Economy

Amid scant charging infrastructure, what owning an electric car in India is like

Nandana James Mumbai | Updated on March 09, 2021

Kerala’s Motor Vehicle Departments (MVD) newly introduced electric vehicle s being charged at KSEBs charging station   -  The Hindu

The Hyundai Kona Electric is seen at the 41st Bangkok International Motor Show in Bangkok, Thailand July 14, 2020.   -  REUTERS

MG’s e-vehicle ZS EV

EVs may not offer the range that manufacturers promise, charging facilities may be sparse, but owners have no regrets... drive quality is great, the vehicles are non-polluting and there is no going back to fossil fuels, they say

 

In November 2020, when Regan Daniel decided to replace his one-year-old Honda City with an electric car - the Nexon EV - keeping in mind the cost savings as well as environmental benefits, his decision raised more than a few eyebrows. “My parents never thought an electric car could make it to Kanyakumari, my hometown, roughly 665 kilometers from Bengaluru, where I was living,” the 29-year-old says. So, in December, he decided to undertake this trip in his Nexon EV to prove to his parents that it was indeed possible. However, since the usual route was not equipped with charging stations, he had to take a roundabout route - as well as spend eight hours slow-charging his car at Coimbatore in the absence of fast-charging alternatives - and stretching the trip to about 860 km. Each and every pitstop to charge also had to be painstakingly planned and chalked out beforehand. This points at the most common issue flagged by electric car owners in India: the lack of sufficient charging infrastructure.

This also ends up being a deterrent to make the shift to electric cars as most people wouldn’t want to pay a premium for an electric car, only to be saddled with range anxiety. Like Daniel, there are many electric car owners BusinessLine spoke to who have undertaken inter-state or long-distance travels or plan to do so soon. But there are also others, who, despite being hardcore EV enthusiasts otherwise, admit that electric cars in India are not suitable for long distance travels yet.

Also read: Global sales of EVs increased by 39% YoY in 2020: Report

Analysts and experts tracking the automobile sector also say that the electric car adoption remains at a nascent stage in India - accounting for less than one per cent of India’s overall car sales - mainly due to the lack of adequate charging infrastructure as well as the high vehicle price vis-à-vis its internal combustion engine counterpart. But most users resort to home charging alone for their electric cars as the maximum daily commute requirement comes up to around 150 kilometers; and the range offered by electric cars, they argue, is sufficient for the average daily usage.

Charging stations coming up

Besides, people who have owned electric cars for more than a year also point out how charging stations have been coming up rapidly over the past few years. Tata Power, for instance, has 400 charging stations across 45 cities now. It plans to expand to one lakh charging stations by 2025, covering more than 100 cities. Coimbatore now has two fast charging stations, says Daniel, which means that he can save around eight hours when he next undertakes a Bengaluru-Kanyakumari trip.

"According to electric vehicle makers’ industry body, Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles (SMEV), there are around 16,200 electric cars in India so far - including the fleet segment - while there are 1,800 charging stations."

Tata Motors’ Nexon EV priced at ₹13.99 lakh, Hyundai Kona (₹23.75 lakh) and MG ZS EV (₹20.99 lakh) are the popular choices of electric cars in the personal segment in India currently.

Environment concern

Electric car owners stress how their decision to buy an electric car was, after all, also about the environment; it was never just about a new car. Daniel says he can now drive ‘guilt free’.

Gurgaon-based Asheesh Arora, 43, a Nexon EV owner, was inspired to shift to EVs after he spent half a year at Vancouver and experienced the impact of the cleaner air there on his health — as someone who grapples with constant coughs and health issues — the impact was conspicuous. “I realised that the air we breathe is not what we should be breathing and what we should be leaving for the next generation.” Despite the issues around range and product features he has faced with the Nexon EV, he has no regrets.

Actual vs promised range

The discrepancy between the range promised by the companies and the actual range is another common issue that is flagged. According to every electric car owner BusinessLine spoke to, regardless of the brand - be it Nexon EV, Hyundai Kona, MG ZS EV - their cars provided a lower range than what was advertised, though they admit that this is not an issue exclusive to electric cars.

Even people who have undertaken inter-state travel spanning hundreds of kilometers admit to not getting the range claimed by the company.

Also read: Truth, lies and ‘certified’ statistics

Like Daniel, Ashish Thakwani, 35, had also undertaken a meticulously planned trip with his partner in their Nexon EV from Mumbai to Delhi and back, as well as a trip from Delhi to Kasol. “We were promised a range of 312 kilometres, we expected it to be 270 kilometres, and we are getting around 240 kilometres. It’s just a little disheartening, but I am sure they are still working on a few updates,” says Thakwani. In fact, he took the car to the service centre regarding the range issue, and the range got better after a few updates by the company, he says.

Suspended incentive

The issue of electric cars not living up to the claims of companies was brought to the forefront last week when the Delhi Government suspended the subsidy to Tata Motors’ Nexon EV after it received a complaint from a customer who claimed to have never gotten more than 200 kilometres per charge on his Nexon EV despite Tata Motors claiming 312 kilometres on a full battery. However, this is a knee-jerk reaction that would come in the way of EV adoption, say electric vehicle owners; what should have been done was to make sure companies don’t resort to misleading marketing gimmicks that claim a higher range, they say.

Nashik-based 38-year-old Gautam*, who did not wish to reveal his real name, for instance, is a Nexon EV owner who got a range of only 200 kilometres. He cannot emphasise enough on how there is a need to regulate the misleading claims manufacturers make about range. “Manufacturers claim that they do a 10-lakh kilometre testing and all that - which means they know the real capacity. If they are consumer-centric and consumer-focussed, what really needs to be done is to inform the customer of the real-world range. Or they need to give a lower figure and an upper figure - so that our decisions are informed decisions.”

Nexon EV-owner Arora also says: “180-220 kilometers is the range which not only me, but the maximum number of people/owners (of the Nexon EV) get if it is driven under normal conditions. The normal conditions include traffic, starts and stops, usage of the AC/heater, the climate outside, the number of occupants in the vehicle and their luggage, speed etc.”

Even though this is not an issue that is specific to electric cars, the dearth of charging infrastructure makes it more problematic for electric cars, Gautam points out. “In our case, specific to the Nexon, people got it for commutes planned around the 250-260 km mark. I have not used the car beyond the city due to the limitations….nor is there infrastructure available that I could use.”

There is also a need to standardise the rate of charging at charging stations so that private owners do not take advantage, says Thakwani.

‘No going back’

As early adopters of EVs, most of them knew that there would be challenges. As Thakwani argues, “We bought the vehicle with the mindset that there will be certain issues that we will be facing...you need to understand that you are doing something good for the future also. So you need to have that kind of patience and understanding.”

Rakesh R Binjrajka, 30, a Hyderabad-based businessman who owns seven cars, hasn’t returned to his ICE cars ever since he purchased the MG ZS EV last month. “The MG ZS is such a lovely car that I don't feel like using the other cars,” he says. What is more, he is also planning to replace all his cars with electric cars within the next 3-4 years.

While he admits that had he waited, there would have been better electric car options coming up in the future, it was all about taking that step towards the environment, too. “I am staying in Hyderabad, and the air quality index here is pretty much under control, but if you look at places like Delhi, it’s heavily polluted.”

Besides, with fuel prices soaring, the cost savings are becoming all the more evident to electric car owners; even as they paid a heavy upfront cost for their electric cars.

While using his ICE car, Delhi-based Vivek Ahuja, 48, used to spend ₹20,000 on fuel, and now, for charging his Nexon EV, he pays ₹900-1,000 as electricity bill.

Gurgaon based Sanjay Gupta, 57, has been using electric cars since 2002, starting with Mahindra’s Reva. Now, he owns an MG ZS EV and Mahindra E2o as well. “I must have saved around ₹10 lakh just on fuel with all the three cars up until now,” he says. It’s a drive to keep his carbon footprints as low as possible and an overarching consciousness about the environment that propelled him to turn to EVs at a time when it wasn’t even as popular as it is now.

Also read: With strong tailwind, Volvo Cars sees EVs driving sales in India

The powerful and instant torque of electric cars, and the lack of a lag - unlike ICE cars - is another factor they talk about. “While electric cars are charged a premium price for sure, you cannot put a price on the experience of driving an EV, because it drives way better, more smoother; it has an instant pick-up, and the running cost is really low,” says Akhil Krishnan, 35, a Bangalore-based entrepreneur, who bought the Hyundai Kona in September 2019.

Great option

Bangalore-based Arun Bhat, 34, bought the Hyundai Kona in August 2019, and he has owned luxury segment sedans in the past. “Having driven all those, the Kona is a far superior technology car than all those, and I will never go back to ICE cars now.” Bhat rues the arguments used by people that electric cars rely on thermal power and hence, aren't as clean as they are purported to be. “The thing is, an electric grid can become cleaner over time. Diesel and petrol do not become cleaner over time, and India doesn't have any reserve, it has to import. Solar and wind power are coming up, so the electric grid can become cleaner over time, which petrol and diesel cannot.”

Also read: Kia teases EV6, its first dedicated EV

At the end of the day, regardless of the issues they have faced, electric car owners are convinced their decision was a step in the right direction. For instance, even as he is disgruntled by the lower than promised range, Gautam says without a minute’s hesitation that his next purchase will also be an electric car.

The shift to EVs, they feel, is simply long overdue.

(*Name changed)

Published on March 09, 2021

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