Maharaja Ranjit Singh is said to have remarked ‘Sab lal ho jayega’, meaning that the British red will cover the entire map of India. He was right – it did.
Now union minister Nitin Gadkari says ‘Sab green ho jayega’ (or words to that effect), meaning that all vehicles will become electric.
Yes, electric vehicles (EVs) are indeed around the corner, but it is a difficult corner to get around.
Let us accept the underlying logic for going electric – fossil fuels are imported and expensive, electricity is Indian and cheap, and fuel-burn pollution is a menace.
But when did we Indians accept logic when it clashed against our wallets?
So, let us look at it from a car-owner’s perspective.
A petrol car costs Rs10 per km to run (about – 10km per liter (kmpl) and Rs100 per liter).
An electric car runs 7kms on 1 kilowatt hour (kWh) of charge, say 5kms with air-conditioning (a/c), and power costs not more than Rs10 per kWh, so Rs2 per kms.
So, if you run your car 1,000kms per month, you will save Rs8,000 a month, or nearly Rs1 lakh a year.
Ah, there’s a catch – there always is!!
You have to pay Rs2-3 lakhs more for an electric car compared to a similar petrol car.
It is as if you are being asked to buy a car, plus petrol for one year, all paid up-front.
People are reluctant to do this.
There is also the question of range, which arises out of a delicate balancing issue.
To run as far on a single charge as a petrol car or bike runs on one tank of petrol, an electric car or bike needs a big battery, which means more cost and more weight.
If you keep the range below 100kms on a single charge, the battery will cost less but you will have to charge up more often, perhaps even daily. What does the common man prefer?
If you are driving 1,000kms a month, it works out to 40kms a day (25 days a month). Hence a 100kms range will take care of two days running.
A battery will last over 1,000 cycles of charging and discharging, so that means over five years of usage.
If you save Rs1 lakh a year on petrol, it makes sense to pay Rs2-3 lakhs more up-front.
Mind you, at the end of the 5 years, you will have to replace the battery.
But we Indians are obsessed about one thing or another.
Today the most common question to a car-owner is “kitna deti hai?”, i.e., fuel consumption.
Tomorrow it might become “kitna chalti hai?”, i.e., range.
Perhaps people hate the idea of having to recharge the car’s battery every two days, as against going to a petrol pump once in ten days.
Or perhaps they have fond dreams of doing a long trip in the car, which is next to impossible in an electric car with a range of 100kms.
The next question is “how do I re-charge?”
Very few people live in a house with a garage having a convenient charging point. Large building complexes have not figured out how to provide charging points in the basement parking lot, and how to bill its users for the electricity.
Most people park their vehicles wherever they can, where there are no charging points.
Yes, charging points are being set up in petrol pumps and by the roadsides.
But progress is slow and there simply won’t be enough charging points for all the EVs.
Note – less problematic for electric two-wheelers. The battery can be designed for easy removal, and light-weight (within 8kg, the weight of a carry-on bag on a plane), so that you can remove it, take it home, and charge it overnight.
There are two solutions to the battery problem - financial and technological.
First the financial:
- Sell EVs without batteries – lease out the batteries on a “fee per charge” basis.
- Install big batteries which provide ranges of 300kms or more.
- Swap a discharged battery for a fully charged one at a petrol pump, at a cost which comprises of the electricity cost plus the lease, or rental, fee.
This will bring down the cost of an EV to that of an equivalent petrol vehicle, give it a decent range, and spread the battery cost over years instead of an up-front payment.
Also, bulk charging, of many batteries at a time, can be done much more easily at a petrol pump.
The other solution is technological – a battery that does not need charging at all.
One example is an aluminum-air battery which produces electricity by the chemical degradation of aluminum plates, which can be removed after usage and re-cycled.
Many different technologies are being pursued right now, and maybe some magic solution will evolve.
There is also an over-riding issue.
Where will all this electricity come from?
Solar power is not an immediate answer, because vehicles run during the day, when they cannot be easily charged, and need to be charged at night when there is no solar power. Yes, huge amounts of solar power can be generated during the day, to be stored and used for charging EVs at night.
But there you are – batteries rear their ugly heads!!
Running EVs on electricity generated by burning coal is not really eliminating pollution. It is simple transferring the pollution elsewhere.
Ah well……!! Many snags and projections loom in the proverbial corner around which the EVs have to steer.
But there is one bit which the planners seem to have overlooked – the ‘step’ between ‘hop’ and ‘jump’ (ala hop-step-jump) in moving from fossil fuel vehicles to EVs.
I mean the hybrid, a vehicle with a small-ish engine and a very small battery.
I have driven a mid-sized Toyota hybrid car, with a 1.6-liter petrol engine (small by international standards), 3,300kms all over Scandinavia in 15 days, covering highways, hill roads, and minor roads.
I got a mileage of 24kms per liter, probably twice as much as a similar petrol-only car.
In terms of performance and comfort, there was no difference from a regular car, and no charging was required. It ran just like a normal petrol car with an automatic gearbox.
Why doesn’t the government promote the introduction of hybrid cars to bridge over the time it will take to improve battery technology and reduce costs, and to set up charging infrastructure?
Over two crore old vehicles are facing the scrapyard today. How about replacing them with hybrids instead of EVs (currently infeasible on a large scale) or more petrol and diesel vehicles?
This will cut fuel consumption by a massive amount, and thus reduce pollution as well.
Alas, babus do not read, at least they don’t read my articles!
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world (until Covid, that is), playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)