You are here

A futuristic vision for mobility, connectivity and energy – Can India handle it?

Sustainability Outlook spoke to Chetan Maini, CEO of Mahindra Reva on the intertwined future for digital connectivity and electric mobility. 

What is on the horizon for electric cars in India?

Fundamentally the market globally is seeking an ecosystem solution. In India, we are looking at creating a range of charging stations around the country and we hope to launch fast charging options which can charge within an hour. We are looking at how we can implement these solutions with a better cost structure by getting much needed infrastructure in urban areas.

Another area we are working on is financing in the Indian market. For example, we have removed the batteries for the car in our "Goodbye Petrol, Hello Electric" program with the idea that people don't have to worry about how long their batteries will last, or how well they will perform, but instead people can see in a month that they are benefiting on the financial side even if they have to pay Rs. 5 lacs for the car. I believe our 'pay as you go energy' is a very innovative financing step –it captures low operating costs over the lifetime of the electric car, and creates a business model around it. We are hoping that we will see traction in the next 6-9 months as we start to work on the financing side.

Now that the new government is in place, we are hoping that NEMMP policy gets implemented in the next 6 months or so. We've been talking about demand subsidy for the end customers, as well as supporting charging infrastructure, and regional development for this industry. In general, both in terms of internal and external perspective, from product, to infrastructure to financing, you are going to see a lot happening in the next 12 months.

When it comes to a purchasing decision around an electric car, what are the barriers at play?

 If you look at our numbers and the total cost of ownership over a 5 years period, electrics are better than equivalent gasoline cars so I think we have a longer term viable proposition. However, there is a general lack of awareness in the Indian market about the costs, the process of charging the vehicle, battery life, etc. I certainly think that is one major challenge.

There is an inertial aspect to the adoption of new technologies however the good part is that there are compelling advantages to the electric car experience – these are helping to overcome the inertia. That fact that you can refuel at home; that electric cars don't need as much maintenance; the driving safety and electric features are very nice and very unique –these are critical aspects shaping people's interest in electric cars.

 The second barrier is a price perception: when a new technology comes in, there is a financial barrier. I do hope the new government policies can help address this. In Norway, over the last 3 months, EVs sales have been in excess of 10% of the total auto sales. There is a shift point after sales reach 10%, because there is great social acceptance and stakeholders get aligned around infrastructure. Take China - in 1999, they had 20,000 scooters; now they have 120 million scooters, and also produce 20 million scooters every year. Imagine in 13 years, the government enabled policy which in turn catalyzed adoption leading to scale reduction of prices. 

Have you had any indications of new government outlook on NEMMP?

If you go back, there were subsidies through MNRE and these were subsequently going to be replaced. The challenge was that there was gap between the old policies switching off and the new policies switching on and also there were just delays associated with the last government. The indications from the new government till date are that the policy goals in the last few months in this area have not changed.

Further, the idea of integrating all the energy related departments in one group will be really helpful - the new integrated outlook will enable a much more holistic view of how we look at energy and energy security. I do hope this will move in the right direction.

Are you looking at non consumer electric vehicles (e.g. buses, fleet vehicles)?

Electric vehicles are a part of a spectrum. Mahindra Group companies are working with a wide range of EV products and the idea is to diversify across the wide range of platforms. We showcase products, which are great for point to point transport and last mile connectivity, especially for cities with metro transport. We had worked with the Delhi government to conceptualize a pilot project on it, which we had announced, but due to changes in the government, the pilot has been delayed. So yes, we are looking to electrify a range of platforms.

Could you help us visualize a future with not only electric vehicles, but an 'internet of things', which brings to bear the intertwined future of personal mobility, as innovations in data, energy and lifestyles evolve?

We are seeing a change in the 100 year old auto industry. We're going from energy that uses gasoline to energy that uses hydrogen and electricity. We're going from being mechanically powered, to being electrically powered. We're going from a standalone view of technology to a very connected, online and a whole new level of realtime technology that has not been experienced before.

People are looking for solutions for mobility which they can access to go from point A to point B. If I wake up and want to go to work, I could use the metro, I could opt for car sharing to help me cover the last mile from my commute to work, and if I check my app in the morning, as part of my connectivity, I can quickly select the best possible way for me to get to work – optimized for cost effectiveness, best possible time, lowest energy, or whatever other parameter I want to use to decide. This is the context of how things will change: you'll have a change in energy, you'll have a change in the way you use technology and to top it all, you will have a change in ownership for mobility across a gamut of areas.

What does it mean to have 'clean mobility'?

'Clean' means 'end to end' - products need to be clean, i.e., not only the way they are made but also the way they are used! A 3m by 3m panel produces enough energy to power a car like the e2O for 15,000 km every year for the 25-30 years. So the fact that "being clean" is an end in itself is very valuable. We're going to see clean products and clean facilities – leadership is going to be a driver. There is a huge opportunity for electric cars to act as storage mechanisms in future, and to do the load balancing requirements which are essential to increase the renewables in the energy mix. There is a huge potential to make a difference in this nexus of energy and mobility in India.

At present, there is remarkable innovation in enabling connectedness and mobility for consumers. How do you think this will work in India in 2040?

Connectivity via a mobile device or connectivity via a grid would enable you to be part of a larger ecosystem of both energy and information. Today, we already have mobile apps which can turn off or control your air conditioner, guide you on charging and connecting to the internet etc. Connectivity will also link into how people virtually travel. The concept of electrics and driverless cars will change the perception of mobility in India. For example, if you want to be a part of a car-share program, the biggest barrier is first and last mile connectivity. However, with driverless cars and electrics, you can essentially press a button on an app while sitting at home, and a driverless car will be able to arrive and take you to where you want to go. This network of driverless cars will also end up being more efficient and be able to optimise energy use over a whole network, rather than going at 100mph on a freeway from single journey from point A to B only. The solutions for India are not very different. The solutions to promote integrated mobility will reduce overall power and infrastructure for cities. One can use the concept of virtual mobility to reduce the overall power requirement for a city.

How does this all work together? Is it sustainable?

Let's say today we had 100 EVs, and tomorrow we have 100,000 EVs. Each of these vehicles would use 10 kwh of energy. Suppose at 10am in the morning, cars go to work and get plugged in and at 3pm, people take their cars back. What if during this peak time, the system of electric vehicles and the energy grid worked off a network of solar panels? That means that using green energy, we can potentially put in a 1000MW back into the grid.

Cost-effectiveness is very critical for the Indian consumer. Electric vehicles are 10 times cheaper to operate. You add the solar side to it, and all of a sudden, a 3m by 3m panel in your house is suddenly injecting free energy into the grid.

In Tier 2 and Tier 1 cities, mobility can be revolutionized across a range of areas. Every city center is getting a metro. You can supplement metro stations and mass transport access points with charging infrastructure and use this to develop last mile connectivity. Metros are only effective if there is last mile connectivity. There is no real limitation to the scope of all this.

How clean really, though, are electric cars?

Our facilities are platinum facilities, the first in India. We have the lowest carbon footprint of any product in the world. Our panels are impregnated colour, we don't paint them and the companies which supply us panels get 98% of their energy from renewables. Our electric cars have 1200 components, compared to 4000 in a normal gasoline car. The fuel components associated with our cars need a lower amount of energy to produce and manufacture. We use bonding and new materials in our cars which reduce the overall manufacturing footprint.

When it comes to batteries, the Li batteries tend to last much longer. I could use it in a car, for 6-7 years, and after that, I could use the battery for storage for solar installation, inverters, or grid storage back-up devices. In a secondary role, a battery could last another 4-5 years. At the end of its second life, the battery will need a formal recycling process.

From a sustainability perspective, the capability for a battery to have a second life is very critical. In the earlier models of Reva, we used 250kg of lead acid batteries. The capacity of the battery was about 6 kwh of usable energy (actual capacity is much higher). Now the advanced lithium ion batteries weigh 100kg and deliver 10 kwh.

In this example, even after 7 years or something, perhaps the 10 kwh of usable energy becomes 8 kwh. So, the 100kg battery pack after 10 years would still have 20% more energy than a brand new 250kg lead acid battery packs currently used today, at one-third the weight.

What is required to manifest the vision of mobility in India?

 The technology is here. It's about getting the policy right at the larger level. It's about having a financial mechanism that allows people to see the total cost of ownership and to benefit from it now. There is going to be areas where infrastructure is required, or other barriers, but I don't think this is impossible. With better policy and society's desire for better changes, technology will always get better and improve. Go back 5 years, and no one had an i-Pad. We have very short memories when it comes to remembering what is possible and about our reactions when technologies are first introduced. I think the younger generation are making decisions that are much more questioning of the tradition views on mobility and the next 5-10 years will be an exciting time for electric vehicles.

Author: Sustainability Outlook
Industry Term: NEMMP