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Electric tech: New war zone for cars

Eco-friendly fight: After years of discussion over lack of infrastructure, auto majors, Indian and international are sweating it out to bring out their own versions of battery-driven cars.

business Updated: Dec 19, 2016 11:08 IST
Sunny Sen
Electric tech
Ciaz SHVS, India's first smart hybrid diesel car, during its launch in New Delhi on Tuesday.(PTI)

“My friend, infrastructure is overrated,” said Pawan Goenka, while speaking to a group of journalists at Delhi’s Taj Palace hotel a couple of months ago.

The managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra was talking about the apprehension people have about charging an electric vehicle, even if they are willing to spend some extra dollars for buying it.

But Goenka sees no problem. In fact, he has a solution. “Buy it and if you are unable to charge it, I will come and charge it.”

The Mahindra Group is India’s largest manufacturer of utility vehicles. It is also the largest seller of electric vehicles in the country –it sold 2,300 of them in 2015. Other carmakers mostly sell hybrids (cars that use both electric and combustion technology).

Goenka told HT that Mahindra would try and bring out at least one electric variant of all the vehicles in the portfolio, including the Scorpio and the XUV500. The company is also working on bringing out an all-electric luxury car under the Pininfarina (the Italian car design company) brand, which is expected to compete with Elon Musk’s Tesla.

Tesla has started accepted pre-order bookings from India for its Model 3, which is likely to be available next year. Founder-CEO Elon Musk had tweeted that the car would come with an India-wide supercharger network, which can charge the vehicle in 75 minutes.

That’s a strong bet, considering that India struggled for the longest time than any other country in the world to make people buy electric cars, even though there were many reasons to do so – low maintenance and better mileage being the two most important of them all. Apart from Reva (the electric car company Mahindra acquired in 2010), no other carmaker really got into the electric bandwagon.

In 2015, India sold only 10,000 electric and hybrid vehicles, compared to the global sales of 1.21 million units. The US sold a third of that, followed by China, Japan and Netherlands.

India did not even feature among the top 10, even though it is the fifth-largest seller of cars globally.

But it’s better late than never.

Sniffing an opportunity, big players have now jumped into the fray.

Maruti Suzuki, which sells every second passenger car in the country, has is betting on mild-hybrid technology – a very different strategy from Mahindra’s. The technology is available in two of its cars, the Ciaz and the Ertiga, and helps the car to get an extra boost when the driver presses the accelerator, without consuming more fuel. It improves the mileage by 18% to 20%.

But RC Bhargava, chairman of Maruti Suzuki, doesn’t see a business case for cars running only on battery. “Where is the infrastructure, most people park their cars outside their home… Maruti’s strategy will be in hybrid vehicles,” he told HT.

It was perhaps also the reason why Maruti exited the government-supported consortium to make electric vehicles, putting the future of the xEV project in jeopardy. Ford had pulled out of the project in July – at a time when the consortium members were talking of building an eco-system of component suppliers for cars.

Carmakers, meanwhile, have charted out their own plans. Toyota plans to bring the plug-in hybrid technology (which allows the car to run for a certain distance on battery) to each of its models – even in the Etios and the Liva. But the technology is costly (despite prices of battery technology falling 50% since 2015), which may make it less acceptable for the pockets.

Things will change further, especially after the new emission norms, BS-VI, kick in. “We hope that prices of hybrid vehicles (which are much higher than diesel cars) will be similar to prices of diesel vehicles once the new emission standards are adopted completely… That’s our chance,” said Akito Tachibana, managing director of Toyota Kirloskar Motor.

The Japanese carmaker will focus on bringing the technology to all its fleet – next in the pipeline is a hybrid Innova and a hybrid Altis.

WHO’S BETTING ON WHAT?
MARUTI
Hybrid. Mainly ‘smart-hybrid’, which is the name of Suzuki’s patented mild-hybrid technology. It harnesses the power generated while braking the car, and passes it on to the wheels while accelerating

HYUNDAI
Hybrid. Mainly mild hybrid, similar to what Maruti will offer. The first two cars to have it will be the Verna and the SUVs

MAHINDRA & MAHINDRA
Electric cars. The company will focus on all-electric vehicles. Have plans to launch an electric variant for every car in its portfolio

TOYOTA
Hybrid, mainly plug-in hybrid. It uses both internal combustion engine and electric motor, which needs to be charged
WHAT DOES THE INDUSTRY NEED?
  • A minimum five-year extension of the FAME scheme to incentivise automakers. The scheme is currently in place for two years
  • An enabling policy framework for using electric vehicles in logistics and e-commerce
  • Financing provisions or increased incentives for promoting the use highperformance electric vehicles
  • Subsidy for replacing lithium ion battery packs for such vehicles to enable faster adoption
  • Easy credit on bank loans to the industry for boosting manufacturing for small and medium enterprises
  • One charging pillar at every petrol pump for such vehicles

Though all electric vehicles will sooner or later make their way into the Hyundai portfolio, the immediate plan is to have a host of hybrid vehicles in the mid-to-high end segment, including SUVs, he added.

Luxury carmakers, including Mercedes-Benz and Audi, too, are getting their hybrid cars to India, but for their battery-technology operated cars to become mass market (since they would cost a lot more than the other hybrid vehicles), a much stronger push from the government is required.

“There has to be a concerted decision from the government’s side that this needs to happen… As a manufacturer I can make an offer to the customer, but it will always be driven from a business perspective,” said Roland S Folger, managing director of Mercedes-Benz India.

To promote eco-friendly vehicles, the government last year launched the FAME scheme, offering incentives on electric and hybrid vehicles of up to R29,000 for bikes and R1.38 lakh for cars.

FAME India - Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric vehicles in India - is a part of the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan. The scheme envisages R795-crore support in the first two fiscals starting with 2016-17.

But the best way to support electric mobility, experts said, is by bringing out a long-term policy.

Sohinder Gill, director, corporate affairs, Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles, said the policy should outline the incentives based on demand of the electric vehicle industry, supply and research & development, underling the growth of manufacturing and investment in India.