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Battery Tech, Management Software To Drive Growth For Electric Two-Wheelers

Written by  Sameer Kumar | 17 April 2017 | Published in April 2017 ( Technology )

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There are close to three dozen electric two-wheeler models currently available in India. Regarding who manufacturers these, Lohia and Hero Electric are two OEM names that you might recognise, while the others are largely anonymous. For the most part, electric two-wheelers in India represent cheap, often poorly-built scooters that offer very basic mobility on a budget. On the other hand, elsewhere in the world, a small bunch of electric vehicle manufacturers are trying to re-write the two-wheeler rulebook by producing cutting-edge vehicles packed with the latest electric motor and battery technologies. Here we take a quick look at the state of things globally, vis-à-vis the Indian scenario.

ELECTRIC AMBITION

On its part, the Indian government has undertaken some initiatives to try and promote electric vehicles. The National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP) 2020, announced back in 2013, was supposed encourage the production of electric vehicles in the country, with the stated aim of having more than 1.5 crore electric and hybrid vehicles on Indian roads by the year 2020, and annual sales of 60-70 lakh electric/hybrid vehicles after 2020. Of this, the vast majority – about 80 % or more – of EVs are expected to be two-wheelers. NEMMP's objectives included the promotion of research and development in EV technologies, including battery and electric motor tech, development of software for battery management systems, development of testing and charging infrastructure and encouragement of industry participation.

Around 22,000 electric two-wheelers were sold in India last year and y-o-y growth rate is expected to be about 10-15 % (as opposed to a predicted y-o-y growth rate of 45 % and above predicted for electric two-wheelers globally for the next three years). Most mainstream Japanese, European and Indian two-wheeler OEMs have not taken much interest in developing electric two-wheelers for the Indian market. On the other hand, smaller players like the Bengaluru-based Ather Energy, Coimbatore-based Ampere Vehicles and Pune-based Tork Motors have taken it upon themselves to develop electric two-wheelers that can match (or at least come closer to) conventional IC-engined bikes and scooters in terms of performance and range. In terms of per km running costs, battery charging costs work to much lower than paying for petrol, and most of the parts replacement, maintenance and upkeep associated with petrol engines is eliminated with electric powerplants.

Also, as part of FAME-India (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric vehicles) scheme, which is itself a part of NEMMP 2020, the Indian government offers subsidies of up to ' 5,500 to electric two-wheeler buyers, which is expected to help with consumer acceptance of EVs in the country. In fact, according to figures available on the official FAME-India website, we already have more than 1.33 lakh electric vehicles (an estimated 95-98 % of these would be two-wheelers) running on Indian roads, which leads to savings of more than 32,000 litres of fuel every day, and a reduction of more than 81,000 kg of CO2 emissions per day.

GLOBAL SCENE

Based in Europe and the US, companies like Energica, Lightning Motorcycles, Zero Motorcycles and Victory Motorcycles are some of the key players globally, and have managed to develop high-tech electric bikes that are rapidly evolving to the point where they can be considered a viable, practical and even exciting alternative to conventional IC-engined two-wheelers. With the latest lithium-ion batteries and advanced electric motors, some of these bikes have a range of anywhere between 120-200 km and can hit top speeds of up to 160 kph.

Prices are still a strong deterrent though. A modern high-end electric bike, with around 50-60 hp, 80-90 Nm of torque, charging time of 3-4 hours and a range of about 200 km, would currently cost the equivalent of ' 12-13 lakh in the US. For similar money, buyers can get a litre-class sportsbike that would offer 180-190 hp, 100-115 Nm of torque and a range of 250-300 km. And, as we all know, filling up a petrol tank takes two minutes, which doesn't bode well for the 3-4 hour charging time needed for a li-ion battery pack.

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BUILDING A BETTER BATTERY

So, with the challenges of high prices, limited power/range/speed, and long charging times, what is the way forward for electric two-wheelers? How can they find wider acceptance? The answer lies with OEMs, and their willingness to invest in better, significantly more advanced EV technologies. A lot of research is being done on improving lithium-ion battery technology, in order to produce batteries that have better energy density, are lighter and more compact and which can charge more quickly.

Lithium-ion batteries have high 'cyclability' (the number of times the battery can be recharged while still maintaining its efficiency), they can suffer from relatively low energy density, which refers to the amount of energy that can be stored in these batteries. Some efforts to increase energy density have led to batteries overheating and, in some cases, even catching fire. Yet, developers continue to work on these batteries and are trying to find the best combination of anodes (usually graphite or silicon) and electrolyte (liquid or lithium). Some OEMs are also experimenting with solid state batteries, which do away with some of the challenges of li-ion and also do not require heavy-duty cooling systems.

While experimentation with various battery types continues, the li-ion battery may still be OEMs' best hope in the near- to mid-term future. A relatively recent development has been the high-energy lithium-ion battery, which has greater energy density, for extended usage in EVs.

Alongside, there are developments in fast-charging technologies, which will allow even bigger batteries to fully charge in minutes rather than hours. Last year, engineers at the Singapore-based Nanyang Technological University announced the development of li-ion battery packs that take a mere two minutes to take a 70 % charge and five minutes for a 100 % charge. Based on existing li-ion battery tech with slight modifications, these batteries can offer up to 10,000 charge cycles and last for more than 1.5 million km of usage, which far outstrips performance offered by currently available units. The magic lies in chemistry, with the engineers working with anodes made of titanium-dioxide instead of the regular graphite, which allows much faster chemical reactions, thereby drastically reducing charging times.

ELECTRIC MOTOR DEVELOPMENT

While development of better batteries is critical for the next-generation of electric two-wheelers, equally important is the development of more powerful and efficient electric motors that can work under high load conditions for long periods of time, while conserving as much battery power as possible. One company that has done some significant work in this space is Siemens, which some time ago announced its new electric vehicle motor, which also integrates an inverter within the motor housing itself. Since AC motors are more efficient than DC motors, the inverter in this case converts the battery's DC output to AC before feeding that power to the motor, for optimised usage. The motor-inverter integration not only reduces size and weight, but also allows the unit to use a common liquid-cooling system. It's still work in progress, but with more development work, this package could well become a useful one for electric two-wheeler manufacturers at some time in the near future.

Another new technology that may come in handy for developers looking to optimise size and weight, in the context of electric motors and inverters, is 3D printing, which allows manufacturers to work with groups of complex shapes, optimise packaging, reduce wastage and produce the final product at reduced cost levels. Additive manufacturing, which refers to the process by which manufacturers can use 3D digital design data to build components (in this case, an electric motor and/or an inverter) in layers, also helps reduce the number of components, which could be especially useful for producing next-gen electric motors that are lighter, less complex and more powerful.

The final piece in the jigsaw puzzle, that would allow an electric two-wheeler's batteries and electric motor to work in harmony, provide adequate power as per requirements, along with sufficient riding range, is power management software. It's this software that controls the battery's power output, also regulating its usage by the electric motor, striking the best possible balance between power (acceleration and speed), and riding range. Often working via a smartphone app that riders can easily use, it's this software that allows OEMs to offer multiple riding modes on high-end electric bikes, optimising power/range for city, highway or sporting use and getting the best out of an electric two-wheeler's battery and electric motor.

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SMART GRIDS FOR CHARGING

With power shortages already the norm (especially in the Indian context) in many countries, mass adoption of EVs could only put additional strain on an already creaky electric infrastructure. If you thought a million air-conditioners running simultaneously was bad, just imagine another million electric scooters and motorcycles also plugged in at the same time! Enter the US-based Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which is working on a set of protocols that would allow EVs to communicate with the grid, and schedule charging times in accordance with lower load times to avoid a meltdown.

Of course, India might still be a decade or more away from implementing a 'smart grid' that could handle the power demands of millions of electric two-wheelers, but if NEMMP's ambitions are to be realised, the Indian government will, sooner rather than later, have to start thinking in this direction. The 'smart grid' concept will require electric vehicle manufacturers to work closely with electricity service providers, government bodies and other stakeholders, so progress is likely to be slow. And yet, without such an initiative being in place, along with a comprehensive program for setting up a network of easily accessible charging stations, electric two-wheelers may find it difficult make much headway beyond a certain point.

FUTURE DIRECTIONS

With the ambitious vision laid out by NEMMP, incentives being provided by FAME-India and OEMs' gradually increasing interest in producing better electric two-wheelers that represent a viable alternative to IC-engined bikes and scooters, India is just about waking up to the possibility of electric mobility solutions. However, for the segment to gain critical mass, now might be the time when the Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles (SMEV) should amp up its efforts towards working with multiple stakeholders, and start working towards the aforementioned smart grid, charging station infrastructure, regulations pertaining to the production (and import, if required) of li-ion batteries and advanced electric motors, and large-scale investments in R&D for the development of better batteries and motors. With a consolidated approach that includes addressing technology and infrastructure issues in the context of electric two-wheelers, India may have a big opportunity to catch up with more evolved EV markets over the next decade.

TEXT: Sameer Kumar

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