Electric vehicles are the most practical way of travelling in cities and the growing change in charging infrastructure will lead to EVs becoming common according Autocar India Editor Hormazd Sorabjee.
The ride-sharing technology company Ola has added on to the growing fleet of EV options in India with their launch of a range of EV two-wheelers under the name of Ola Electric.
Sorabjee believes that the demand of EVs sky-rocketing has been caused by increasing fuel prices aand the need for cutting down on carbon emissions. However, public charging infrastructure is still lagging behind compared to the increasing demand for EVs.
"It (charging infrastructure) continues to grow but not at the pace of the demand and sales of EV unfortunately. Charging infrastructure is there but it does not give the convenience or security or reassurance of having it at your home," Sorabjee told BOOM.
"You can go to a public charger, but sometimes what if there is another car over there? Or it is not working. These things are known to happen not just in India but globally as well. These are all issues that make dependence on public infrastructure still a bit of a hit and miss. But if you have it at home, you know that when you come home you can plugin and you are reassured that overnight you have the full charge and you are ready to go the next morning," he said.
The downside of the current generation of EVs is its short range. With charging infrastructure still limited to urban areas, inter-city travel in EVs is not possible. However, traveling within cities in an EV is very practical according to Sorabjee.
"If you are in the city it is very very practical but you have to ensure two things. That you have a dedicated parking space with a charging point. And once you have that either in the office, or at home it is super practical, super easy to use in town as a pure city vehicle," Sorabjee said.
Edited excerpts of the interview follow
What are electric vehicle engines, and how are they different fundamentally?
Hormazd Sorabjee: Electric Vehicles (EV) are the flavour of the month or day. But it is still a long way from becoming a complete reality, which we will come to later. But I think what is really driving electric vehicles and the fundamental difference between them--and internal combustion (IC) engines--is just one thing--that is carbon or carbon-based fuels. All the engines, IC run on hydrocarbons and by nature emit Co2, carbon dioxide. And carbon dioxide, the gas, we now know is responsible for global warming.
It has reached really emergency proportions. I think the planet is really in a very precarious situation as far as global warming goes. We have seen the weather patterns and even we are feeling it. Even right now we are also being hammered with cyclones and crazy rains and crazy weather patterns and it is all fundamentally down to global warming.
I think that is the fundamental difference. EVs do not emit anything at all, whereas IC engines emit Co2 just by the way they burn because they burn hydrocarbons. The earlier problem with IC engines was that they were very polluting. And that has been taken care of to a large extent by a lot of clean up technologies and tighter emission norms.
So, you can clean up the nasty pollutants but you cannot do anything about Co2 because what goes in has to come out and so the best possible thing that can come out from an IC engine is water and Co2 . Now, water is not poisonous at all, Co2 is also not poisonous. So from a health point of view it is not an issue, but from a global perspective it is an issue.
With EV there is no emission at all, I mean it is just an electric motor, I mean it is running on electricity which is a very clean energy source. Of course, how the electricity is generated, if it is generated using thermal, it is a different issue. But the main thing is EVs is way to a low Co2 future.
For someone who is trying to understand a motor in an EV, it is similar to the motor that drives my electric fan in my house. Would that be correct?
HS: Absolutely, it could be that or it could be a high top motor that drives elevators. In fact, initially there was a lot of poaching happening from elevator companies to car companies because people understood high top motors that elevators did. So, it is basically the same.
It is a very very simple form of propulsion. So, whether it is a fan or an elevator, or whether it is even a car, you have got a charge or current which goes into the motor, fed off by a battery. Obviously, you have got a lot of peripherals like actuators and controllers and battery management systems, which kind of control the way in which the motor is run; obviously they will not be running at one speed, the way a fan would like a fan.
It is very variable and for that, obviously you need a lot more technology. Of course, the battery is the heart of any vehicle and an electric current is the heart of any electric motor. Or either it is run off mains which is your house, or if it is portable, so it is the battery. So, the battery and the motor are intrinsically linked. The same way the fuel that goes into your tank and an IC engine are intrinsically linked.
When I buy an electric vehicle should I be thinking about what the battery is and is it safe? What are the factors at work?
HS: Well you know the battery technology is evolving. In the early days, the battery was lead acid. So, that is now moved to lithium-ion. There are multiple formulas of lithium-ion that people are working on. There are different kinds of cells in that--it could be a pouch cell, a cylindrical cell, these are the various technologies. Basically it is a lithium-ion pack. That is what the material is.
That leads to a greater question: what are the repercussions of lithium mining, sourcing lithium. We do not have any reserves of lithium in India. Will we be dependent on China? There will also be a certain amount of cobalt also coming, which comes from Africa and the Congo--over there the mining practices are questionable, the kind of labour they use--these are the broader questions we have to look at.
Fundamentally, the universal technology right now is lithium-ion and it is really making those lithium-ion battery packs more efficient and more importantly, even cheaper driving the cost down. So it is making them more efficient, giving them more range, bringing the cost down which has really been the trigger point for EVs to take off and make them somewhat practical. They are still far away from that but still somewhat practical.
So instead of a fuel tank, you obviously have a battery which is still much heavier than a tank of fuel. How does this or other factors impinge on the very construction of the vehicle?
HS: As you said, it is all round the battery which replaces the fuel tank. Now, the batteries are much heavier, in fact they are costly. In most cases they form a large proportion of both the weight and the cost of the vehicle. Especially in a car, their weight can go up by 250 kilos-300 kilos, which is a lot and even the cost can go up dramatically. That is really the biggest hurdle for the EVs. It is really the whole cost issue of the batteries. And then the charging issue because in a petrol pump, it is so easy to refuel an IC engine.
In an EV you cannot go get a bucket of charge and go on. If you run out of charge you are stuck. The only way to get back is to have the car put on the flatbed, you cannot even tow these cars because the motors all get locked up. It is not like you put it in neutral and have it towed at all. It gets complicated.
Interesting. You are saying that an EV, a car particularly cannot be towed?
HS: Typically, no. They cannot be and that is how it is. Because it runs on electricity. A lot of them do not also because it damages some of the motors thing if it is not done in the proper way, which is to have it working normally. Then it is not as if, if you are running out of juice you can go somewhere and charge. Even if you had a plug point, which you can have, it will take a long time to give you enough charge to get home.
This is the biggest worry and that is why you have this thing called 'range anxiety' which engulfs or overwhelms a lot of EV owners. They always have one eye on the range meter because the last thing you want to do is to get stuck, it is very inconvenient. Though you have many innovations--you have these portable vehicles that come up to you, with a big battery on it, so that they can give you a little bit of the top up charge, just a little bit to get home but again it is not very practical.When we look at advertisements for two wheelers, the emphasis is on power, performance, top speed, and so on. All of this I am assuming is not or cannot be so much of focus particularly when it comes to two-wheeler EVs. Would that be a fair statement--if so, or if not what is then the pull?
HS: You have to have a minimum level of performance. You have a lot of two wheelers right now, which are low voltage two-wheelers, which are very cheap. It just does not give you the minimum level of riding pleasure or experience. They are super slow, top speed is sometimes capped at 20-25 kms/hr, the range is not great, these are really huge huge compromises. I think the newer generation (of EV two-wheelers), which see Bajaj, TVS, SimpliOne and now Ola, they come with a pretty high voltage which gives you a level of performance.
And above everything the big advantage of EVs which everyone loves is that instant torque. Meaning the power is just phenomenal from the get go unlike the IC engine by nature of it has to build up the pulling power or the torque. But in an EV, it is there from the get go. So the whole riding experience in an EV feels much faster, nimbler, quicker than anything because of that instant response. Anyone who drives a vehicle wants that linearity, you want that responsiveness because it just makes it easy to drive. So I think performance is very much a part of the experience of an EV.
If someone were to ask you, should I buy an EV? I live in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad. Should I buy one? And if I do buy one what should be the determining factor in choosing that EV. For instance, I was reading that some EVs are offering all kinds of cool stuff on the console. You have telemetry, GPS ring fencing, and music and all of that, is that useful? What should people be looking for as the most important things?
HS: I mean that stuff is there. But a lot of the connected features are there in regular cars as well because those are not linked to an electric motor but are linked to the electronic architecture which both can have. Buying an EV, several things determine it.
One thing you have to understand is that, right now, because of the battery cost it is much more expensive than a conventional car. And I think the best reference point we have is the Nexon, because that is the only car that comes with both an IC engine and electric motor. Over there it is a couple of lakhs more expensive but with all the subsidies, that price is coming down, do not forget that the government is giving more subsidies. And also Tata Motors, I think their margins are much tighter on EVs because they are passing on a lot to the customer.
So, let us take the Nexon EV as a good example. That has a real world range of 180-200kms. But let us be on the 180 side. If you are driving in the city that is more than enough. You really do not need more than that. For city driving they are absolutely fine and that is the thing about EVs. They are just good for city driving. They cannot be your single car, because if you want to go out of town you will have a problem. The charging network is not there plus there is too much drama on the range dropping. So it is difficult to take it out of town.
But if you are in the city it is very very practical but you have to ensure two things. That you have a dedicated parking space with a charging point. And once you have that either in the office, or at home it is super practical, super easy to use in town as a pure city vehicle. These factors are important when buying an EV. Only for city use, and ensure that you are never far from a plug either at home or office and dedicated parking.
We do have some charging infrastructure. But that is obviously at the ground level. If I am on the fifth floor of an apartment complex, and my car is downstairs, obviously I have to find a solution to that. Secondly, would it be fair to say that charging infrastructure continues to grow?
HS: It continues to grow but not at the pace of the demand and sales of EV unfortunately. Right now EV demand has gone through the roof and in fact manufacturers cannot supply enough of them. And it is largely triggered by the high price of petrol. But you just do not have the charging infrastructure. Yes, charging infrastructure is there but it does not give the convenience or security or reassurance of having it at your home.
I mean, you can go to a public charger, but sometimes what if there is another car over there? Or it is not working, there is some issue...These things are known to happen. Not just in India but globally as well. I have been in the UK, there are a lot of issues, they do not take your charge, it is not working, some car is already parked over there. And there is an this new issue, if you get 'iced' which is a new term, which I also experienced recently when I was in Switzerland, luckily I had a plugin hybrid and so I could go back on the IC engine which is when an IC vehicle takes your parking slot because it is empty when it is supposed to be only for an EV. That is when you get 'iced'. You have these dedicated slots only for EVs but some guy goes and parks then you cannot charge.
These are all issues that make dependence on public infrastructure still a bit of a hit and miss. But if you have it at home, you know that when you come home you can plugin and you are reassured that overnight you have the full charge and you are ready to go the next morning
How do you feel about the driving experience in the city? Is there a sense of fulfilment? Once upon a point of time people bought cars and bikes for the thrill of it. Can EVs be thrilling to ride or should one just focus on the utility?
HS: Absolutely. Honestly it is a very normal experience right now. Firstly, there is a sense of feel good in the sense you know that you are driving something non-polluting, which is really the need of the hour. I would not call it polluting because the need of the hour is reducing your carbon footprint as much as possible. I think that really should be a mission for every individual moving forward. You are talking of temperatures rising by 1.5 to 3 degrees in the coming decades, which is going to be terrible because to reverse that will take several lifetime. So, that is something you feel good about.
The second is ease of driving. People do not realise how convenient it is to drive. There are no gears, there is not jerks, no lags, you cannot feel any kind of gear changes because there are none and the silence of it. All these factors come together to give you a very relaxed and easy driving experience in the city. You can get addicted to the way an EV drives because it has everything you want. It has super response, it is very easy to handle, you do not have to struggle with other peripherals, as I said, like gears, that sort of thing.
It is a novelty right now and very soon people will get used to it. The only thing I do not like about EVs is that all of them are one-dimensional. They all sort of feel the same, the instant torque that then tapers off as you go fast. There has to be a flip side.
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