The mood is electric even though roadmap is blurred

Amrita Nair-Ghaswalla | Updated on: Feb 28, 2019

E-mobility is attracting a host of participants in a fuzzy arena

Electric has been the buzzword in the automotive industry for sometime now. Across the world, companies are pulling out all the stops in this space even while being more than aware that it is not going to be a walk in the park.

China is clearly the benchmark for the world right now with its government laying the framework for a carefully thought out e-mobility strategy. India has been quick to announce its intent too, though the rather overambitious goal of 100 per cent electric by 2030 has now settled down to a more realistic 30 per cent.

In the Indian terrain, Mahindra & Mahindra has taken the lead in entering this space but the going has not been easy with big numbers still elusive. There are still a host of challenges to overcome in the form of changing infrastructure, fiscal sops and customer anxieties about range, which have been a serious dampener in promoting the electric cause.

This still has not deterred other manufacturers from throwing their hats into the ring with some of the more recent announcements coming from Tata Motors, Maruti Suzuki and Hyundai. Others have been pushing the case for hybrids as the first stop before going fully electric as part of a natural transition.

As the debates continue, one thing emerges crystal clear: There is no getting away from the fact that clean air is top priority especially with big cities reeling under severe pollution levels. This also explains why Bharat Stage VI, scheduled to be implemented in April 2020, becomes an important goalpost for the country.

Rahul Mishra, Principal at AT Kearney India, has worked with the Centre on policy matters and is bullish about the road ahead. In his view, the first two years of the Government scheme, FAME (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles) offered “tremendous learning” in the drive towards moving to cleaner technologies.

Mishra led the assessment of the FAME I scheme and has subsequently been involved with initiatives like the National Automotive Policy. Right now, the immediate task on hand is to ready FAME II, which is expected to see an investment of ₹5,500 crore over five years. This could go a long way in providing the much needed sops to electric mobility across product segments.

According to Mishra, FAME II fundamentally aims to change the perception on incentivising cleaner technologies. “It places its bets on pushing cleaner technologies and battery types. High utilisation uses like public transportation are clear focus areas,” he says.

FAME II is “expected anytime now” and is expected to focus on technology development including putting in place a centre of excellence for battery engineering, developing low cost electric drive-train kits and promoting high energy density battery technologies.

Clearly, FAME II will be a big boost for manufacturers in pushing the cause for electric vehicles. There is also a sense of near unanimity that buses and two-wheelers are ideal candidates first. In the case of the former, it is about pushing the case for cleaner public transport and taking into account the fact that this will be better optimised.

After all, unlike a car that typically has one or two occupants, a bus has a whole lot of people, which means that capacity is being used to the best extent possible. Likewise, in the case of two-wheelers, companies like Hero Electric, Okinawa and Ather Energy are already in the fray with others like Bajaj Auto also getting set to join the parade.

While traditional auto-makers are part of the EV brigade, there are others who are eyeing this space aggressively. This includes the JSW group, which has already made known its intent to make an electric car. There is still no indication how the business plan will take shape with speculation rife at one point in time that a Chinese ally would be roped in.

Chinese electric vehicle giant BYD and Hyderabad-based bus maker Goldstone Infratech’s joint venture is another case in point. This year, pilgrims to Sabarimala travelled in Olectra-BYD electric buses. These are made by Olectra Greentech, formerly Goldstone Infratech, in a tie-up with BYD for the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation.

Similarly, JBM Solaris Electric Vehicles’ electric bus Eco-Life, powered by fast-charging lithium batteries, is on a trial run in Delhi. The emergence of a large number of e-mobility startups like Ather Energy, Tork Motorcycles, Ultraviolette Automotive, ION Energy, Emflux Motors, ATI Motors, 22 Motors, GoGreen BOV, Ampere, NDS Eco Motors, are also driving EV adoption in India.

On paper, all this looks very attractive and truly paints a picture of a much cleaner future.

The problem is that this option will eventually need to be affordable for those keen to buy an electric two-wheeler or car and this is where subsidies will be the key pivot. China has successfully managed this because it worked to a plan and India will need to follow a similar path.

Across the world, e-mobility is the new mantra even while car-makers are grappling with the challenge of huge investments, an uncertain market and hiring the right people.

In India, companies already have their hands full with the BS VI challenge in 2020, which by itself will usher in cleaner vehicle emissions.

Electric is unquestionably a welcome initiative in this effort but should not be a case of putting the cart before the horse. Getting the house in order first is critical (in terms of assuring charging infrastructure, sops, etc) to assure manufacturers that their investments will not go in vain.

Published on February 28, 2019
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