Is it time to go electric?
Petrol prices are spiralling and so are that of diesel albeit to a lot lesser extent. Even then, roads are getting more congested at least in the big cities, the air is more polluted and owning a car, most of all a petrol car, is not only becoming a burden but also a loss making proposition. Is that reason enough for India to look at alternate means of propelling a motor more seriously? Is it a valid argument to make that buying an electric car today would be like becoming a first mover by a good 4-5 years? Perhaps and lets look how.
Prices of petrol have risen exponentially in the last 2 years by almost 53% with a revision happening at an average of once every 2 months. Diesel prices have gone up a tad slower, by 25% during the same period and while that is good, it is still more than the average inflation rate or the average hike in salary of a car user in the country. If the current state of affairs is anything to go by, there is little to suggest prices would not go up further, much less go down to a more humane level.
While CNG/LPG and gasoline/diesel hybrids do offer a solution to beat the catastrophic impact of spiralling fuel prices on our monthly household budget, these are at best stop gap solutions. Invariably, petrol and diesel are fossil fuels and reserves would run out eventually. While that eventuality is still 50 years away, in the run up to it each visit to a gas station promises to be no less than a nightmare.
The Electric angle
So how does an electric vehicle stand vis-a-vis a petrol/diesel/CNG/LPG counterpart? In the West, there are quite a few electric vehicles that are making their way onto the roads now. From a Renault Fluence to a Nissan Leaf to the Chevy Volt, the number of cars donning an electric blue is increasing.
While demand for them abroad is largely due to environmental concerns and the need to be on the right side of the debate, in India however, consumers are more bothered about saving money than polluting the environment. For electric vehicles to make sense here, it has to make economic sense.
On an average a Renault Fluence ZE–the electric version of the French car maker’s sedan–that was launched in major European markets last month, costs around 20,000 euro (Rs 13 lakh), after a 5000 euro subsidy from governments. The car is therefore priced competitively to that of a diesel powered Fluence. The Nissan Leaf which is a smaller car, roughly as big as the Hyundai i30, also retails for around the same price.
In India, sadly, there are no incentives on offer and for the time being there does not seem to be any chance of it. All that the government has done to encourage electric vehicles is that it has nullified import duties, so if a manufacturer wants to export an electric car to India there will be no penalty. That is hardly an encouragement.
As such, if the Fluence ZE or Nissan Leaf have to come to India, they would be priced in the vicinity of Rs 17 lakh. That seems like a reasonable proposition considering that the cost of running the car, at around Rs 0.5 per kilometer is almost a tenth of a petrol car’s over Rs 4 per kilometer. There are some serious riders though.
Most electric cars are powered by lithium ion batteries and while work is constantly on in various laboratories around the world another round of revolution in this space is unlikely in the near term. Electric cars have on an average a range of 180 kilometers on a full charge. If we take into account that roughly an Indian office goer in Delhi or Mumbai commutes for around 60 kilometers a day and that only 3 out of 10 of us actually go out on weekend trips on a regular basis (even fewer commute in our own cars), the issue of range is somewhat sorted.
This kind of range makes an electric car almost perfect for city driving. The cars are absolutely silent (at times eerily so), are only offered on automatic transmission that means they are hassle free to drive and the linear power distribution is such that there is negligible turbo lag. Err….there is no turbo in the first place.
Rider 1 : Cost of battery
The biggest catch that tilts the balance away from the cars. Over and above the initial cost of the car, the battery is leased to the consumer and there is a monthly charge that one has to pay for it. This cost ranges between 70 Euro to 100 Euro (Rs 4500-6500). Depending on the usage of the car, the battery may be replaced by the company at the end of 3 years and can even be swapped for another set for no additional cost.
This is however one constant price that a consumer would have to pay every month for a lifetime. In a way that replaces the fuel bill though there could be a consolation that unlike fuel cost, this price is likely to go down as the companies reap the benefits of economies or scale. Or if there is a major breakthrough in battery technology in future.
Rider 2 : Infrastructure
Another big issue in India that ensured Reva, world’s first electric car, proved to be a dampener here. While the batteries could be charged from a normal household socket, for a country to be reasonably driven on electric, there has to be a certain number of electric charging stations in a city. These stations have dedicated charging ports where a car may opt for fast charge for a nominal fee.
A fast charge recharges a battery to the extent of 80% of its capacity in 20 minutes. For a battery to be charged to its full capacity, it takes around 6-8 hours.
Setting up these charging stations is an expensive business. To set up one such station, it costs over Rs 5 crore and to a city as big as Delhi needs at least 500 of them. There is a choice to not set them up t all, but then it would mean the cars would become a handicap in an emergency situation.
Does it still make sense?
There is absolutely no doubt that electric vehicles are the future. World over governments are getting stricter on enforcing emission norms which are themselves becoming more stringent. While there is a section that believes an electric vehicle replaces one vice with another, what with electricity generation itself a polluting industry, it is still less harmful than conventional automotive smoke.
Like all new technologies, electric vehicles would remain expensive for sometime. Another big hassle is the lack of infrastructure.
It may not make sense for India right now, but the day is not far off when it would. Perhaps working out a strategy to build infrastructure and a plan for initial subsidy may not be too bad an idea.