Electric vehicles: The road ahead has to be carefully mapped

Jayakrishnan K | Updated on October 08, 2019

India’s electric capabilities still have a way to go   -  istockphoto

Though a shift to EVs in the near future has been planned, questions on the transition from fuel to electric power as well as impact on the automobile sector and the consumers are yet to be answered

Future India will ride in electric vehicles (EVs) if one goes by the pronouncements of the country’s policymakers. The air will be cleaner. The noise level as well as the oil import bills will be down. And, if everything goes according to the Central government’s reported plan, India will be a manufacturing hub for EVs, just as China is of many industrial products now.

But how near that future seems is an important question.

EV experience across the world is limited. Even in countries where EVs are used, people’s choices and , patterns of vehicle use as well as the infrastructure available are different from that in India. Therefore every step on the EV route should be taken with care, for any setback will have serious economic and political consequences.

The automobile industry is already showing signs of a recession across the world. It is claimed that about three lakh persons employed directly or indirectly in the automobile sector have lost their jobs this year in India. One of the reasons attributed to this is the expected entry of EVs. Electric cars would change the automobile ecosystem drastically. They do not need many of the components, including gears, present in cars using fossil fuels. Naturally, manufacturers would think twice before investing in such components.

Not a smooth transition

It is unclear whether the planners have given serious thought to the implications of the switch from fossil fuels to electricity. Total electrification of the country is yet to be achieved, and even in electrified areas, the quality of power supply is not up to the mark. What will be the annual power requirement if millions of vehicles start running on electricity? And will all the additional power be generated from renewable sources? There is little sense in reducing carbon emission from vehicles by using electricity generated from polluting sources.

An important and contentious issue that has to be discussed in this context is the revenue side of fuel sale. The Central and State governments’ budgets depend to a large extent on the income from the taxes on petrol and diesel. Will any State be willing to forgo such income in an EV scenario? The revenue earned from taxes on petrol and diesel by the government of Kerala as early as 2016-17 was close to ₹7,000 crore. The annual income of all States put together from fossil fuel sale is above ₹1.9 lakh crore. The loss of this income can upset the States’ budgets.

At present, the Central government has the power to fix the basic prices of fossil fuels. What will be the situation when the responsibility for last-mile delivery of energy to vehicles falls on the States? There is no guarantee that they will be able to cope with the logistical implications of such a shift.

Industry’s woes

The first EV that appeared on Indian roads was a compact car. It offered meagre comforts, but was priced high. Naturally, public response to the vehicle was not positive. That fear, or suspicion, of the unknown still remains.

Price and costs of servicing are very important issues from the consumer’s point of view. Electric vehicles do not require servicing or change of parts as frequently as diesel and petrol cars. So how will the manufacturers keep the dealers, who currently earn a substantial part of their income from the servicing of vehicles and the sale of spare parts, happy? And they too, would not like to lose the income from the sale of spare parts. Obviously, they will price EVs high and allow the dealers to take a cut.

The consumer, on the other hand, would be interested in being fully informed about warranty. Currently, many companies offer eight years’ warranty, but there is a clear possibility of this working to the consumer’s disadvantage. One has to get the EV serviced by the dealer for eight years (unless the warranty policy states otherwise), obviously paying high rates, if one should continue to get the benefits of warranty.

A potential buyer has an array of questions about the product itself. The first, of course, is safety, given the recent trend of heavy spells of rain and flooding. The battery and motor of an EV have to be protected from any contact with water. Will the production quality of all vehicles be good enough to stand the Indian test? The power of a mid-size electric car’s battery is about a hundred times that of an MPV driven on fossil fuel, and the battery is normally placed under the floor of the car.

There have also been cases of electric cars exploding or catching fire for no obvious reasons in Canada and the US.

The key components of an EV are the battery and the motor. In order to benefit fully from the EV ecosystem, entire batteries should be made in India. The technology to make highly efficient batteries is available in some industrial countries. It is not advisable to depend on imports of batteries, for all of the producing countries are India’s potential competitors in the EV sector, unlike in the case of crude oil suppliers. What India needs is advanced technology, either home-made or imported.

Charging the battery can pose the most serious difficulty in the daily use of an electric car. Any kind of fast charging is unlikely to make an inter-city ride in India trouble-free. Any difficulty in this regard caused by an EV-related problem will be seen as an attack by the government on mobility, which can invite a backlash.

EVs, as mentioned earlier, are an object of curiosity and will have to wait for quite some time to gain wide acceptance. The right thing to do is to first familiarise Indians with electric two-wheelers, especially scooters, as China did, and then go in for small cars before thinking of bigger vehicles.

An ideal substitute for diesel and petrol in this transition stage, and even in the longer run, is compressed natural gas. Vehicles running on CNG are low on carbon emission and running cost. Use of hybrid technology also deserves encouragement.

All these issues have to be discussed with all stakeholders, including the State governments, representatives of the industry, and public-spirited individuals, before a final decision is taken. This is particularly important because the protection India’s legal system offers the consumer is relatively poor.

The writer is an advocate

Published on October 08, 2019

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