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Drivers for change: how India’s ever-increasing car users could inspire sustainable infrastructure

To understand the challenges facing India’s infrastructure system one simply has to look at the statistics. 

Recent estimates suggest there are at least 103 million cars on the country’s roads. In Delhi alone, around 7.4 million vehicles are competing for space on the city’s increasingly grid-locked streets. The number of new car users is increasing at a pace that new road construction can’t keep up with. Even factoring in recent figures of slower car sales due to the economy, private car usage will continue to rise at an alarming rate as India’s burgeoning middle class cries out for a more comfortable rush hour journey. 

The test for India’s Government is how it can reasonably cope with an explosion in road usage. Goldman Sachs predicts that at least US$1.7 trillion would need to be pumped into infrastructure projects in the next decade to prevent economic growth from halting. At the moment, spending is currently only expected to be around US$500 billion during that timeframe. 

The question that many Indians are now asking - be they politicians, business leaders or commuters simply looking to get around – is what radical and affordable steps should be taken now to address this impending crisis? 

It’s clear that India’s Central and various State Governments are taking steps to explore and address the issue of future infrastructure. Mumbai’s monorail tests inspire some confidence, while the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, first explored in Bangalore in 2000, is rapidly expanding across the country, in cities including Pune, Delhi, Ahmedabad and Jaipur. 

The problem is that Indians loves their cars. As the country’s citizens become wealthier, they seek more luxury and more personal ownership. As a result of this social shift, the landscape of the nation is changing and so too must transport priorities. 

Until recently, the mere discussion of electric vehicles (EVs) was left for fantasists and dreamers. Diesel guzzling cars were here and they were here to stay. However, today, we are finally on the verge of an electric vehicle revolution. 

Renault-Nissan has become one of the world’s biggest advocates of EV. The company has gone on-record saying it believes EVs are set to change the face of mobility and it’s backing that claim with investment, to the tune of almost US$5 billion. In India, REVA’s new 30,000 capacity EV car assembly plant has just been completed, creating employment in Bangalore and positioning India as a world leader in the creation of EVs. REVA’s achievements were recognized recently when it was selected as one of the world’s 50 Most Innovative Companies in 2013 by Fast Company magazine. 

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Heavy Industries unveiled its Draft Action Plan for Electric Mobility. In short, the Government is on a mission to have at last six million electric vehicles on India’s roads by 2020. While this ambitious move inspires some hope and confidence, far more needs to be done to develop the wider infrastructure of India to support such aspirations. If every car in India was converted to electric today it would still fail to address the issue of severe congestion and risk making this single policy a stranded asset.

In order to shape an alternate model to address this challenge, projects such as TEV have been initiated. TEV, an open-source initiative, is based on a belief that motorists will never all completely give up their cars for other forms of transport, so policy must be shifted to offer car users the chance to be part of a green future rather than excluded from it. TEV focuses on a system of compact, electrically powered roads for use by electric vehicles – including private cars as we know them today. The roadways could also be used by public transportation such as mini-buses, self-driving pod cars known as robot taxis, and light freight vehicles. These electric roadways would be designed for rubber tired vehicles, but would be called ‘tracks’ because they would entail use of single lanes – similar to railways except that they would have no rails as railways do. The tracks would form a network and would be intended to supplement existing roads rather than replace them.                          

EVs would be able to travel on TEV’s electric tracks at much higher speeds and in far greater safety than even the latest high-tech cars can on a motorway today. Automatic control would enable close-coupling of vehicles (described by some as ‘convoying’ or ‘platoons’), so TEV would have a vastly greater passenger carrying capacity than traditional roads and even high speed commuter trains. Since the vehicles would be powered directly with electricity as they travel, there would be no limit to how far they can drive without recharging; in fact, batteries would be recharged during the journey, during which time the EVs would burn no petroleum and produce no local emissions. 

The biggest obstacle facing the implementation of pioneering infrastructure schemes, such as TEV, comes from those who argue that cost would prevent the project from becoming a reality. In fact, due to its increased carrying capacity, the cost per passenger-mile would actually be quite low. For example, a TEV track would cost far less than typical expressways and yet have three or four times more carrying capacity, enable more high speed, and arguably provide better safety and more efficiency. The scheme could also pay for itself through user tolls, automatically collected. This would eliminate many wasteful subsidies currently used to fund marginal transport schemes. 

The reality facing India is that failure to act and implement major radical projects will result in far higher long term costs - not only to the national economy but also to the environment. Imagine the country in 20 years time if there is no significant change to the nation’s current infrastructure policies. The truth is India could grind to a halt. It is a fact that is recognized by those in power. Brave decisions are needed – some will inevitably fail, but others could flourish, not only helping to solve India’s infrastructure crisis, but also making the country an international leader in green infrastructure policy. 

In the next 20 years, more cars are expected to be built around the world than in the auto industry’s entire 120 year history.  There is now a real opportunity for India to create solutions to the many issues this creates. EV implementations can form part of the country’s intelligent city strategies that embed electrification of transport into the wider context of comprehensive urban infrastructure programs. Future projects like TEV are exactly what India needs to build sustainable economic growth without ruining the nations’ rich and diverse environment. 

Caroline Jones Carrick is the UK-based Project Coordinator of Philadelphia Scientific, which is behind the TEV open-source project.