The recently announcement of the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan 2020 (NEMMP) by the Indian government envisages the adoption of six to seven million EV and hybrid vehicles by 2020. And a large chunk of this will come from electric two-wheelers, which have already ridden down from a wave of success. In a recent interaction, Sohinder Gill, CEO, Global Business, Hero Electric offered his perspectives on the future of these vehicles and the industry.
The present scenario for electric two-wheelers isn’t very bright in India, if seen without NEMMP’s push. The Indian buyer is still looking for some kind of a magical solution from electric two-wheelers. Gill said these expectations are a result of campaigns led by various independent distributors, especially the fly-by-night operators, who were selling unbranded Chinese products. The false promises eventually led to high sales of electric two-wheelers. Eventually though, as consumers experienced the first battery replacement cost and the overall charging cost, the promises started falling apart. Negative sentiments in the market took over, and the promising new idea started losing its sheen.
For companies such as Hero Electric, this turned out to be the biggest challenge for about 18 months – getting people back to believe in electric two-wheelers. Many customers still view these products with suspicion. Changing this mindset and scenario is where the NEMMP comes into play, Gill opined.
Gill believes the NEMMP would help the industry in three ways. First, as the government is making an announcement, people will look at it more seriously and the trust factor will improve. Second, the upfront cost for consumers will reduce significantly, which is more important for most market consumers rather than total cost of ownership. Third, the consumers will look at the extra value they’re receiving for a lower cost, owing to subsidies.
Gill, who is also Director – Corporate Affairs at the Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles, India (SMEV), believes NEMMP would not result in immediate rise in EV sales. “It might take about six to nine months to achieve a countrywide penetration, following which we might see some visible sales,” he said.
Another key aspect of the NEMMP is that it discourages the traders and short-window operators from affecting the market. The requirement to invest in R&D and achieve a certain rate of localisation will eventually make the system sustainable only for serious players. This is extremely important since the target number for the government is made up mostly by two-wheelers and this is the area, which is easier to penetrate on a mass scale. The launch of these vehicles will then be followed by technologies such plug-in hybrids, electric three-wheelers and buses etc, which are still under development.
Gill said that the government policy is a lot better thought this time, as instead of providing a flat subsidy to vehicles of a particular kind, the focus is on providing efficiency-linked subsidies. This will ensure that vehicles with higher efficiency attract more subsidies and are easily adopted by people. Another advantage of this move will be that manufacturers will be encouraged to develop more efficient technologies in order to achieve sustainability. This way the government too will get better return on its investment in the form of lesser pollution and lower expenditure on buying crude oil.
But what happens when subsidies get removed? Will EVs continue to be an attractive proposition for consumers? The new NEMMP looks at this aspect, but the industry still has a lot of thoughts to be generated in this area. “The industry and government also need to look at whether the vehicles being sold under the plan are taking away any share from petrol vehicles or are just catering to new customer creation. The plan will be completely successful only if we’re able to reduce oil consumption and the related pollution. If implemented and monitored well, the plan’s cost could turn out to be a fraction of what the country will save in the form of foreign exchange and the subsidies they’re presently offering,” he said.
Talking of the challenges and areas of improvement, Gill said that battery and related electronics’ manufacturing in India is almost non-existent. For example, no one in India makes electric motors for electric vehicles and hence companies have to depend on imports. The industry and government need to collectively understand that to get about seven million vehicles on road, a huge change is required in R&D. Areas such as lightweighting through better implementation of material science will play an important role in encouraging electric mobility. With range anxiety being a major deterrent, it’s imperative that companies develop lighter vehicles in order to offer enhanced range.
From an Indian perspective, companies need not reinvent the wheel. Gill believes there’s potential for Indian companies to develop products ground-up, especially where they need to depend on international markets for specific materials. In other cases, there has to be a focus on customising technology for Indian requirements. “Controllers, for example, are available easily in many countries but aren’t customised to suit Indian driving cycles. The chip in that controller doesn’t support functions such as overload control, vibrations, rough usage, etc, which are quite common in India. Such components hence need to be developed with inputs that enable the above mentioned functionalities,” he said.
Hero Electric has made a significant progress in the area of lead-based batteries. Starting from a process of buying batteries from China, the company has been able to develop batteries in a way that they’ve become more reliable. This process took the company about three years as every new battery needs a checking cycle of about six to eight months. In India, companies need to focus even more on the batteries as the climate conditions are extreme in nature. Most batteries here fail in the period starting from April to July as the temperature inside the battery box can exceed 55o C. In such cases, energy density packaging and battery management systems need to be looked into in detail.
Another critical issue in India is charging. Voltage fluctuations and frequent power outages have negative impact on the battery life. In order to reduce this, Hero Electric has developed a new charger from which details about charging can be retrieved whenever required. These details are then used to educate the customer about techniques that can help them prolong battery life. Such region-based innovation is critical for the success of electric mobility in India.
Electric motor is another area which needs to be focussed on in the coming years, said Gill. More companies including Hero Electric are advocating raising the bar for low-speed categorisation from 25 km/h to 35 km/h. This is despite the problem of a higher inverse relationship between speed and efficiency in two-wheelers. The target is in the range of 35 km/h to 50 km/h of top speed with high efficiency. Achieving this would significantly increase the practicality of the vehicles for most kinds of city usage and attract greater interest from consumers.
Talking of future products, Gill said that their focus isn’t limited to just two-wheelers, and the company is looking at special application vehicles too. Helping them develop a variety of products is the fact that they’ve worked extensively on battery technology in the past few years. Gill believes the company’s present capability is good enough to offer the best possible solutions and make the most from the push by NEMMP. An interesting part about the battery development is the fact that Hero Electric tried working with an Indian partner at first but things didn’t work well. The lack of suppliers with the right technology or the willingness to try out new paths forced the company to look at a Chinese supplier. In the next two years, the company worked on various parameters to arrive at the stable stage it is at today.
Talking about lithium-ion as an option, Gill said lead is the favoured material presently for two-wheelers. The main reasons for this include the unfavourable reaction of lithium to heat, life cycle reliability and cost. He expects lead to be the favoured choice till the point it’s deemed to be too heavy to derive optimum efficiency from a vehicle. However, the company is simultaneously working on products with lithium but isn’t being able to get the desired life from the battery presently.
In order to encourage adoption of lithium-ion powered vehicles, the government and banks too need to come together to finance at least the battery cost over a period of few years. This will speed up adoption and the volumes in turn will speed development. By then, one can expect to see better and stable lithium batteries, but even then lead might account for about 70 % of the market.
Gill believes that this time around there’s a bright chance for electric mobility to take off for two-wheelers. He expects that with things going right we could see more than four million such vehicles on the road by 2020, fulfilling a large chunk of the NEMMP’s target. However, he said that the path to this success isn’t easy and a lot of work across the value chain of the industry needs to be carried out. Focusing on not just technology development but India-centric, flexible and cost-effective innovations are what will drive the growth of electric mobility.
Text: Arpit Mahendra