A few manufacturers are thinking of dabbling in electric- and solar-powered cars. But they have miles to go to pick up the knowhow. A dropping rupee, rising crude prices and high inflation will jack up fuel prices even more
The loudest complaints I got this morning about the latest petrol price increase is from friends in the retail fuel business. Since I have already written about this business of fuel price increases in the past, there is no real fresh input—except for what one of my friends said—do a one-time increase to, say, Rs200 a litre and hold that price for as long as feasible so that all of us can plan ahead. If it kills the petrol automobile industry, then so be it, and hopefully something better will emerge from the ashes.
A bit drastic, but his point is that diesel sales are also coming down in and around Delhi/NCR, because despite the subsidy, it is not all that affordable either. And the impact of higher petrol prices is certainly visible—fewer two-wheelers on the road and packed Metro trains throughout the day. Let us not even talk about the level of atmospheric pollution in Delhi/NCR lately—often, the only place you can get clean filtered air is inside your car. Which still needs an air-conditioner, despite it being early November.
In the midst of this comes some interesting news—the battery powered ‘Eeko’ from Maruti Suzuki, first shown during the Commonwealth Games last year, is close to ready for commercial launch. Powered by lithium-ion batteries, it is said to have a range of between 100 and 140 kilometres depending on air-conditioner on or not—and could be even more if the operator chooses to fix a small mobile generator set inside the van.
In addition, it will be up to the owner/operator to install suitable photovoltaic solar-panels on the roof for ‘trickle’ charging, while parked during the day, from ambient lights. Maruti Suzuki, of course, is not making any official announcements on this product—but it is understood that the ‘Eeko Charge’ as it has been nicknamed, has frozen specifications and intensive trials have already been conducted. Now if only they could figure out what to do with the investments made in engine plants and petrol-operated cars, maybe they would pull their finger out, and soon.
Likewise, some progress is also being reported from the Tata Motors stable on their battery powered TATA ACE as well as the Indica. M&M has indicated that the 4-door 4-seater Mahindra Reva NXR should be available by January 2012. And General Motors, now that things have stabilised, is taking forward the Chevrolet Spark (sold in India as the Beat) electric vehicle project is currently on "demonstration trials".
Maybe they are all waiting for petrol prices to rise further, before launching these products for the market, in which case they may not have to wait too long. A dropping rupee, rising crude prices and high inflation should do that trick. Alternately, they are waiting for government subsidies and other benefits for this sort of vehicle.
But if you ask deeper questions of the “don’t quote us” sort, then the truth emerges—what happens to our investments in engine manufacturing investments and research & development costs therein, how do we recover them if everybody starts going for alternative and cleaner options? What happens to our suppliers, for example, those who will be out of work if this happens?
Every which way, they better move fast, because one garage owner I know has been picking up old Premier Padminis at scrap value and is currently conducting tests on his electric motor plus gen-set with batteries, to manufacture (or cobble together) a kind of home-made jugaad car already. And from the newspaper delivery person to the food home delivery service, one spots more and more electric battery two- and three-wheelers on Delhi’s roads lately, which also I have reported in the past.
Are the “modern” cars and bikes being sold in India lately about to become as Jurassic as the Ambassadors and Premiers of yesterday, to be replaced by battery operated jugaads, which can only get better every day?
This just might be the case. The Rs200/litre rate is not far away. One educated guess places it at well before 2015—so if you buy a car today, then that’s what the fuel is going to cost when you are about half-way through its useful life.