6 million electric vehicles on Indian roads – the path to tomorrowland

Pubali Neogy
Indian government’s latest obsession with electric vehicles sounds noble on the outside, but the path to achieving the target is a difficult one to be sure
Indian government’s latest obsession with electric vehicles sounds noble on the outside, but the path to achieving the target is a difficult one to be sure

It is said that Norway, with a population of just about 5.2 million, has well over 130, 000 electric vehicles (EV) plying on its streets. Those also have the lowest ecological footprint in the world as they are run on hydropower.

Other nations with considerable uptake of EVs include the Netherlands, the UK, the US, France, Germany and Japan. And our neighbour China, whose cities are battling as severe a case of vehicular pollution as we are, tops EV sales in the world in terms of volume.

Dogged with spiking carbon emissions that is rapidly deteriorating the quality of air in its cities, India now wishes to join their league. Our government has grand plans to supplant all petrol- and diesel-fuelled cars choking the nation’s streets and air with greener EVs by 2030. If it succeeds in implementing that vision, there will be around 6 million electric cars on Indian streets by 2020.

But with 240 million people in the nation still living without electricity and with thermal power still accounting for well over half the electricity generated, that might sound over ambitious.

However, from the looks of it, the government is hell bent. Transport minister Nitin Gadkari has just sent out a strict warning to Indian auto firms to switch to electric vehicles powered by less polluting fuels (ethanol and biofuels) or risk being hit hard by a policy change.

A push to adopt electric vehicles, driven by any of such sources of power, besides achieving the primary objective of bringing down pollution drastically, is also expected to have a positive impact on the manufacturing sector. This is because India’s automobile industry, which is the sixth largest in the world and accounts for 22 percent of the country’s total manufacturing output, is seeing explosive growth.

Sensing an opportunity in this and also out of fear of a sudden policy change, several automotive companies have started to diversify into EVs.

Mahindra and Mahindra, which already sells electric cars, now plans to set up a new facility to make batteries for e-vehicles. Maruti Suzuki also plans to manufacture electric vehicles at its plant in Gujarat and its parent company Suzuki Motor is in the process of setting up a lithium ion battery plant in Gujarat. Tata Motors is envisaging entering the fray with electric versions of its popular four-wheelers, including Nano, while Ashok Leyland, which unveiled an electric bus last year, is collaborating with Indian startup SUN Mobility to develop battery-swapping technology for cars, buses and trucks. Apart from that, international players too are eying the nascent market in India.

The road to a zero-emission all-electric transportation system, however, seems peppered with potholes. Steep cost of battery (they constitute almost three-fourth of the overall vehicle price), for example, has served to make e-vehicles much more expensive than fossil fuel ones. This has resulted in their anemic sales.

But many feel the problem is temporary for prices are already showing a downward trend. At this rate, there is every chance e-vehicles will become cost competitive with petrol-run vehicles by 2021. In the foreseeable future, ramping up manufacturing of EV components, especially batteries, on home soil will likely help sustain the downward trend. This would also help cut down expenditure incurred on large scale imports.

Yet another major challenge – perhaps the most crucial – facing EVs in India is the lack of an ecosystem supporting it. Both automakers and the authorities need to act fast in this respect by building battery charging stations at regular intervals to underpin e-vehicles. At present, India has close to 500 charging points which is a far cry from the real number needed. It is said that a city like Delhi alone will need 350,000 points to get an entire fleet of EVs up and running smoothly.

And even a proper charging infrastructure maybe cold comfort for buyers, for EVs require five to eight hours charging regularly. With fast charging too, they will require over an hour at least. Compare this with just a few minutes taken to refuel at a petrol pump.

Norway, which spearheads the shift towards EVs, has managed to steal a march over most other nations on the back of its superior charging infrastructure — one of the best in the world. Last year, it launched the world’s biggest, fast-charging station that has the capacity to charge around 28 vehicles in just half an hour. Highly populated India with one of the fastest growing automotive markets in the world, needs a dime a dozen of such super sophisticated charging stations even if it has to have a million of EVs on its streets.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned challenges, policymakers are upbeat about the mammoth project. As per Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITI Aayog – a government of India policy think tank, making the shift to electric vehicles in India will not be a very difficult task. His contention is that low per capita ownership of cars in India will make it relatively easier to transition to EVs as compared with other countries where the entire fleet of commercial vehicles will have to be replaced.

The centre’s latest obsession now needs to be backed with feasible policies, entailing tax sops and subsidies, so as to encourage carmakers and consumers alike. Karnataka, already has set a precedent in this direction by framing an Electric Vehicle and Energy Storage Policy that is not just targeting upping sales of EVs, but also creating a charging infrastructure and special manufacturing zones. It hopes to pull in investments of about Rs.31, 000 crore from companies looking at research and development and manufacture of EVs in the state.

Now other states, and more importantly the centre needs to follow suit. Else a sudden policy change could jeopardise the entire transport system in the nation and bring everything else to a standstill much in the same way demonetisation did a while back.