Clean Tech

e-rickshaw is the low hanging fruit but a few sour spots remain

Preethi Mehra | Updated on: Jan 14, 2020

The humble vehicle can help usher in clean transport in towns

Over the years, e-rickshaws have become a major mode of last-mile connectivity for commuters in larger cities like Delhi and almost an alternate means of transport in smaller ones such as Gwalior, Udaipur, Siliguri, Coimbatore, Kochi, and many others.

The question often asked is whether the e-rickshaw actually helps in reducing a city’s carbon footprint, is it a viable transport medium for cities and towns or is it an irritant on the road, which crawls at a mere 25 kmph and has a limited range?

An assessment report by ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability and Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation on deploying e-rickshaws in our cities charts the pros and cons and whether it can help in achieving the country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) promise that spells out a de-carbonisation target of 33-35 per cent with respect to GDP by 2030.

It is estimated that there are around 1.5 million e-rickshaws on the roads. Every month another 11,000 are being added and by next year, a 9 per cent increase in these vehicles is expected. So, e-rickshaws are here to stay and their positive characteristics of being emission-free, comfortable for four passengers, including the driver, affordable and accepted by commuters and low cost for owners gives them a big edge over fuel-powered autos. E-autos too are a viable alternative, but a more expensive option.

There is an unprecedented increase in e-rickshaws in both big and small cities, though a lot of them ply without licence or adequate safety features. This makes it necessary that a regulatory framework be worked out to maintain and manage their proliferation.

Unfortunately, rules on how to deploy, manage and regulate e-rickshaws, their manufacturing and infrastructure norms have not been given enough focus although shifting to electric vehicle (EV) technology is being promoted by the government since 2011.

In 2013, a National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP) was formulated. In 2015, this was followed up with the FAME I or Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid &) Electric Vehicles scheme and in 2019 by FAME II.

Several States too seem to have recognised the usefulness of EV adoption policies and some like Delhi, Tripura, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa, Uttarakhand, and Telangana have put in place some kind of regulatory frame work at the State level, but very few see the potential of the e-rickshaw.

“Though EV sector includes modes of public transport, private transport and last-mile connectivity with fast developing policies/initiatives, still, an example of an often ignored mode for urban mobility is the modest e-rickshaw,” points out Ashish Rao Ghorpade, Deputy Director, ICLEI, South Asia, one of the authors of the assessment report.

So, while work is on regarding the big picture on EV adoption and clean transport, e-rickshaw due to its low life cycle cost can very well be the “low hanging fruit” that can be tapped to make a difference to emission levels, as pointed out in a report by Deloitte.

One of the key issues with e-rickshaw is in its manufacturing. Though there are specified rules and safety standards that have been laid down in recent years, the cheaper e-rickshaws are often assembled by manufacturers with low-quality parts manufactured locally or imported from China. This makes them ineligible to be registered for operation, leading to their illegal existence. The report quotes a 2018 study by TERI that found about 340 e-rickshaw manufacturers in Delhi alone but very few manufactured models compliant with official standards. Hence, there is a need at a national level to regulate vehicle design and standards to ensure safety of drivers, users and better operation of the vehicle.

Charging issues

Charging infrastructure is also of immense importance for deployment of e-rickshaws. And though this is being slowly set up in different cities, Delhi State has made a wise move by allowing owners to charge their e-rickshaws at their homes. Some organisations are also working on the battery-swapping concept for e-rickshaws. This involves replacing the discharged battery with a fully charged one, saving the driver time and effort while increasing his range in a matter of a few minutes.

Battery swapping, however, is only available for lithium ion batteries, but it is possible for vehicles with lead acid battery to also switch to them. It would mean an extra cost, though. “Since the cost difference between Li-ion batteries is almost 4-5 times the cost of lead acid batteries, vehicles may be sold without battery (as CNG vehicles are sold without the cylinders). This may reduce the cost of vehicle and later e-rickshaw owner/operator may approach any battery swapping service operator, deposit a security amount and get a battery on lease,” suggests Ghorpade.

To make e-rickshaws a viable means of livelihood for owners in the current unemployment scenario, it may also be prudent for States or local city administrations to provide financial aid or subsidy to potential owners so they are able to buy models that meet the quality test.

The sum, in fact, could be recovered in a short while, considering that e-rickshaws provide a decent income to their owners. A sample survey of 200 e-rickshaws carried out in Delhi revealed that operators earned roughly ₹20,000 per month after paying for maintenance of their vehicles, parking and charging.

The strongest argument in favour of the e-rickshaw, however, comes from facts related to its zero tailpipe emissions. ICLEI found that the annual emission mitigation from a single e-rickshaw is about 378357.3 tonne CO2 if a CNG auto is replaced by an e-rickshaw. That speaks for itself.

Published on January 14, 2020
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