An electric switch to e-cars

A shift to e-vehicles could help Bengaluru avoid a Delhi-like descent to a gas chamber. But critical charging infra is painfully slow in the making

Is there an electric way out of Bengaluru’s vehicular pollution? Zero emission e-cars, e-autos and electric buses could potentially arrest the city’s dangerous descent into a Delhi-like gas chamber. But no, without a robust charging infrastructure or an urgency to create it, e-mobility in this tech city is not going anywhere.

Consider this: A Bengaluru company showed India how to develop and mass produce an electric car in 2001. Seventeen years later, this city that pioneered e-mobility in the country has only two public EV charging stations to show!  And the second one was launched only last month at the office of the Karnataka Electricity Regulatory Commission (KERC).

City as pioneer

The state government did give e-mobility an initial push. After the first electric car hit the roads, the State offered sales tax and road tax subsidies for the next five years. By 2006, the city-based Maini Group was the world’s largest e-car selling firm, as the Group’s Chairman Sandeep Kumar Maini recalls. “There were over 2,000 cars in Central London and Bengaluru. The cars were launched simultaneously in these two cities.”

But, as innovations and manufacturing in electric vehicles staged a virtual revolution worldwide over the last 4-5 years, e-mobility took a backseat here. Why did the government backtrack after the initial euphoric push? Years later, Bengaluru is now playing catch-up when this city could have been the e-mobility leader.

Low numbers

Currently, the city has only about 6,300 registered electric vehicles. These include about 3,700 Light Motor Vehicles, 2,200 two-wheelers, 300 Light Passenger Vehicles and 68 Light Goods Vehicles. Even at this late stage, sound policy interventions and speedy charging infrastructure development could increase these numbers.

Articulating its objective of making Bengaluru the “EV Capital of India,” the state government had come out with the Karnataka Electric Vehicle & Energy Storage Policy in 2017. The policy was the first in India.

Budgetary proposals

Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy followed it up this year with a grand budgetary proposal: To establish 100 charging units at a cost of Rs 4 crore to encourage EVs and control Bengaluru’s air pollution. Also on its agenda are electric buses operated by the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC).

But the transition on the ground has been slow. As Maini notes, an ecosystem is emerging with good intent by the government and public, Original Equipment Manufacturers both in India and abroad. “Lot of synergy is now happening. OEMs are getting together, supply chains are emerging. But these discussions here are in fits and spurts. You need a sustained debate followed up with action,” he points out.

Impact on traffic

Electric vehicles will definitely see a remarkable impact on exhaust emissions, agrees Dr Ashish Verma, transportation engineering expert from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). But, he reminds, more EVs will not reduce traffic congestion. “Unless we find ways to reduce private vehicles, regardless of whether gasoline or electric-based, congestion will remain.”

Besides, to be genuinely eco-friendly, the EVs will have to be powered by sustainable sources of energy, Verma says. “Grid-based charging would mean depending on non-renewal sources such as coal. Solar-based charging infrastructure could be explored.”

Adoption issues

Beyond government policy, the switch to electric vehicles is also a personal choice. But the adoption rate has remained low in Bengaluru, say industry experts. Sohinder Gill, CEO, Hero Electric and Director, Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles (SMEV), believes that Bengaluru is fast emerging as the numero uno in commercial usage of EVs, but not private vehicles.

He explains, “With a lot of startups coming in here, we see a tremendous increase in the use of EVs as taxis and rental two-wheelers. There’s a marginal increase in buses as well. However, people are still not keen on buying electric cars as it poses limitations with the distance.”

Gill suggests that the government should levy a ‘green tax’ on buyers of petrol two-wheelers. “If we can charge every buyer an extra Rs 500, over the years we would have collected enough to subsidise electric vehicles,” he says.

Industry suggestion

Automobiles industry body, Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), has asked the government to bring down the GST levied on EVs to 5% from the existing 12%. “We also need to work on technology to bring down the battery price. Once the price comes down there will be more takers and then the economies of scale will further help bringing down the price,” says Sugato Sen, Deputy Director General, SIAM.

But a technology has indeed emerged that will allow e-vehicles to shed inbuilt batteries completely, and switch to swappable, modular batteries. It works on the lines of AA and AAA batteries in torches and other appliances.

Modular batteries

Here’s how the system, developed by a Bengaluru-based startup, Sun Mobility, works on an electric autorickshaw: Suppose a ‘smart’ battery is low on charge, the driver gets an alert through a mobile app which directs him to the closest ‘Quick Interchange Station.’

Once there, the driver takes out the drained battery and swaps it with a fully-charged one within minutes. The battery is not owned by the driver but the Station operator. A pilot project of this model will be ready in Vishakhapatnam by March 2019, and will eventually be extended to Bengaluru.

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