A Top-Notch Plan And Tenacious Execution Is All We Need To Realise India’s ‘Electric Car’ Dream

  • A raft of policy changes will have to be made to start building a future for electric cars, starting from tax concessions to importing of EVs.Is India ready for bold initiatives and tough schedules to eliminate petrol and diesel-powered cars by 2030 and fix the murderous air pollution?

Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari rattled the auto industry when he recently declared his intention to “bulldoze” it out of the manufacture of petrol and diesel-powered cars by 2030. Gadkari must be applauded.

Columnists friendly to the financial markets in general, and to the auto industry specifically, are moaning about unreasonable burdens that the auto industry is made to face. One editorial whined about the need to speed up the implementation of new emissions standards, even though the industry has been enjoying vastly relaxed emissions norms compared to North America and Europe.

Such bleating should be completely ignored.

Bharat Stage emission standards has stipulated extremely relaxed  standards for particulate emissions and NOx, particularly in regard to diesel vehicles. Taking advantage of this leniency, the auto industry rolled out a huge number of heavily polluting vehicles, reducing India to a home to virtually all of the most polluted cities in the world. Even now, as always, the auto industry wants the government to drag its feet on technological standards while it keeps perpetuating the environmental disaster that India has run into.

The statistics on air pollution and its murderous consequences are horrifying for Indians to contemplate. Global Burden of Disease Study for 2010, published in 2013 found that 600,000 people die in India prematurely due to air pollution. Delhi alone is estimated to see 50,000 premature deaths due to bad air, annually.

On overall air quality in terms of effect on human health, the Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index ranks India last – at 132 out of 132 countries. A World Health Organization (WHO) study found that 13 of the 20 most polluted cities are in India. WHO data shows that of the 12 of 22 cities worst affected by PM2.5 pollution (ultra-fine soot that is the most dangerous type) are in India. Parts of the capital city reach as much as 20 times the levels of PM2.5 that are specified by the WHO as maximum safe levels.

The BS2, BS3, and BS4 standards, peddled by the government as panaceas to the problem of air pollution, in fact standardised very high level of soot and NOx emissions from diesel vehicles. Worse, preferential pricing of diesel fuel caused an explosion of diesel vehicles, resulting in millions of pollution belching vehicles on the road, entirely sanctioned by the government.

The problem with our norms is that they are derived from Euro Standards, rather than from the standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Euro 3 and 4 standards are shockingly lenient compared to the US standards, most especially towards diesel.

Euro 3 allows diesels to emit 16 times as much NOx as the US EPA does.  For soot, the EPA allows no emissions at all during the majority of a vehicle’s life, and only a very small quantity by the end of life, while Euro 3 and 4 permit soot emissions throughout the vehicle’s life. This means that over its life, a Euro 4 compliant vehicle can emit as much as 30 times more soot than an EPA compliant vehicle!

Is it any surprise that Indians suffer the most polluted air in the world?

Even the Euro 6 standard that’s now being rushed through is inadequate compared to the US EPA standards, which themselves are being tightened to effectively strangulate the fuel burning cars over time and force the transition to Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEVs).

That’s where India has to go as well. At 600,000 deaths a year, 75 lakh Indians will die by 2030 due to air pollution. We cannot wait another 30 years going through iterative versions of incrementally improving standards while millions of Indian citizens continue to die every year.

While there are other varieties of ZEVs, such as hydrogen-fuelled cars, the electric car is the most viable and proven type of ZEV. It has already gone mainstream in the West. It has not yet made the conventional automobile obsolete, but it’s not far. The only limitations that remain are charging times and charging locations.  But the range and charging situation has improved enough in the West that for most people in most urban situations, electric cars have already become a viable choice. Like a phone or a laptop computer, electric cars are now able to fulfill the daily commuting needs of a typical person, before being charged overnight.

The advantages are enormous. Because electric motors have high, consistent torque, they accelerate powerfully. Since there is no engine, they are nearly silent. Running costs are low because there is no fuel to burn. And the elimination of burned hydrocarbons is something all of our lungs are screaming for. Since ZEVs produce no emissions from the vehicle itself, the extent to which electric vehicles help clean up our air is limited only by how many fuel burning vehicles are replaced by electric cars.

Virtually, all major car manufacturers in the world have some form of electric car for sale, and even the prestigious brands like Porsche and Jaguar are working hard to recreate their brand appeal in electric cars. The global car industry knows that the electric car is the inevitable, imminent future and that the fuel-burning engine is on its way out.

It is only natural that the auto industry doesn’t want to discard its existing investments nor spend the billions it will take to completely restructure its operations. But if India is to really ramp up its development trajectory, it is imperative for the government to take bold initiatives that commit India to catching up with the rest of the world, on a reasonable but tough schedule. And electric cars are a good point to start.

But the government will have to get serious about doing its bit. A raft of policy changes will have to be made to ensure the goal is achieved. Currently, the policy is a real hodgepodge, like taxing hybrid cars at the highest GST rates on the grounds that they are luxury cars, when the path to electric cars in the West was created by significantly subsidising hybrid cars, which contain all the advanced components that electrical cars fully need (high capacity batteries, sophisticated electromechanical controllers, powerful electrical motors, exotic lightweight materials etc). These technologies have to be subsidised, their growth encouraged with favourable taxation and easy policies, to enable the industry to start getting big volumes. Taxing hybrids at a high rate, while aiming at a future where use of electric car is mandatory, is just madness.

The government must streamline all of the policies that enable or obstruct the electrification of India’s road transport by thoroughly understanding what is required, and delivering it. This will mean encouraging the unlimited import and domestic development of know-how in all the components and technologies that electric cars rely on.

If necessary, the import of electric cars should be allowed without import duties for a period to enable them to loosen the grip that petrol and diesel powered cars have on the market, to establish electric car as a viable and desirable option in the mindset of the buyer, to create the economies of scale, and to spur companies that manufacture cars in India to shift to electric car design and production themselves.

Almost all foreign manufacturers are advanced enough in the state of electric car technology that they can easily bring in all of their knowhow into India. Indian companies that do not have it can easily purchase the technology from tier 1 vendors. But the government has to enable it all by reviewing all taxation and industrial policies that destroy the economic feasibility of the modern electric car in India. The loss in revenues should be regarded as an investment by government in the ‘electric’ future.

The government must also understand the infrastructure development that will be needed. At the current rate of 3 million vehicles sold per year, if all of them were electric, at an average energy consumption rate of 350Wh per km and assuming an average of 12000 kilometres /yearr, the net energy demand for 3 million cars would be 12.6tWh, as against a current net generation in India of 1400tWh, implying an additional load of about 0.9 per cent every year. Adding 1 per cent capacity per year for electric cars alone is a serious but easily manageable target, especially when considering the money India will save on its vast oil import bills.

More significantly, the government will have to build a nationwide network of literally tens of thousands of charging points that will enable cars to be plugged in where they are parked overnight or at commercial locations. This is the most serious challenge since the electric car future cannot be realised unless every single one of the millions of electric cars that are envisioned to be on the roads cannot be charged on a daily basis.

Unless the government has a top-notch plan and all the seriousness in the world, the failure to provide adequate charging outlets will doom Gadkari’s electric car dream.

However, if the government combines flexibility, strong policy and execution, and strong-arm treatment of the entrenched industry, India will reach technological parity in the world and our children will thank us for the clean air we battled to give them. If we are serious about our health and the electric car future, there can at this stage simply be no question of even considering protections for local industry.