It’s the new player that’s stepping hard on the accelerator. Olectra Greentech now has 108 electric buses on roads from Himachal Pradesh to Kerala. It’s also in the race to supply buses to 14 States and cities — from Pune, which is looking for 125 buses in the next two years, to pollution-ridden Delhi, which tendered for 385 e-buses and hopes to have over 1,000 within two years. Olectra has also done a pilot e-bus run between Delhi and Agra.

The auto industry giant is, of course, Tata Motors, and it is also out in front in e-buses. It has got orders from six cities for 255 buses and 50 of these are already plying the roads. Others are slated to be delivered by end-May. “Tata Motors developed electric buses ahead of all domestic OEMs and won orders from Guwahati, Indore, Jammu, Jaipur, Kolkata and Lucknow,” says Girish Wagh, Tata’s Commercial Vehicles Business Unit president.

The numbers may look still look paltry but make no mistake: a public transport revolution is shifting into high gear in India. Bengaluru has called for 1,500 buses. In Hyderabad, 40 Olectra buses are driving between the airport and different points in the city and there are plans for more soon.

In Kolkata, three buses made by VE Commercial Vehicles have racked up 40,000 km on city roads and Tata e-buses are also making their way round the city.

The electric revolution on Indian roads has been a long time coming. But it needed a push from the government, which has come with Fame-II (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles in India, Phase II). Fame-II decided to focus on public transport and has thrown in ₹10,000 crore as subsidies to buy 7,000 buses over three years. “This will trigger the industry to make long-term investments to create EV products in this segment,” says Chetan Maini, Sun Mobility co-founder and vice-chairman.

Racing to the starting line are old and new players. Tata and Ashok Leyland are the industry giants which have provided over 80 per cent of buses plying our roads. Also in the race are the Mahindra Group and VE Commercial Vehicles (VECV), a Eicher Motors-and-Volvo tie-up . VECV, which has 20 per cent of the conventional-engine bus market, hopes to make an even bigger dent in the e-bus segment. “We anticipate a similar share or more,” says B Srinivas, VECV’s senior vice-president, BUS, sales and marketing.

New ballgame

But electric vehicles are a new ballgame and there are fresh players who reckon they can take on the market heavyweights. Chief amongst these is Olectra, part-promoted by BYD, the Chinese bus giant, which in China sold 30,000 buses and electric taxis in December alone. Incidentally, BYD expands as Build Your Dreams.

Other newcomers, too, are dreaming big. JBM, a Delhi-based automobile components and renewable-energy company, has tied up with Solaris, a Polish coach-and-bus company to launch its first bus. The company also plans a big foray into making electric-charging systems needed for the electric revolution. In addition, the Adani Group is said to be planning an e-bus factory at Mundra.

Everyone knows electric-powered mobility is the way to go. But government subsidies are still required because it’s reckoned e-buses are 20 per cent costlier to run than conventional diesel buses. Still, forecasts show that costs will fall and that e-buses will account for 70-75 per cent of the buses on Indian roads by 2024. “The future’s nearer than we think. Almost all State transport corporations have placed e-bus orders,” says Deepesh Rathore, co-founder and director, Emerging Markets Automotive Advisors.

Still, it won’t immediately be a smooth ride for all-electric fleets, with range and time needed to recharge posing the biggest challenges.

Delhi, for instance, is a city of distances so the government’s stipulated buses need a 220 km range for daily travel. For other cities, Tata supplies nine metre buses with a 120-150 km range. And VECV currently offers buses with a 170-km range. Srinivas notes that longer-lasting batteries can be developed but they’ll increase cost. “You have to strike a frugal balance,” he says, adding: “The way we’re placed, 170 km is more than enough.”

The new technology will also bring in an entirely new way of working for State transport corporations. Most e-bus-makers will also sign what’s known in trade parlance as “opex” contracts. That is, transport companies will provide conductors but bus-makers will operate the vehicles and supply drivers. Also, the corporations provide bus-depot space but the opex company installs charging points and other equipment.

Says Olectra Greentech executive director N Naga Satyam: “It’s a totally new technology. I don’t want my operators losing money because of technical difficulties,” adding, Olectra offers 10-year maintenance contracts.

Tata, however, doesn’t believe in opex contracts. Says Wagh: “Maintenance is usually less for electric buses. At present, we’re hand-holding and training driving-and-maintenance crews.”

But electric technology is still in its infancy and companies are taking different routes to power up. Maini’s Sun Mobility, for instance, which has tied up with Ashok Leyland, offers swappable batteries that are changed at charging stations. Ashok Leyland buses are already running in Ahmedabad.

Maini believes swappable batteries are the way forward: “Batteries make up over 50 per cent of vehicle cost so separating batteries from the vehicle and allowing quick swaps using robotic technology allow vehicles to be significantly cheaper.” There are, however, differing views on battery technology. Some players reckon robotic-changing systems are expensive and tougher to use.

China, way ahead

E-buses may be new in India but they definitely aren’t in China. Bustling Shenzhen, a high-tech metropolis of 12 million, is the world’s first city to go all-electric. It has 16,500 buses and operators say the fuel bill has halved. In January, all Shenzhen taxis went electric. The city also reckons CO2 emissions have plunged 48 per cent.

In fact, China is so far in front it’s almost out of sight in the e-bus race. Out of an estimated 385,000 e-buses globally, 90 per cent are in China. Thirty Chinese cities plan to go all-electric by 2020. Similarly, London’s single-decker buses will be emission-free by 2020 and its double-decker buses are going hybrid this year.

The Chinese, who started going electric in 2011, are an impressive example of what can be achieved rapidly. But that may be a problem for everyone else because it’ll be impossible to match Chinese battery manufacturers’ prices.

Will e-buses change urban transportation’s face? In China, commuters have been pleasantly surprised by the silent, air-conditioned e-buses plying their cities. In fact, there have been complaints the noiseless buses pose a threat to road users. It’s tough to imagine that in India but this could be a transportation revolution that creeps up on us without warning.