlook the fact that several big automakers already have hybrids which are mainstream today. The idea is to look at the step (being ferried in electric cars) scientifically, not pessimistically.
Tesla had an R&D budget of $93 million in 2010. This was scaled up to $465 million in 2014. Many other companies are also investing a lot in R&D. Yet the storage and recharging capacity of batteries leaves much to be desired. By when can we see electric cars having a 500-plus-km range?
Batteries didn’t exist a few decades ago, and now we are already talking of storage capacity. Does this signify the fact that we have come a long way? That said, we still have more science and technological work to reach the desired level of efficiency and cost-effectiveness for the batteries to become cheaper and more reliable. Did you seriously think 15 years ago that you would have been video-conferencing on a smartphone? Similarly, development needs acumen, money and a lot of dedication fuelled by passion to make a positive impact. As to answer your question about the timeline for such a development, one can only hope it will be a few years rather than a few decades.
To what extent can the weight of an electric car be reduced by using light-weight materials available today?
Manufacturing and the use of novel materials is all about optimisation of cost and performance, and finally what the customer is willing to pay. Would you shell out, say, R75 lakh for a compact car made with titanium alloy? If the answer is yes, we can produce that today. Materials are available but are pricey. Weight can be reduced using advanced materials such as carbon composites and titanium alloys. One can reduce the weight by 10-15% and this will have a significant impact on fuel consumption and other performance-related parameters. But it is always price per performance that matters.
Manufacturers are using light-weight aluminium alloys for chassis, wheels, and designers are optimising engine and transmission designs for lowering weight. With the advent of new manufacturing technologies such as metal injection moulding and 3D printing, we can envision functional designs that were not possible earlier. It is never an either/or question when it comes to materials or better capacity. It is a holistic approach than a piecemeal one.
What is your take on the FAME initiative (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid & Electric Vehicles)?
FAME is a wonderful approach. The incentives should balance out the higher costs of hybrid and electric vehicles. But the real challenge is in infrastructure and not just subsidy. What good is subsidy or incentive when there aren’t many e-fuelling stations around? FAME will create an impact, but a larger framework of all automotive OEMs and Indian government should work in parallel to create an environment conducive for such vehicles and make the programme a success. Cities like New York, Vancouver and Toronto have decided that all taxi cabs will be either hybrid or electric. Wouldn’t that be nice in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad?
How can economies be scale be reached in the Indian electric vehicle industry?
The economies of scale can be reached by providing the right infrastructure and incentive for the use of electric vehicles. Incentives can also be in the form of higher surcharge on petrol or diesel cars. Bodies such as the Department of Science & Technology need to fund and channelise research in this area.
What is your take on biofuels? Raw materials for biofuels can lead to deforestation…
I don’t agree that biofuels lead to deforestation, since we are not cutting trees for their generation. Biofuels can be corn-based or based on other plants which are specifically grown in arid areas. Technologies such as biofuel-powered or battery-powered compete with each other, and the most economical and successful one will thrive in the future.