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Is India ready for a world where electric vehicles will dominate transportation?

Menaka Guruswamy writes: It must prepare itself with better charging infrastructure, battery-making factories and smart incentives for car companies and consumers to go electric.

Written by Menaka Guruswamy |
Updated: October 31, 2021 7:50:01 am
In India, we have had sputtering starts to our investment in EVs. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

On January 29, 1886, Carl Benz, a German engineer applied for and was granted patent number 37435 for his “vehicle powered by a gas engine”. In a few months, the commercial production of the Benz motor car started. This is by most accounts the beginning of commercially-produced vehicles using gas engines.

Interestingly, in 1880, a few years prior to Benz’s patent, William Morrison, a chemist from Iowa, United States, helped bring to life, a six-seater electric vehicle. By 1900, electric cars accounted for over one-third of the vehicles sold in the US. The forward march of electric cars was stopped by the mass production of the very reasonably priced Ford automobile, owned by John Ford. A reasonably priced car along with the cheap prices of gasoline in the early 1900s meant that the world as we now live in came to be, with fossil fuel-dependent vehicles — cars and bikes — thronging our streets. The petrol and diesel fumes of our cities and in our blood can trace their origins to these key moments in the early 1900s.

Industrialisation has closely followed our ability to move quickly between vast distances. With the dependence of humanity on fossil fuels, a new international power order also emerged — countries that exported oil. The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) comprises Algeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, the Republic of the Congo, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela. The dominant power or de facto leader of OPEC is Saudi Arabia, ruled by the House of Saud. In each of these countries. ruling oligarchies were enriched by the oil wealth that flowed in, while their people may not have quite benefitted.

As the human species settled into fossil-fuel-based transportation, a late awareness emerged of how this nature of combustion engine contributes to polluting our planet. India has the dubious distinction of having nine of the 10 most polluted cities in the world. These nine cities, all in north India, include Greater Noida, Noida, Lucknow, and Delhi. While many factors contribute to the polluted air, skies and human lungs of northern India, vehicular pollution bears substantial responsibility. So, it is unsurprising that the Indian State is slowly but steadily encouraging electric vehicles. And with this, we may be coming a full circle in terms of our ability to commute. While in the 1900s, the electric vehicle (EV) lost out to fuel-based ones, that may not be the case anymore.

What is an EV? An EV operates on an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine and has a battery instead of a fuel tank. In general, EVs have low running costs as they have fewer moving parts and are also environmentally friendly. In India, the fuel cost for an EV is approximately 80 paisa per kilometre. Contrast this with the cost of petrol which is today Rs 107 per litre in Delhi, or Rs 7-8 per kilometre to operate a petrol-based vehicle. Perhaps the consistent increase in fuel prices in the real state plan to encourage all of us Indians to switch to electric vehicles!

In India, we have had sputtering starts to our investment in EVs. In 2013, the Government of India formulated the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan that committed to ensuring that by 2030, at least 30 per cent of vehicles on our streets would be electric. This deadline is unlikely to be met. The more recent Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles (FAME) scheme in 2019, commits to providing incentives in terms of subsidies and supporting technology to encourage the manufacturing and purchase of electric vehicles. With a budget of around $1.5 billion, FAME provides a mixture of road and registration tax subsidies for EV purchasers.

The private sector has appreciated the inevitability of the dominance of the EV. Companies like Amazon, Swiggy, Zomato and Ikea are deploying EVs for deliveries. Car manufacturers like Mahindra are partnering with consumers like Ola, while Tata Motors is partnering with Blu Smart Mobility in moves that will ensure more EV delivery and ride-hailing services. The EV market in India is projected to reach $700 million in 2025, a dramatic jump from $71 million in 2017 — a 10-fold increase in under a decade.

However, the real challenge for the consumer is the lack of charging infrastructure in India. EVs are typically powered by lithium-based batteries. These batteries need to be charged usually every 200-250 kilometres or so for a car. So, you need a dense proliferation of charging points. It takes up to 12 hours for a full charge of a vehicle at the owner’s home using a private light-duty slow charger. To compound this technological problem of slow charging at home, there are only 427 charging stations around the country. This is woefully inadequate in a country as large and densely populated as ours.

To survive in the new world of EVs, grand old American car companies like General Motors and Ford are busy establishing factories that will make EV batteries. The largest suppliers of lithium-based EV batteries are reported to be the Chinese company — Contemporary Amperex Technology and the South Korean company LG. If this is so, then a new global order is emerging to replace OPEC. One in which those who make and charge EVs will dominate the transportation world. India must plan for its place in this order — with better-charging infrastructure, battery-making factories and smart incentives for car companies and consumers to go electric. Most importantly, we must have an uninterrupted electricity supply. For, the next revolution in transportation is electric and it’s already underway.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 30, 2021 under the title ‘Driving a new world order’. The writer is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India.

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