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Beat the fuel hike, buy an electric car!

Vandana Gombar | July 05, 2008

I drive 30 kilometres every day to work, one way, using a fuel-guzzling hatchback, and the petrol price hurts. Actually, more than hurt, it bleeds, especially when I have to drive across traffic-jam-packed roads to appointments.

Yet, like most of my colleagues, people just like you and me, I've never-ever considered a battery-operated vehicle, the kind you charge with an extension cord connected to a power supply point in your home.

I mean, would I seriously consider a commuting vehicle that comes inbuilt with limitations of speed, or distance, or both? I'd need to be mentally challenged to chance being stranded in the middle of somewhere for want of an electric charge, or of a mechanic who can handle electric vehicles.

Yet, this week I did a volte-face, rode an electric scooter, spoke to electric vehicle makers, and though I'm not convinced - not yet, anyway - I'm no longer as resistant to the idea that, given how liquid fuel prices are rising, an electric vehicle might just be the add-on option for a family.

Any electric vehicle manufacturer will do the numbers to show you how it is "cheaper" to own and run a battery vehicle. Who, after all, can argue against a running cost of 4-5 paise per kilometre for two-wheelers and 40 paise per kilometer for a car, which is about a tenth of what I pay for my petrol car.

Drive these cars @ 40 paise per km!

The initial purchase cost for an electric car may be high, but savings on fuel will help it pay back for itself in just a couple of years, if not faster. And that's the message you're most likely to hear as those making these vehicles tap into an increasing consumer interest in their products and roll out pan-India distribution networks.

Such as the UK's Ultra Motor, which advertised for dealers for electric scooters in Jharkhand, Orissa, Bihar and Chattisgarh recently. To its surprise, the bulk of the calls it got were from prospective consumers wanting to buy the scooters. Besides the cost advantage, clearly there are people out there who're happy with the restriction of speeds.

Since some of these vehicles do not require a registration, or a licence, you could gift it to your teenager for going to tuitions without having to worry about him vrooming on the roads. Besides, how fast do you actually go in a crowed city anyway? Which is what makes it ideal for popping across to neighbourhood store, especially whenever your green conscience bites!

I rode the Optima from Hero Electric - which used to partner Ultra Motors before it started selling its own - and the first thing that struck me was the silence. The scooter is almost noiseless.


But because running a wire every night to charge it can be a bother, the company has plans to make charging stations ubiquitous. In a very short time, the battery vehicle manufacturers promise, you could have your scooter charged while you sip a cup of coffee at the mall, or at the office - but the challenge is to make the charging as painless as filling up your tank is.

Hero is working on a pilot project under which it will run a few kiosks in the NCR region as battery swap stations where you can replace discharged batteries with charged ones, promises Sohinder Gill, chief executive of Hero Electric.

So, are we poised at the beginning of a J curve as far as battery vehicles go. Is crude oil @ $140 per barrel the inflexion point? Is it the beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel economy as the latest issue of Economist suggests.

"The inflexion point will keep shifting until there is a viable option," argues Gill. Agrees Mahindra & Mahindra's chief technology officer, Arun Jaura, who is spearheading the company's search for technology for next generation vehicles that will be mass-market affordable and not rely on fossil fuels.

"There is no inflexion point. Even if oil is at $33 per barrel, if the industry offers an affordable, convenient option, the customer would go for that offering," he says.

The market for electric two-wheelers has already gained traction. Even without the supporting infrastructure of charging stations, about 1,10,000 of them were sold last year (less than 3 per cent of overall two-wheelers sales of 7.2 million) and this is expected to more than double to 2,40,000 units this year spread over the main players - Ultra, Hero, TVS [Get Quote] and Electrotherm.

This number is understated largely as it fails to include electric scooterettes that do not require registration. There is also no precise estimate of the Chinese electric bikes that have been arriving "by the container" into the country.

On the car front, Reva - the only electric option in the market today - is expanding capacity five-fold to 30,000 units. "One year ago, these cars were just on the periphery. It is all coming together now," says an elated Chetan Kumaar Maini, Reva's deputy chairman and chief technology officer.

The central government - through the ministry of new and renewable energy - is working on a plan to incentivise the whole electric vehicle chain: consumers, producers, battery-makers, charging stations, battery swapping points. State governments are also waking up to it.

The Delhi government has announced a 15 per cent subsidy on the base price of electric vehicles and a 12.5 per cent exemption of VAT in addition to refund of road tax and registration charges.

The big boys of the industry are readying for their slice of this market, as was obvious at their presence at a ministry meeting last month to "work out a conducive policy for large use of battery operated vehicles in the country".

 "The government has one of the biggest roles to play in the growth of battery vehicles," says Maini, citing the example of China, which has among the largest electric vehicle population in the world.

Across the world, the Israeli government is backing a plan to move large-scale to electric vehicles backed by a network of battery recharge stations and battery swapping stations, with electric cars being made by Renault-Nissan.

Denmark is looking at moving to what is being called the electric grid. Stuttgart in Germany has decided to partner with Ultra Motor to promote battery vehicles. Battery technology is advancing with lightweight, quick-charge lithium-ion batteries (the kind used in your phone) replacing the lead-acid ones which most manufacturers in India use, as they are cheaper.

"There should be a national mission for electric vehicles and hybrids," says Dilip Chenoy, the director general of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers. With increasing indigenisation of electric vehicles, a national mission would ensure targets, volumes and hence cost reductions.

Me? I'm wondering if the office will give me an interest-free loan because my electric vehicle will leave the planet a notch cooler!

Manufacturer speak on user concerns

In case of a breakdown of an electric vehicle, there is hardly any servicing/support infrastructure
Breakdowns are very rare in an electric motor. How often do you require to service your fan?

An unforeseen long traffic jam could cause the battery to go dead
The charged battery will work for a specified number of kilometres, irrespective of the time taken (unless you are running the airconditioning)

The real cost of these vehicles is very high
Even including battery replacement costs, these vehicles cost a fraction of what a petrol/diesel vehicle would cost

Charging the battery is a challenge, especially for those living in highrise apartments
Drawing a wire to the electric vehicle is possible from the electric meter, which is generally located on the ground floor. Futuristic real estate developers are installing charging apparatus for residents and there are plans to make battery charging/ swapping easier.

Waterlogged Indian roads could lead to electrocution, stalling...
These vehicles have been tested in water too. They work and do not electrocute. In fact, they are less likely to break down in water than a conventional vehicle.

Some states do not register these vehicles
It is a problem we are trying to resolve. Some of these vehicles also do not require registration or number plates, like Hero Electric's Optima. The user too does not require a licence. Ideal for young students!

Is it the rising cost of petrol and diesel which is pushing users towards electric vehicles?
It is a combination of the high price of liquid fuel, the lower cost of electric vehicles (partly helped by incentives by some state governments) and environment consciousness.

Readying for an electric future

Tata Motors [Get Quote]

Is working on hybrids as well as electric vehicle versions on the Indica and Ace platforms. "The company is developing alternate technology like hybrids, and electric and biofuel vehicles, and is testing electric options for a Ace mini-truck," says a spokesperson.

Bajaj Auto [Get Quote]

It has done "preliminary" work on electric three-wheelers - dubbed Ecoricks - but says it has no ongoing two-wheeler projects.

M&M

Hybrid versions of the Bolero and Scorpio are on the cards to add to the Mahindra Bijlee. An electric three-wheeler "Alfa" was showcased at the last auto expo. The company is also looking for new technologies and options.



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