India's electric vehicle market could do with a jolt

Half-hearted govt schemes and inadequate infrastructure are holding back India's promising EV story
Last Updated 02 January 2022, 04:17 IST

Nelvi David never really thought about buying an electric bike until petrol touched Rs 100 a litre earlier this year.

A bunch of other factors too drove the Chennai-based academician to make the decision.

“We get electricity at a subsidised rate, and with high fuel prices, it will be a win-win situation for me. Also, the government is giving sops on EV loans. Why not utilise that?” asks Nelvi.

While Nelvi planned to book her first electric bike soon, she worried if she would be able to take it wherever she went, especially outside city limits.

“The nearest charging station would be at least a few 100 km from my place,” she says.

Nelvi is not alone.

Jopu John Tharappel bought an electric car a year back to beat sky-rocketing fuel prices. The Kerala resident complained about the difficulties tied to charging its battery.

“I have travelled through the entire south, to states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, but the problem is that there is no uniformity in rates. Government chargers and private chargers have different rates in different applications,” Tharappel says.

Their stories highlight why EVs are yet to become mainstream in India despite getting its first electric vehicle in 2001.

Driven by incentives

For many Indians, the decision to buy an EV is entirely driven by external factors.

“The push for EVs is inorganic and is driven by high fuel prices and government incentives,” said Kartik Hajela, a co-founder of advanced battery technology startup Log 9 Materials, which recently launched its first InstaCharge station at its office in Bengaluru and plans to partner with charging point operators to take the technology to towns across India.

In 2019, the Indian government announced an additional income tax deduction of Rs 1.5 lakh on the interest paid on loans taken to purchase electric vehicles.

The Union government has also tried to lead by example. For instance, the Finance Ministry urged all the other ministries and departments of the government to replace the petrol and diesel cars hired by them in their Secretariats and attached offices with electric cars for mobility in Delhi.

But some believe these measures are not enough.

“There is no retention of EVs and also these subsidies will not help in the long run,” Hajela pointed out, highlighting how the sector needed a better ecosystem, including charging stations and more realistic charging time of batteries, to make any real progress.

To be sure, India has seen a rise in the number of EVs sold, according to a Centre for Energy Finance analysis based on Vahan Dashboard data.

Over 57,000 two-wheeler EVs have been sold so far in the current financial year, higher than 40,000 in the year-ago period and 24,000 in the financial year before that. Almost 5,000 four-wheeler EVs have been sold so far in the current financial year, the highest in four years.

But EV sales accounted for barely 1.3% of total vehicle sales in India during 20-2021, according to a report by consulting firm RBSA Advisors. RBSA expects it to grow at a CAGR of 90% in this decade to touch $150 billion by 2030.

While India’s EV market is currently in its “infancy”, electric vehicles are expected to make up over half of new vehicle sales in the United States and China by 2030, a recent survey of global auto industry executives by KPMG showed.

Out of charge

If India is serious about being a part of the global EV revolution and achieving its other goals of reducing emissions and improving air quality, it will have to do more.

For starters, the world’s second-most populous country needs to build more charging stations and battery swapping facilities in its major cities and small towns alike, and make it easier for people to use them.

“There is no unified application for charging and also unlike petrol pumps where there is someone to help you, here it has to be done via an application which causes inconvenience to people like my father who are not tech-savvy,” Tharappel lamented.

More companies are trying to build the infrastructure for charging EV batteries.

Last week, Ola Electric Mobility CEO Bhavish Aggarwal said the company had started rolling out its Hypercharger points at BPCL petrol pumps and residential spaces across the country. Meanwhile, Ather Energy extended its free fast-charging scheme to customers until June 30, 2022.

India’s largest electric vehicle maker Tata Motors and rival Mahindra & Mahindra are also doing their part to boost EV adoption in India. For instance, while Tata plans to bring down the cost of owning an electric vehicle to that of a petrol or diesel vehicle by 2023, M&M tied up with a joint venture of Reliance and BP to develop EV charging solutions for its EVs.

Some said a major chunk of the charging infrastructure upgrade in India was largely incremental in nature.

For instance, while Log9 has the battery technology to power rapid EV chargers, it has to rely on existing charging point operators to make it accessible to EV owners across the country.

“Our technology unlocks the potential to charge last mile vehicles. We are looking to facilitate 100 such new fast chargers in major cities in the next one year,” Log9 Materials told DH.

As its technology is compatible with Bharat DC Chargers (a government standard for charging electric vehicles), it has “some critical mass of such stations already installed in the market,” the company added.

While over 7.5 lakh electric vehicles have been registered in India since the financial year 2012, a response by Power Minister R K Singh in the Parliament shows it has a total of 1028 EV charging stations. Delhi, Telangana, Karnataka and Chandigarh are some of the leaders in terms of the number of stations.

The government seems to know that is not enough. In a notification, it asked more petrol pumps to install facilities for alternate forms of energy.

Lack of infrastructure is not the only obstacle standing in the way of India’s EV ambitions.

A bumpy ride

Consumer awareness is also a problem, according to people who run garages for EVs.

“People mostly do not know how to handle their vehicle. Unlike a regular vehicle, EVs cannot carry weight. But when they come to us, we realise they’ve kept weight on it,” said the founder of a Bengaluru-based EV garage aggregator who did not want to be named.

Most of its customers tend to bring their EVs for repair once in two months, complaining about problems with their brakes and other hardware, that person said. Ideally, if the vehicle is maintained well, it should require maintenance every six months.

Some others, such as Deepak M V, the CEO and co-founder of Etrio, are less worried about consumer awareness and more about developing a sustainable business model.

The founder of Etrio, a start-up that builds new products for EVs and converts existing internal combustion engine vehicles into EVs, says that the path ahead for EV makers is going to be bumpy and is busy trying to find reliable partners for the ride. It has now partnered with ecommerce giants such as BigBasket, Amazon and Flipkart.

“Our wish is to electrify logistics. With the e-commerce boom, there is a lot of business there, but the best way to do that and have a sustainable business model is by targetting the logistics players who will take care of the infrastructure. These logistics players will help create parking spaces and charging stations and the consumers will not have to worry about it,” he said.

Until then, potential customers like Nelvi David will keep looking for an offer they can’t refuse.

(Published 01 January 2022, 17:41 IST)

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