Electric and hybrid vehicles are gaining a foothold because they are cheap and clean. But batteries are either expensive or short-lived. Their future rests with industry’s innovation and government’s support.

by Vivek Chattopadhyaya

The glitz and glamour at the biggest auto show in Delhi drew the highest number of footfalls ever. The show unveiled dreams and many of them had a green wrap this time. Amid the slew of small cars at the expo, held on January 5-11, was a line-up of electric and hybrid vehicles.

From Toyota to Honda and Hyundai to Suzuki, Tata Motors and General Motors had on display electric models, and electric-petrol hybrids. Reva though did not have a stall at the expo. The car manufacturer, in Bengaluru, has deployed 3,000 electric cars on the road worldwide.

Suddenly, e-vehicles have trudged up the popularity chart and become part of the business model of major automakers—both local and global. Some of them have finally looked beyond the conventional internal combustion engines and to a completely new genre of technology. This needs watching.

The biggest explosion is expected in the two-wheeler segment. Around 1,30,000 electric two wheelers were sold in 2007-08. Bulk of these are low-powered and low-speed electric two wheelers. Another 110,000 electric two wheelers were sold last year. Mukesh Bhandari, chairperson and managing director of Electrotherm (India) Ltd, which makes the YObyke, expects sales to pick up.

Globally though, hybrids might enter markets sooner and more easily than e-vehicles because hybrids do not require new refuelling infrastructure. Toyota was the first company to introduce hybrid vehicles in 1997.

Hybrid vehicles use both petrol and electric propulsion systems. The technology is an offshoot of the electric vehicle experiment. In such vehicles, the electric motor provides a boost during starting and is recharged during vehicle operations. This cuts emissions significantly and improves fuel economy. Compared to 2007 sales, the global market of hybrid vehicles could more than treble in five years, said the International Energy Agency report 2008 Outlook for hybrid and electric vehicles.

Mahindra & Mahindra and Tata Motors have shown interest in developing hybrids. Hybrids, however, increase cost, weight and complexity. Experts say hybridization makes sense in bigger vehicles due to fuel economy benefits.

The bus industry too has innovated to make hybrid CNG (compressed natural gas) buses. Ashok Leyland put on display Hybus—India’s first plug-in CNG hybrid bus. Tata Motors showcased Starbus—the 35-seater CNG-electric low-floor hybrid vehicle—at the auto expo.

The market is gradually warming up to the electric ride. For V K Gupta, a 59-year-old businessman, it is now routine to charge his mobile phone and his sleek BSA Street Rider to travel to his shop in Vaishali, Ghaziabad. He has dumped the petrol run scooter Bajaj Wave. The e-scooter is cheaper to use. “This low speed model is hassle free as it does not require registration and road tax. Just like a bicycle—buy and ride,” he said.

Pooja, a shop assistant in a mobile phone store in east Delhi, bought a Hero Electric model and she strongly recommends the vehicle for local travel. “It is as simple to charge as a mobile at home,” she said. V Kumar, a lawyer in Mumbai, said it was easy to manoeuvre his tiny Reva car in congested streets and find parking space easily.

Srinivas Kotni, a lawyer in Delhi, bought a Reva because it’s a green car. He travels about 50 km a day and the cost of running it comes to about 30 to 40 paise per km. He charges the vehicle either at home or in his office.

E-vehicles emit nothing from their tailpipe. But the emissions from power generation have to be accounted for in the lifecycle assessment of the e-vehicle. Inefficient power plants using poor quality coal and technology can have high emissions. Renewable energy can make these vehicles near zero emitters.

Reva Electric Car Company’s emission estimates in the UK showed when emissions at the power station were included, the vehicle emitted 63g CO2 per km. The best hybrid car gives 104g CO2 per km. When charged with renewable electricity, emissions are virtually zero.

The e-vehicle industry counters that the overall emissions would still be lower than petrol and diesel engines. Lifetime estimations are rarely calculated for vehicles with internal combustion engines. However, a UK study said that the lifetime emission of an e-vehicle is at least three times less than the average emission from internal combustion engines.

High prices, limited range, slow investment in technology improvement and lack of charging infrastructure have significantly slowed the commercialization of e-vehicles.

“I would like to drive an electric car but it’s too expensive,” said Rajiv Kumar who drives a petrol Maruti Zen in Delhi. “Even if I pay that much I still won’t get the same driving distances of a petrol car. Refuelling a petrol car takes a few minutes—the electric car takes eight hours to charge,” he added.

The battery is a major chunk of the cost of e-vehicles. It costs nearly 30 per cent of an e-bike’s price. And it has to be replaced every two to three years. For an e-car, a battery costs Rs 60,000 to Rs 70,000.

The Reva Electric Car Company claimed that the running cost of the car, after including battery replacement, would be much cheaper compared to a petrol car. Cheap electricity charges are among the reasons, said Chetan Maini, deputy chairperson of Reva. The running cost of the electric car is one-tenth of a small petrol car. Maini estimated that even after battery replacement the owner could save more than Rs 2,00,000 over five years.

The other advantage of an e-vehicle is there are no oil filters, air filters, spark plugs or radiators, which otherwise need maintenance. According to YObyke officials, the running cost of the e-bike is about 10 paise per km and after battery replacement about 50 paise per km. This is half the running cost of a petrol bike.

But buyers don’t go by this logic. For them the purchase price is the most important criterion while choosing a vehicle, said the International Energy Agency in its 2008 report. People do not understand vehicle lifecycle costs and how these compare among different alternatives. The battery technology needs to progress to meet the commuter expectations of range, recharging and affordability to switch over to e-vehicles, the report added.

For K Sudha, a music teacher who lives in south Delhi, it hurts financially to spend Rs 7,000 and replace the battery for her YObyke. “What’s the benefit of this technology if I need to invest Rs 10,000 on a Rs 20,000 bike every two years?” asked Sahil, a salesperson in Delhi.

The range of e-vehicles too often falls short of people’s expectations as they compare these with conventional petrol models. “A petrol car can take you up to 200 km on full tank. But an e-vehicle, with one charge, can go up to 50-60 km,” said Srinivasan who owns a petrol scooter and an e-bike in Delhi.

In India, most e-vehicles run on lead-acid batteries, which are relatively low in cost compared to the newer battery technologies. Lead acid batteries will have to give way to lithium ion batteries that improve performance four times over. But the high cost of these batteries is a further deterrent. A Reva car dealer in Delhi said the lithium ion battery pack would cost more than the current price of the car.

It’s no easy deal for e-bikes either. “A Rs 30,000 e-bike with lead-acid batteries would cost about Rs 75,000 if we replace it with lithium ion batteries,” said Krishna Gopal Gupta, assistant area business manager of YObykes in Delhi.

Other companies are also developing newer types of rechargeable batteries, which have higher energy and power densities. Hitesh Mohan, manager at Ultra Motor India Pvt Ltd, which manufactures two bikes in the UK with lithium ion batteries, said the company was trying to bring down the cost from Rs 1 lakh to about Rs 50,000 before launching the e-bikes in India. They have provided for pedals in the bicycle type e-bikes so that one has the option to pedal if the e-bike runs out of charge.

But the industry is struggling as far as costs are concerned. And promotion of e-vehicles is in the government’s interest because they are tied to the climate and pollution agenda. Would subsidies help promote e-vehicles?

Soon after the Centre waived the excise duty on battery-operated vehicles in 2008, state governments started announcing similar tax cuts to lower pollution load in cities.

Chandigarh offered subsidy of 15 per cent on battery-operated vehicles. Bengaluru took the lead to give four per cent value added tax (vat) waiver for the first five years after the launch of the car and on registration costs. Other states such as Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Gujarat and West Bengal have also offered reduction in vat.

Delhi announced a 29.5 per cent discount for all e-vehicles. The government also introduced an innovative funding scheme: cost of the subsidy for e-vehicles to be covered from the air ambience fund created from an environment cess of 25 paisa per litre on diesel sold in Delhi. A buyer would get 15 per cent subsidy on the base price of the vehicle, a vat refund of 12.5 per cent and a 2 per cent concession on road tax and registration expenses.

Such incentives have reduced the price of the Reva by Rs 1 lakh and for e-bikes, it means rebate of Rs 6,000 for a vehicle priced at Rs 28,000. So far, the Delhi government has given rebate to 15,000 e-bikes and 150 e-cars. The relatively low demand for e-cars, compared to e-bikes, is perhaps due to affordability and options in models available.

Lack of charging facilities also discourages people to go for e-vehicles.
V K Gupta, the businessman from Ghaziabad, once had to trudge his e-bike for five km after the battery ran out of charge midway. Without public charging stations, only those with access to closed garages with internal power sockets buy e-vehicles.

The Delhi government has not yet made plans for charging stations. Mumbai too does not have adequate charging stations and Bengaluru has started installing plug points in shopping complexes, malls and parking lots. Compared to these metros, London has over 160 charge points and is planning to increase this to 1,000 by the end of the year. Paris too has over 1,000 plug points for its e-vehicles.

E-vehicles are part of the solution to air pollution and climate change. Policies are needed to maximize environmental benefits of the programme and create markets. Fiscal incentives alone cannot bring e-vehicles to the mainstream. Improved technology, roadworthiness, safety features, scale, infrastructure, power sources and lifecycle emissions, recycling of battery and end of life regulations for recyclable materials have to be looked at. 
CSE/Down To Earth Feature Service
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