Electric cars still waiting for a spark of innovation

Big batteries are weighing down electric vehicles and it’s unlikely
that subsidies can lighten that load to make them
a viable non-polluting alternative

By Sopan Joshi                  [ Published in TEHELKA magazine ]

IT’S BEEN more than a year since the National Council for Electric Mobility was set up. Its recommendations are expected any time now. There is considerable excitement on whether an income tax rebate will be suggested for owners of electric vehicles. The Centre sees it as a way to reduce dependence on imported petroleum products.

Electric vehicles get subsidies and government support across the world because they don’t pollute; in India, it is limited to a cash subsidy of 20 percent on the purchase of an electric vehicle. Even the Indian government is aware of the need to offer more incentives for electric vehicles, as they haven’t quite been a runaway success in our country. Which is surprising, given the acute cost-sensitivity of our automobile market.

The running cost of Reva, the only electric car in the Indian market right now, is about Rs 1 per km; even the most fuel-efficient petrol/diesel cars cost about Rs 5 per km. The annual service and maintenance cost of electric vehicles is one-fifth of petrol/diesel cars (Electric scooters, manufactured by Hero and YoBykes, are a little more successful.)

The feedback from Reva owners is quite good. It costs about the same as an entry-level small car: Rs 3.5 lakh. But it is cheap to run and maintain, small and swift through traffic, easy to park, air-conditioned, silent, and drives readily up to 60 kmph, the speed limit in our cities. Electric vehicles have to perforce be small and energy-efficient, because they are limited by battery power. But the limitation of range is serious, because Reva runs only about 80 km per electricity charge.

We like cheap, we buy cheap, yet we don’t buy electric vehicles. Why? Nobody has clear answers. It takes an oddball or a maverick to buy an electric car in India. There are those who claim that reducing the cost of the car with subsidies will make it popular. But if it made as much sense as is claimed, the market should have lapped it up without subsidies. Social issues (car as lifestyle?) and supply- line practicalities may be at play here, but they are not that easy to understand and explain.

The environmental claims, too, are complex. An electric vehicle may not pollute the ambient environment in the city, but in India, it will rely on coal-based electricity produced elsewhere. This may render our urban air a little safer, a little more breathable, but does not reduce carbon emissions. For that to happen, electric vehicles will have to be hooked up to sources of renewable energy, like wind or solar power. It will take a few years of research to determine whether or not a renewable energy supply system can be designed to work like the petroleum supply lines of the present.

We tend to forget that the internal combustion engine (ICE) took 125 years to get where it is today, and the market took a long time to accept it. In the 1970s, there was talk of the Wankel rotary engine replacing ICE, but the oil shock buried the Wankel; there just wasn’t enough research to give it a fair trial and make it more fuelefficient. The last popular car to use a Wankel engine, the Mazda RX8, was retired in 2010 for failing emissions standards.

Electric vehicle technology, too, will need to be time tested. The electric motor, it must be said, has developed quite fast, and is comparable to an ICE in energy efficiency. The real hurdle lies in storage of power. For the longest time, batteries had a short life. But recent advances have created batteries that last longer, even up to 300 km, which is comparable to what an average small car runs on a full tank.

But battery technology is stuck on weight. The lithium-ion batteries used right now are cumbersome and don’t store enough power. So much so that the battery is about one-third of an electric vehicle’s weight. The industry target is to reduce this to one-fourth or lesser. Electric vehicles await a scientific breakthrough in power storage technology: lighter, longer-lasting batteries. Even if renewable energy catches on, where will we store that clean power?

(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)

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Categories: Automobiles, Environment, Technology

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