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How India should solve the key issues with electric cars for the next auto revolution

Indian automobile sector got a surprise when the minister for Energy Mr Piyush Goyal announced a plan to get all vehicles on Indian roads, to be electric powered, by 2030. Indeed an ambitious goal (which was later toned down by the government), and given the significant oil share in Indian imports, it is a step towards the greater good.

Realistically, the electric vehicle is not a new concept here in India. I have seen “REVA”, small electric car, on the streets of Bengaluru, during my post graduation years around 2006. Eventually, electric two-wheeler from various manufacturers became a common sight in metros.

So having said that let’s look at the prevalent issues with electric cars and the way we can tackle them.

Issues

Electric vehicles, in general, have these main issues:

  • The range is a limiting factor for any vehicle. For petroleum powered vehicles, India has a well-penetrated network of fuel stations. Electric cars are so far limited to the city only.
  • Lack of charging infrastructure — Unlike petroleum vehicles, Electric vehicles do not enjoy the support of charging station networks, eventually limiting the operating range of the vehicle.
  • Different specifications and requirements — Due to various prevailing standards (in case of two and three wheeler vehicles) existing, it further complicates the availability of a charging station.
  • Time for charging — Electric vehicles operate on battery. Recharging time for batteries had definitely improved over last few years, still, it is many-fold compared to refuelling in petrol stations, which can be maximum 10–15 minutes, including waiting time.
  • Availability of vehicles — Not many models of completely electric vehicles are available. Hybrid models are often in mid-premium to the premium segment. Price is also a limiting factor regarding vehicular adaption, given the limited range. According to Bloomberg article, India will need more than 5 times the global Electric Vehicular production, to achieve the 2030 target, estimated at 10 million.
    The battery has a limited life. It cannot be considered like Gas Cylinders to be used at 100% efficiency every time. Efficiency reduces over the charging cycles.

Core Problem

The core problem here is fragmentation. Every manufacturer has own standards for batteries and other engineering components. In the six popular two-wheeler models, hardly any model shares specifications with the other. Also, companies are so far interested in selling the vehicles, rather than building charging network for it.

New name on-board Ather Energy, got the problem right and is focusing on building a charging network collaborating with cafes and restaurants. But it is the in a very early stage, and the first vehicle is yet to be commercially roll-out in the market.

NTPC also announced Electric Chargers in Delhi NCR, with a plan to roll out throughout India, which might also be considered a welcome step.

Despite all these efforts, recently a pilot project of electric cabs by Ola and Mahindra is on the verge of failure, as drivers returning the vehicles, because of their extremely limited range (100km) and long charging hours.

Solution and Way Ahead

Given the fact that, the time needed for battery charging makes electric vehicle unsuitable for a quick refuel-and-move type of application. The only viable option could be replaceable batteries and charging booths, where batteries can be replaced. To achieve this, common battery standards are necessary, as one booth cannot really handle multiple battery types.

Charging booths could be accommodated in existing fuel stations, also on the lines of STD booths like we saw in early 2000. There could be prepaid card/card swiping machines, for battery replacement. As a promotion, it could be subsidised as well. Mr Maini who formerly developed REVA electric cars is working with Ashok Leyland for Replaceable batteries system and hope we can see them in use soon.

Battery Charging Booths can be operating on renewal energy options, as most of India is blessed with sufficient sunshine & wind. Solar panel sets to charge Battery, will further boost Renewable Energy push as well as #MakeInIndia, thereby reducing the load on the Indian electricity grid.

We can also explore building EV-Friendly highways, like electrified rail-tracks, with guaranteed availability of charging station every minimum threshold (one per 2–5 km), with toll-waiver for electric vehicles, and if necessary pickup-vehicles to arrange for battery in case a car runs out of battery in between.

Smart Charging Map, to mark nearest battery replacement booth, and charging status of batteries available there, in real-time, could further help accelerating adoption of Electric vehicles.

Batteries have limited life and there is a need for R&D, to create more charging cycle battery while ensuring its safe disposal, without polluting the environment, and simultaneously keeping cost in check.

The Support for Electro+Fuel hybrid cars can be crucial. In India we have two types of hybrid cars, one is regenerative hybrids, which uses regenerative braking to charge the battery, and those aren’t the subject of discussion here (Ciaz hybrid etc).

Another type is the Electro + Fuel hybrid cars (e.g. Toyota Prius) which operate on battery and in case it runs out of charge, it can be operated on a traditional fuel engine. One of the drawbacks of these cars is cost. The other main drawback is that government policies do not cover hybrid cars in the electric vehicle benefit.

Having said that, I believe, these could be a good alternative until we have a reliable charging infrastructure.

Priorities for the getting traction of electric vehicles could be as follows

  1. Like I suggested above, we need a common Replaceable Battery Standard for electric vehicles to be sold in India.
  2. EV Charging infrastructure as unified as petrol stations. A network of Battery charging stations and a map application to navigate and know the status of battery charging.
  3. Solar powered charging booths can help reducing stress on the Electricity Grid. This also can boost solar panel manufacturing making panels affordable for other installations as well.
  4. Smart Map for charging stations to know the distance, and current status of Battery charging.
  5. Cost of Electric Vehicles is still considerably high. Mahindra E2O, one of the (rarely) available completely electric vehicle, costs more than 5 Lakh Rs. which is unjustifiable given the size and range of the car.
  6. More focus on R&D based on standardized infrastructure to avoid further fragmentation in the Electric vehicle market could help realize the planning for 2030.
  7. Safe battery disposal mechanism, at the end of usable battery life, to keep pollution in control.

(This article has been written with inputs from @attomeybharti.)

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