June 06, 2003 | Economic Times

Current affairs

They look futuristic – and they certainly pack more than a few advantages. But is India ready for electric vehicles, especially when the concept has failed to excite the western world.

When Steven Spielberg, renowned vehicle designer Harald Belker and Toyota Lexus come together to envision a car fit for Tom Cruise in the Sci-Fi blockbuster Minority Report, they come up with an electric vehicle (EV). For all of Toyota’s claims that Cruise’s Lexus is closer to fact than fiction, a history of EVs compiled by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation indicates that EVs have been struggling to make the journey from fiction to fact from before Henry Ford’s time.

Fact or fiction, treat it how you will, but EVs are now testing Indian shores. For years, we’ve heard about India’s first EV Reva, and then came Mahindra’s Bijlee. The latest to tinker with EV technology is V Sumantran, head of Telco’s passenger car division, who is working on the Indica Electric. There must be something about EVs if it’s captured the fancy of most Indian automakers, despite its dismal performance in the West.

For example, Ford abandoned the production of its EV brand called Think late last year, just as GM gave up on its EV1. So where does that put Indian EVs? For all those who have a thing for passion on wheels, Corporate Dossier decided to delve into automotive history and put together a complete picture on electric vehicles and whether the concept can work in India.

Our first port of call was obviously V Sumantran, not just because he’s working on the Indica Electric but also because he was closely associated with GM’s EV1. Commenting on Telco’s new baby, Sumantran cautions: "A company like Telco needs to play with R&D. Indica Electric is an R&D project, and few of these go past engineering feasibility."

According to Sumantran, one of the biggest issues EVs face is the cost of the battery — and its lifespan. He says this first hurdle needs to be overcome before one can even consider the commercial viability of electric cars. There have been a few breakthroughs in recent years, including the use of lead acid batteries in EVs. There’s also talk of Lithium-Ion batteries and Cadmium, but few of these are in mainstream use.

The nature of usage of the battery and its replacement every few years is another cost issue. Incidentally, an EV battery can cost up to 25-30 per cent of the actual cost of the car. Economically, the battery issue has been a difficult one to overcome, even internationally. Another factor that contributed to the demise of the EVs in the US is its limited range. A fully charged EV cannot go beyond 80-100 km without a recharge.

However, Chetan Maini, managing director of Reva, which is commercially launching its EV called ‘ElectriCity’ in India, feels this is not a limitation for Indian city dwellers. According to Maini’s claims, surveys show that city dwellers travel under 25 km on an average day. In addition, given Reva’s size, it’s an ideal vehicle for crowded city centres, whose stop-and-start traffic is easily tackled by the Reva. Maini is positioning Reva as an ideal second car for cities suffering from pollution problem.

The Reva has an interesting parentage. It’s an offspring of a joint venture between California-based Amerigon’s Electric Vehicle Technologies division and the Bangalore-based Rs 65 crore Maini Group. The total development cost has been in the range of $20 million, with an additional $5 million for production. Amerigon was actively working on EV technology when California had mandated that by 1998 at least 2 per cent of vehicles would have to be zero-emission vehicles or EVs.

However, California had to postpone that requirement to 2005 as it was not EV-ready in terms of infrastructure to cope with electric vehicles and their maintenance. Reva, like any other EV, comes with many positives — zero emissions, easy manoeuvrability and low maintenance. But Maini admits there are a few drawbacks that EVs may face in terms of infrastructure. While every EV manufacturer, including Reva and Mahindra, extol the virtues of an EV, they are unable to come up with answers when it comes to infrastructure problems.

For instance, where can you readily charge your electric car? Maini says one can charge the car at home or at work. It works like the cell phone, you just plug it in and in a couple of hours your Reva’s charged. Bingo! But how many homes can the Reva fit into? This has become a huge problem in cities like Mumbai where organised parking itself is a problem. Maini admits this: "In regular circumstances, plug points can be installed in flats. However, in Mumbai, where infrastructure is a problem, one can work around the system and install plug points at work."

He cites examples of environment-friendly companies like Mico and some other smaller software companies which have installed such plug points for employees. There has been no response from state governments on the issue of infrastructure. According to published reports, Maini had approached the Karnataka government to set up charging stations, but got no response. This brings one back to the US experience, where the number of charging stations was a paltry 8,000, even after years of experience with EVs.

Compare this with regular gas stations in the country, which number 200,000! Apart from ad hoc initiatives, no company has been able to address the issue of battery charging in an appropriate manner, even if one assumes that EVs can be charged from home. Mahindra, which has entered the electric vehicle market with its Bijlee, a substitute to three-wheeler public transportation, comes with similar problems.

To begin with, the cost of the 10-seater Bijlee is Rs 3 lakh compared to the Rs 1.8 lakh for a 6-seater vehicle, and the battery needs to be replaced every 12-18 months. The battery replacement would cost Rs 45,000 to Rs 60,000. Though Mahindra runs a couple of charging stations in Delhi and Pondicherry, Somi Saran, the company’s president for Eco Vehicles, feels that the stakeholders should get together to solve the infrastructure problems.

According to Saran, owners can come together and start a charging station, and so could others who look upon this as an employment opportunity. Given the low penetration of EVs, one wonders if it’s lucrative enough to have charging stations for electric vehicles alone. Here are the figures: in all, there are 300 Revas and about 90 Bijlees on Indian roads today.

Finally, if one were to do a well-to-wheel analysis, the full impact of zero emission vehicles is taken away. Says Sumantran: "If you do an entire analysis, most power plants across the world are coal-based. This means there will be pollution in a different place." Despite this, he maintains that the entire automobile industry is interested in electric vehicles, and hopes it becomes a feasible proposition.

Meanwhile, the Big Three automakers — namely, Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler — have not completely abandoned their quest to launch environment friendly vehicles. Currently, what they are betting big on are fuel-cell technology (which uses hydrogen) and hybrid vehicles. Hybrids combine a regular combustion engine with an electric battery and motor. However, this means mounting two technologies into one automobile, which raises the cost substantially. Some hybrids available today include Honda’s Insight and Toyota’s Prius.

Does this mean EVs are only concepts that may never find their way out of Hollywood or Bollywood flicks? Not necessarily. Sumantran feels that EVs are utilitarian, and are successful where short distances are involved. He cites the example of gated communities in the US — small, self-contained townships for senior citizens, where electric vehicles can successfully serve transportation needs. India may still be a long way off from having gated communities, but EVs could well come here for keeps!