The EV market is all charged up

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on: Jul 05, 2022
The pace of electrifying India’s vehicle market has picked up

The pace of electrifying India’s vehicle market has picked up | Photo Credit: VIBHU H

Despite issues of charging logistics and battery fires, the sales of EVs are moving into higher gear

Overall sales totals still are low but India’s electric vehicle-makers are starting their transition into the fast lane. Right now, EVs account for 7 per cent of Tata Motors’ sales but the vehicle-maker stepped on the accelerator Monday, announcing it aimed to hit sales of 50,000 electric cars by fiscal year-end and double that next year. Last month, it sold 3,500 EVs and reckons sales could be climbing much faster without the semiconductor chip shortage.

With sales ambitions rising, competition, understandably, is intensifying. Luxury carmakers whose sales have all grown in the pandemic’s wake believe there’s a robust market for their latest electric models. Mercedes Benz is putting its newest model, the EQC, on Indian roads and it’s in a race with the electric BMW iX. Both vehicles are priced at slightly over ₹1 crore. Audi, meanwhile, is driving along with variations of its e-tron. Audi’s EVs helped push up its overall sales by 49 per cent in the first half of 2022.

Growing competition

Other challengers, too, are emerging. The MG’s ZS, priced at ₹23-25 lakh, is becoming a popular choice for people wanting to go green as well as enjoy a good ride. One owner who recently bought an MG ZS says running costs are an enviable ₹1 per kilometre. Then, there’s the Hyundai Kona and the Kia EV6 which boasts a 528-km range. It hits the road for ₹60 lakh.

Still, considering China is the world EV leader, alongside Tesla of course, it’s hardly surprising Chinese firms are looking to edge out the global giants from other corners of the world. Chinese company BYD is streets ahead in the global electric bus sector. It has sold 70,000 vehicles so far, though mostly in China.

In India, Olectra Greentech, which is partnered with BYD, is selling its buses nationwide to cities like Pune, Mumbai and Delhi. Now BYD is looking to enter the MPV segment with its e6 which is clearly aimed at taking on the Toyota Innova. The e6 will be on the road for ₹29 lakh and importantly promises a range 520 km. Initially, though, it will only be sold to business customers like tour operators and taxi-owners.

The pace of electrifying India’s vehicle market has picked up as the government seeks to achieve its goal of making 30 per cent of all vehicles sold electric by 2030, though most at that point will be two- and three-wheelers. Higher fuel prices now are also having an impact. Tata Motors began its EV push by focussing on megalopolises like Delhi and Mumbai but it quickly moved to 10 cities and then 40. Interestingly, the company says 75 per cent of buyers now are buying EVs for primary use, not as the family’s second vehicle, and demand is countrywide.

Even Maruti, initially dubious about how quickly the electric revolution would reach Indian roads, is moving into the electric- and hybrid-vehicle fast lane. It’s launching a “strong hybrid” mid-sized SUV later this month and hopes to offer hybrids in all ranges. Its first pure-EV is only due to hit the market in 2025. But Maruti expects to have one big edge over rivals because it’s also building a battery-making plant in Gujarat that should be in business by 2026. Maruti reckons hybrid-vehicles will have more customer appeal until enough charging stations come up.

Abroad, too, EVs are picking up in countries like the UK where 175,000 were registered last year, a 60 per-cent rise from pre-Covid 2019 sales with the fastest-moving model the Tesla Model 3. US President Joe Biden has declared half of all new vehicles sold in US by 2030 should be electric. (The current number is just 4 per cent).

Electric four-wheelers’ time has clearly come, though worries remain about the charging logistics and whether we’ve got the power grid to handle tens of millions of new EVs. There’s still considerable “range anxiety.” Crucially, 60 per cent of four-wheel owners only have on-street parking which will add considerably to the complexities of charging EVs. Nevertheless, many gated communities are now adding charging stations and builders are installing them in the newest apartment block.

Fire hazard

There’s also the tricky question of EV battery fires that can be far tougher to extinguish than ordinary car blazes as flames spread through chain reactions producing more heat in a phenomenon known as thermal runway. Blazes have become more frequent as the number of EVs on roads climb. Lithium-ion battery cells are highly flammable. Even a company like BYD, which is far ahead of most rivals, has faced vehicle fires from short-circuiting batteries. One bus caught fire in Telangana a few months ago. Even worse, in China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, one bus that was charging caught fire and the flames spread to four others. One Tata Nexon, too, had a vehicle go up in flames in June.

The government has launched an inquiry into the fires that hit the Nexon and also 12 two-wheeler EVs. Even the highly reputed Ather, which has been building its network across the country steadily, has had one fire. Market leader Okinawa and also Ola, which made a highly publicised entry into scooter-making, have also had vehicles going up in flames. The DRDO has sent a report to the government on the fires and is reported to have made critical comments on materials used in some batteries. The government has now sent notices to Okinawa, Ola and other manufacturers.

Vehicle recall

Abroad, too, giant manufacturers like GM, Ford and even BMW and Tesla have had to recall vehicles due to worries about batteries bursting into flames. GM recalled all 142,000 of its electric Bolts over an outside possibility the battery could catch fire.

EV fires are rare but can they be stopped? They have volatile chemistry and Arun Sreyas, co-founder RACEnergy which aims to create a niche in swappable batteries for passenger auto-rikshaw three-wheelers, notes it’s not enough to buy from a reputed battery manufacturer. (For instance, LG Energy Solutions which has a market capitalisation of $75 billion made the batteries for the Bolt). That’s because the heart of the problem is in the cells that go into the batteries. “None of the battery-pack manufacturers has any control over cell production,” says Sreyas.

Scientists are seeking to come up with lithium-ion batteries formulations that will lower the risks of blazes. Engineers are also looking at ways to make batteries more impact resistant. But experts emphasise that EVs are a new technology. In the meantime, despite safety concerns, we’re on a road on which there’s no turning back.

Published on July 05, 2022
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