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Life beyond diesel and petrol

They rave about electric models. They get high on hybrids. Meet the growing tribe of car owners for whom fossil fuels are history. Sumant Banerji writes.

brunch Updated: Jul 21, 2012 17:53 IST
Sumant Banerji
Sumant Banerji
Hindustan Times

Over the last two years, the Twitter joke that drew parity between beer and fuel prices has started sounding like an ugly joke. Petrol prices have spiked 40 per cent, more than four times the average inflation rate during the period. May saw the steepest ever hike of petrol, a fossil fuel with depleting resources. Come to think of it, the ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) factor isn’t really at work here. Because a greener alternative may help you slash your fuel bill, too.

Is it time we looked beyond petrol and diesel, the two fuels that drive more than 99 per cent of all vehicles on the road? On the lines of developed countries, should we consider an electric or hybrid option the next time we have to buy a car?

From the green files

A few individuals who’ve taken the green plunge appear to have no regrets. School teacher Shompa Chopra, 54, for instance, had to decide on which car to buy while discarding her Hyundai Santro, in the summer of 2009. The i10 seemed like a natural choice for anybody wanting to move on from the Santro. Then there was the Swift for those looking to buy a smart diesel hatchback.

But keeping the environment in mind, Chopra ended up buying the Reva, the only electric option in the market. Those were the days when petrol was available at less than Rs 45 per litre and a litre of diesel cost Rs 33. She did not know that it would turn out to be a masterstroke. “I wanted a car that was economical, easy to drive and easier to park,” she says. “I did not think about the Reva at first, but the positives were too many. I do not have a big family. Nor am I a heavy user of cars. The Reva is just right for me.”

Even after three years, Chopra sounds as excited about the car as the day she bought it. With a commute of 15-20 kilometres every day, Chopra has saved an estimated Rs 35,000 on fuel costs alone. Plus, she has lower maintenance expenditures as the Reva doesn’t need oil changes or part replacements.

Chopra’s story finds a resonance with other electric car buyers. Ever since he bought a Reva in 2009, Steel Authority of India senior manager, Dinesh Sharma has cut down on using his WagonR. “Now, I take my old car out only on Sundays so that it stays in good running condition. Whenever it is launched, I’ll replace my electric car with the next generation Reva,” he says.

My next big buy will also be an electric car, whenever it’s launched, says Dinesh Sharma

However, Chopra and Sharma belong to a rare breed of Indian buyers. Electric car sales in the country have been dismal. Only a little over 4,000 of them have found takers around the world and despite being developed and built here, India is not their largest market. That honour goes to the United Kingdom.

For a country where cars are still an aspirational product, the Reva is perceived as a pudgy little vehicle that is unsafe and offers little by way of creature comforts. It does not have the power to compete with petrol and diesel cars, nor does it offer ample space. The issue of range anxiety (discharging of battery beyond a certain number of kilometres) limits the car’s capabilities further. On full charge, the Reva doesn’t go beyond 100 kilometres but offers unmatched economy of just 50 paise per kilometre.

Unlike the West, infrastructure for recharging cars, such as pods, is still not in place in India. So one can’t take the car out on long drives. All these negatives have ensured that the Reva remains firmly on the sidelines of an industry that sells more than 2.5 million cars every year.

So, are vehicles powered by non-petrol fuels an idea whose time is yet to come? Many experts tend to agree with this. “As fuel prices continue to go up, it is high time manufacturers took a serious look at electric and hybrid vehicle technologies,” says Akshay Bhalla, managing director, Protiviti Consulting, a global consulting firm.

“Lack of infrastructure to sustain electric and hybrid cars is clearly an issue. So, at present, the tipping point hasn’t yet come. But for daily commuting inside the city at least, that day might not be that far away.”

A Deloitte study suggests that the tipping point may arrive when petrol prices breach the s R85 per litre mark. Should such a scenario arise, 71 per cent of Indians could consider an electric vehicle, suggested an industry study conducted last year. But a similar number expect the vehicle to give them a range of 320 kilometres on a single charge. This is almost four times the range that an electric vehicle can offer at the moment.

The hybrid breed

The middle-of-the-road alternative then, can be hybrid cars. A hybrid car makes use of both – an electric motor as well as a conventional petrol engine to increase fuel economy by as much as 100 per cent while reducing carbon emissions. It does away with any sort of range anxiety, which is why cars such as the Toyota Prius are such a rage globally.

There is a novelty factor about my hybrid car. It stands out more than a BMW or a Merc that are priced similarly, says Tejbir Singh

Till Mahindra and Tata fine-tune their prototypes, the Prius will remain the only hybrid car available in India. And it has found some buyers, notwithstanding its intimidating price tag of about Rs 28 lakh. “There is a novelty factor with the car. It stands out more than a Mercedes and BMW that are also available at a similar price,” says Tejbir Singh, 49, who owns a Prius and runs a construction business in Delhi.

Besides the impressive fuel efficiency that Singh gets (he claims the Prius gives him 25-27 kmpl), he is amazed with its ease of driving. “I have a Fortuner and Innova, but I drive the Prius myself and don’t allow my driver to touch it.”

The Prius wasn’t the first hybrid car to be launched in the country. The Honda Civic Hybrid garnered the first mover advantage. But at Rs 21 lakh, it did not find many takers and Honda had to discontinue it. With the pedigree of being the largest-selling hybrid car in the world, the Prius fared better. But priced at Rs 27.86 lakh to Rs 29.93 lakh (ex-showroom Delhi) it cannot hope to work miracles in a price-sensitive market.

“Hybrids are too early for India,” says Arvind Saxena, director, marketing and sales, Hyundai Motor India Ltd. “Neither do we have the infrastructure to support hybrids nor is there a concrete government policy to subsidise them. If prices don’t come down, they would not be a credible alternative in a price-sensitive market such as ours.”

For the time being, it is compressed natural gas (CNG) that is the most favoured fuel among those looking for alternatives. It is cheap, has the lowest running cost per kilometre, can be plonked onto any petrol car – big or small-- and is also offered as a standard fitment by many manufacturers.

Also, with the growth in the number of users, the cost of a CNG kit has climbed down. From a near standstill in 2000, more than 6 lakh cars are now run on CNG in Delhi alone. Across the country, the figure almost doubles.

“I bought the CNG kit back in 2002 when it cost me Rs 60,000,” says Sandeep Thakur, 38, who works with a law firm. “At that point, there was no great economic logic in converting to CNG, but I was looking at the long term. I’ve changed my car twice since then and used the same kit throughout. I think the money I have saved all this while would be enough to buy me a sedan.”

What the future holds

On the flip side, availability of CNG is a concern. Only 25 cities around the country have access to the fuel. Also, the storage cylinder takes up almost the entire boot space of the car. And then, doubts about the safety of the car continue to linger.

“We have seen over the years that the demand for CNG cars has gone up in areas such as Delhi, Ahmedabad and Vadodara, where it is easily available,” says Mayank Pareek, managing executive officer (marketing and sales), Maruti Suzuki India Ltd.

A pan-India alternative then could be a plug-in similar to a CNG kit that can turn any car into a hybrid. To be launched next year, the kit, named Revolo, can be plonked on to any car for Rs 70,000. The retailer claims its benefits include a 25 per cent saving on fuel costs and a 35 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.

“No consumer in India is ready to shell out an extraordinary amount just for environment friendliness,” says Ravi Pandit, chairman and group CEO, KPIT Cummins. “A solution like the Revolo addresses the question of lower cost. It can be adapted in any car, howsoever old.”

According to industry estimates, hybrids will account for 50 per cent of the car market worldwide by 2030 while another 15-20 per cent would be electric vehicles. Petrol and diesel cars will be restricted to just 35 per cent. By then, India will be the third largest car market in the world.

Clearly, the road ahead has a distinct green tinge to it.

From HT Brunch, July 22

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First Published: Jul 19, 2012 18:29 IST