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Why Tata Motors is charged-up about electric buses

Murali Gopalan | Updated on January 08, 2018

Company believes that the timing is right to completely transform public transport

Tata Motors announced earlier this week that it had kicked off trials for its nine-metre electric bus in Guwahati with a seating capacity of up to 34 passengers.

The company added that this was “in continuation to the successful trial” of the same bus from Parwanoo to Shimla, a distance of 160 km done in one full charge recently. Likewise, trials in Chandigarh, which involved a 143 km-stretch, showed encouraging results.

Tata’s early start

It was during Prawaas 2017, the show organised by the Bus Operators Confederation of India, in Navi Mumbai when AK Jindal, Head, Engineering Research Centre, told this writer that Tata Motors had started work on electric buses way back in 2005. The platform developed was suitable for hybrid, electric or even fuel cell vehicles.

“There was a time nearly seven years ago when the hydrogen economy was being talked about. In parallel, a lot of work has been done in electric, battery and charging technology, which has brought the focus on electric vehicles (EVs),” said Jindal.

In electric buses, one of the significant cost centres is the battery even though prices have been falling in recent years by as much as 60 per cent from the highs of over $1000/kWh in 2010. Tata Motors believes the next four to five years could see a further drop in prices, which means that overall costs will come down and these buses will become affordable.

“I personally believe EVs will be the way forward in India. There will be a lot of developments on battery technology and improvements in power electronics, which will make them viable,” said Jindal. Yet, the country needs to take tips from countries like Germany, China and Denmark where the selling model involved generous subsidies in the initial phases. India has set itself a rather ambitious goal for its auto industry to go completely electric by 2030 though there are a fair number of people who believe this is a tall order. The optimists, on the other hand, are convinced that EVs are here to stay especially when internal combustion engines have been around for for a century. Perhaps, diesel will gradually exit too though these are early days yet.

India is power surplus on a grid basis and there has been a lot of emphasis on solar energy too.

Costs need to decrease

As Jindal reasoned, if electricity costs come down, operating costs will also drastically reduce as a result. More importantly, EVs will play a big role in lowering maintenance costs and checking carbon dioxide emissions. “If batteries are managed smartly, they may even last a decade,” he added.

From Tata Motors’ point of view, it is important to go beyond making statements, which explains why it is pulling out all stops in its electric mobility initiatives right from small commercial vehicles/pick-ups to buses.

“We want to move more number of people during rush hours and are aware that this cannot be managed by electric buses alone. However, with many cities voting for metros, a feeder service like the electric bus will come in handy for passengers. Then you can have smaller EVs for last mile feeding into these buses,” explained Jindal.

In an ideal scenario, all public transport options should be electrified with zero emissions ultimately prevailing within the ecosystem. This is where the nine and 12-metre Tata electric buses have made a beginning though the trials have only been confined to a handful of cities.

“The feedback has been positive and the technology/architecture has given very good efficiencies. Beyond Chandigarh and parts of Himachal Pradesh, we believe Mumbai and Chennai also hold great potential,” said Jindal.

Ground reality

However, there are hardcore realities to contend with. Eventually, the Centre must play its part as a catalyst in initiating projects where, for instance, a city like Delhi can be the launchpad for 100 electric buses and the likes of Tatas and Ashok Leyland can participate in the drive.

“Today, all developments are our own initiative in terms of money spent. We do not want any subsidy from the Government but believe it could do more in helping people buy vehicles through demand generation,” said Jindal. Clearly, there is a long way to go in this department even though there is now a proposal underway to launch 20,000 electric buses across the country by 2019.

Some results can also be achieved by replacing the fleet of state transport undertakings (STUs), comprising nearly four lakh buses, with electric options instead. If the Centre can come out with a plan to carry out this exercise over the next decade, this will truly help the cause of electric mobility in public transport.

“Every year, some buses are going off the roads and STUs are buying nearly 15,000 new ones every year. Instead of diesel, they can go for electric,” said Jindal. According to him, there is no reason why this cannot be done given how something like Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) was successfully implemented from 2005 onwards as part of a seven-year city modernisation drive.

“All it requires is a clear plan and direction,” he said. If this happens, there is a strong likelihood of India’s public transport going completely electric by 2030. The key is to give incentives to the buyer and not the manufacturer as countries like China demonstrated before gradually phasing them out.

The company has, of course, been in the news recently for bagging the electric car order to Energy Efficiency Services, a joint venture of three State-run power companies, along with Mahindra & Mahindra.

While this is doubtless a big mandate, the truth is that buses “touch so many people everyday and can contribute more to cleaning up the air” even though there are more cars on Indian roads. From Jindal’s point of view, the journey has begun in right earnest.

Published on October 19, 2017

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