There cannot be a bigger fanatic than 37-year-old Puneite, Kamlesh Mallick. And we’re not talking about bigots here. In 2013, he bought a Mahindra e2o. For the next 12 months, he religiously blogged his daily experience with the electric vehicle (EV). “I was never a car person, I loved my cycle. But when I learnt about EVs — the technology, the magic of electrons powering the drivetrain, regenerative braking, the quiet drive — something clicked within me,” says the founder of PluginIndia, an online forum dedicated to EV enthusiasts. In the ensuing five years, the forum would end up bringing together 2,000 EV owners sharing their “electric” experience.
Sushil Sangoi, the 50-year-old founder of Maitri Information Systems, an IT company based in Bengaluru, is also an EV convert. He was among the early buyers of Reva, which was launched in 2001. Traffic in the city had already worsened, which convinced Sangoi of his purchase. “I did not see the point in buying an expensive car to drive through narrow roads.” While the first Reva cost 250,000, in 2008, he upgraded to a newer model that set him back by 400,000, excluding the 150,000 that he got for the old car. After driving around 90,000 km over nine years, he wants to get a new one. And he’s absolutely sure it’s got to be an EV again.
It was Chetan Maini who sowed the seeds of the electric dream in India with his model, Reva, back in 2001. In late 2006, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, along with Global Environment Fund, invested $20 million in Reva. But by 2010, Maini bought out the investors and sold out himself. “I didn’t want to have a long-term (capital) limitation,” Maini was quoted when he inked a deal to sell a majority stake to Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M), adding that the comfort level he enjoyed with Anand Mahindra and his vision helped him get over “the emotional hump”.
While the deal value was not disclosed, M&M picked up a 55.2% stake in Reva, and was to infuse 450 million as fresh equity investment. In 2013, an upgraded version of the Reva called the e2o was launched. Maini moved out in 2016.
The 16-year-old Reva, founded by Maini, had invested more than $50 million in developing the car and by the time it changed hands, it had sold 3,500 cars in all — that’s 29 units a month, over nine years. For M&M, the deal complemented its diesel hybrid technology for Scorpio and Bijlee, its electric three-wheeler launched in 1999. Work was underway on an electric version of Maxximo, its mini-truck, and the company was looking to leverage Reva’s technology for these initiatives. Mahesh Babu, CEO, Mahindra Electric Mobility, says, “We saw the potential in electric cars and electric mobility as something that was sustainable in the future. That’s why we went for it.” But since the buyout, M&M has sold less than 3,700 EV units till date. That’s around 38 units a months in eight years, not an electrifying narrative for an ambitious company such as M&M, and definitely not for a nation that is desperate to slash its fuel import bill of over 7 trillion per annum.
Interestingly, EV is not exactly a new technology and was discovered way back in the 1830s in the US. But post the introduction of the gasoline-powered car by Henry Ford in 1908, the auto industry followed a different trajectory. Though GM introduced a concept EV car in 1996 called the EV1, it was discontinued citing high costs and a small customer base. All the cars, which were leased to customers were taken back and crushed, leading to an outcry. “GM destroyed the electric car even though people were willing to pay for it,” says Mallick, who after watching the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? became an EV convert.
Mallick, who bought the e2o paying 650,000, can’t stop boasting about his purchase: “In these five years, I have spent 25,000 on maintenance and spare part changes. Of that amount, 18,000 was the extended warranty that I got after the third year. So, essentially, my maintenance outgo was a mere 7,000. If I had purchased a petrol car, I would end up spending that amount on maintenance every six months,” he points out. Atul Gopal, another e2o owner in Pune, says his wife uses the EV for her daily office commute that comes to around 30-35 km a day, roughly 750 km a month. “For charging the car, our electricity bill comes to 1,000 a month, which is around 1.3/km. When we had a petrol car, the average fuel bill was around 5,000 a month. I am getting a payback of about 4,000 a month, that’s around 50,000 a year. So, I have already saved 150,000,” says Gopal. “If the e2o is priced at 500,000 instead of 900,000, it would see higher sales,” he adds.
When Maini sold the business in 2010, Reva was being sold at 400,000. After the buy-out, Mahindra chose to discard the two-seater Reva and upgraded it to a four-passenger entry-level e2o priced at 900,000 while the electric version of Verito costs 1.1 million. Babu mentions that the more than 2x jump in the cost of the car is due to the switch over to lithium ion cells from the conventional lead acid ones. Also while the price differential appears huge for the small car, when it comes to the eVerito, the difference between the diesel and electric version is 200,000. “That’s because in a smaller car you don’t have the electronic component and drivetrain, which a bigger sedan has. In sedans, the only incremental cost is in incorporating the lithium ion battery,” he explains.
Indeed, what makes the electric car relatively expensive is the cost of the battery, estimated to be 40% of the total cost. Besides, according to Guenter Butschek, CEO, Tata Motors, lack of scale makes the case weak for localisation of high-value components. “Key components such as battery cells/modules, power electronics and control systems today are imported and constitute a lion’s share of the cost,” he informs.
While Tata Motors is looking to invest or partner with suppliers across the value-chain and drive localisation, battery cells may be an exception on this list. That’s the space Maini has chosen to venture into. Sun Mobility is a joint venture between Maini’s Virya Mobility 5.0 and Uday Khemka’s Sun Group to manufacture modular smart batteries that are smaller and lighter. Maini firmly believes battery costs would eventually come down. “It was $2,000/kWh in 2004 and is $250/kWh now; there is surely reason to believe that it can drop to $125/kWh in a couple of years,” he says. Maini is hoping to release the first prototype of his smart battery by the end of this year.
A 50% drop in battery price can change the equation substantially. Maini points towards countries such as Norway and China, where more affordable batteries resulted in a larger range of electric cars being rolled out. He adds, “It leaves more money on the table for the company, which means they can spend more on product development. Five years ago, both these countries offered just two cars, while today there are 30.” Babu concurs, “Demand will surge dramatically once prices drop to that $125 level. It could take another four to five years since the number of battery manufacturers is limited.” (see: Southward bound)
The Tesla effect
While automakers both in India and globally have reasons galore for EVs not taking off in a big way, Elon Musk has proved it otherwise. Tesla did not pitch EVs as a green alternative or as a way to save on fuel costs, but as incredibly powerful and fun vehicle to drive. It was exactly a decade ago in 2008 that Palo Alto-based Tesla, with its cutting-edge battery technology and electric powertrain, rolled out the Roadster. It went on to launch the world’s premium all-electric sedan, Model S in 2012 and in 2015 rolled out Model X, a high-powered SUV. Tesla has emerged as the top EV maker in the US with Model S selling over 27,060 units in CY17, followed by Model X SUV at 21,000 units. However Tesla’s most ambitious project, the Model 3, initially priced at $35,000 has now run into production delays and its final price will turn out to be much higher at $78,000. But, those who have put up a deposit aren’t complaining yet.
Incidentally, Tata Motors recently showcased its all-electric EVision at the Geneva Motor Show, which can go from zero to 100 km/hour in less than seven seconds with a top speed of 200 km/hour, and deliver a total range of 300 km on a single charge. M&M, which had acquired Italian design firm Pininfarina in late 2015, is also exploring the potential to build an electric supercar to be branded Pininfarina. Babu believes that it will take its time coming to the Indian market. Tata Motors EVision, too, is likely to be launched only by 2022.
Nitin Gadkari, minister for road transport and highways, had raised the hackles of the auto industry at a SIAM convention in late 2017 when he said the industry had to make the switch to all-electric by 2030, citing surging imports and rising pollution as reasons. “First, when I urged you [carmakers] for electric vehicles, you said the battery is costly. I coaxed you to start at least. Now, the batteries cost 40% less. And if you start now, the cost will be reduced further in mass production. Teething troubles are everywhere. Whether you like it or not, I am not going to ask you. I will bulldoze it,” said the minister, adding that those “minting money” would be in trouble.
As it turned out, the tough talk remained just talk as the minister later diluted the stance stating there would be no policy but just an action plan by NITI Aayog as the EV technology landscape was still evolving.
Not surprisingly, the automakers are only too happy. RC Bhargava, chairman of Maruti Suzuki, the country’s largest passenger carmaker, says, “It’s very pragmatic of the government not to set any fixed target or deadline. Today, the extent of knowledge of who exactly is the customer is not available — does a potential or existing car owner have the facility to charge the car at his place of residence or work? So, you need much more data, much more information. Everybody is guessing,” he says.
It’s not just automakers — even component makers are heaving a sigh of relief. In 2016, the Centre decided to leapfrog to the stricter emission norm of Bharat Stage (BS) VI (equivalent to the globally followed Euro VI norms) from April 1, 2020, by skipping BS-V altogether. To meet this new norm, reports estimate that auto firms, parts makers and oil refiners have to spend upwards of 700 billion. The forced transition to EV would have also put component makers in a spot as internal combustion engines (ICEs) have more than 2,000 moving parts compared with 20 in an EV. The switch to electric motors would have sounded the death knell for engine and transmission part makers, who account for half of the auto component industry’s $45-billion revenue. “Over the next seven to nine years, stringent emission norms across the globe aimed at drastic real-life tail-pipe emission reduction, would lead to significant increase in the internal combustion powertrain costs,” says Butschek of Tata Motors. Further, given that most automakers are looking to protect their market share by unveiling a slew of models, EVs will always be a work-in-progress. “Till the time EVs become economical on an unsubsidised total cost of ownership basis across mass-market vehicle classes, we expect moderate penetration of EVs, starting with fleet and mass public transportation,” adds Butschek. The view at M&M is no different. “Passenger cars are not where the EV game is. We are looking at mass mobility first and then we will go aspirational,” says Babu.
The biggest fleet order thus far has come from the central government, which has mandated Energy Efficiency Services (EESL) to source 10,000 vehicles on behalf of the ministries and PSUs. After some controversy about the price and specifications, both Tata Motors and M&M have signed up to supply at 1.12 million a piece.
But the very first operator to recognise the favourable economics in electric cars was Bengaluru-based Lithium Urban Technologies (LUT). This first big client, which gave Mahindra Electric a shot at the corporate fleet market, today has a fleet of 400 EVs comprising all Mahindra EVs — e2o, e2o+ and eVerito — across Bengaluru and Delhi. The company signed on British retailer, Tesco’s Bengaluru arm, as its first customer and now has Unisys, Accenture, Adobe and VMware as clients. Babu shares, “Of the first fleet, 110 cars have already clocked over 180,000 km.”
Last June, another fleet operator, the biggest in Bengaluru placed a record order of 1,000 eVeritos. While 100 units have been delivered thus far, the rest will be delivered over the next 12 to 18 months. According to Mahesh Hariharan, CEO, Baghirathi Group, infrastructure in the form of charging facilities is not easily available, due to which his company has installed 15 machines in the city. The capex per charging station works out to around 500,000-700,000 in addition to 1.1 million each per EV. In all, his total investment is to the tune of 1.3 billion. “If a car travels 200-220 km each day is when you can break even,” he says.
Babu of Mahindra believes it’s here that the EV scores. “For a diesel vehicle, the cost of operation will work out to 4.5-5/km. But an EV will use just 10 units for a distance of 100 km. Assuming even 10/unit, it will still work out to 1/km, which is far lesser than what one would pay for diesel,” explains Babu. (see: Cost-effective)
Breaking down the cost structure, Hariharan mentions that operating cost per month per EV comes to around 80,000, which includes driver’s salary, power, infrastructure, and depreciation. Fleet owners on average charge around 20/km and the car runs for 22 days a month. If one breaks down the 80,000 cost, the car breaks even at 180 km/day. Hariharan says the break even gets extended by 50 km on account of de-tours to access charging stations, which he has invested in “strategically”. As opposed to 230 km/day for electric fleet, a diesel fleet car usually breaks even at 150 km/day. While the economics may still work in favour of a fleet owner, for a personal car owner, given that the daily commute would not be more than 50-80 km, the break-even period will be much longer. Despite the favourable economics, operators still complain about the lack of charging infrastructure.
Unlike Tesla, which has created a network of supercharging stations, neither M&M nor the government has taken the lead to invest in this infrastructure yet. Tesla has set up 1,215 charging stations, 53 are being built and 56 are in the permit phase. Tesla started out the year with an average of six superchargers per station. According to a report by UBS, the average drive time between Tesla’s charging stations is 31 minutes.
China’s plan is even more ambitious. Chinese electric utility State Grid Corporation plans to install 100,000 charging stations along 11 major routes covering 202 cities and 36,000 km of expressways. That’s a far cry from how things are shaping up in India. “It’s a chicken-egg situation, what comes first — the charging infrastructure or the EVs?” says Mallick.
For now, the government is taking baby steps. After placing the fleet order, EESL has invited bids for over 4,000 charging stations, comprising both AC and DC chargers in the NCR region. While the DC chargers can fully charge an EV in 45-60 minutes, the AC station can take six to seven hours to fully charge. Besides notable names such as ABB and Siemens, start-ups such as EVI Technologies have also bid for the contract.
While the ball has been set rolling, it is not enough to lure the average car owner, feels Kumar. “Current charging infra points will take 90 minutes to power a 25 kWh battery for a range of 130 km. But will people invest in a vehicle that requires even 45 minutes of charging? I would think we need fast-charging infra stations,” he says. Conventional EV batteries can’t charge fast. “If you want a five-minute charge then your battery has to be of a different chemistry and that results in higher capital cost,” he adds.
If buyers will, indeed, make a beeline for EVs is anybody’s guess. Even as the critics point to the absence of charging infrastructure as a key hurdle, despite the very same problem, e-rickshaw and electric two-wheeler markets have come into their own.
Three is company
Sulajja Firodia Motwani, after selling Kinetic Motor Company to M&M in 2008, has been a prominent manufacturer of electric golf carts for the past four years. In 2012, Kinetic Green Energy and Power Solutions, a subsidiary of the Pune-based Kinetic group, joined hands with CSIR to create an electric three-wheeler named Safar, which was launched in 2016. Motwani feels the current EV narrative is completely misplaced. “Why should we copy the West where four-wheelers are dominant? In India 90% of the automobile market comprises two-wheelers, three-wheelers and public transport — why are we so focused on cars?” says the 47-year-old.
Motwani’s observation is not completely off the mark. According to Asian Development Bank, there are over 600,000 electric rickshaws using lead acid batteries plying on Indian roads. Also, since the battery capacity is small and can be charged from the commonly found 15-ampere outlet, e-rickshaws have flourished in places such as Delhi, and in towns of UP, Bihar and West Bengal, where commuters use them for last mile connectivity. “The e-rickshaws ply through the day and is charged during the night, so that takes care of the dearth of charging points. At 10 per person, commuters also find it economical,” she points out.
However, a majority of the e-rickshaws are sourced from unorganised players who import parts from China and assemble them here. While an unbranded e-rickshaw costs around 100,000-120,000, a branded one that Kinetic retails costs around 125,000-150,000, for a lead acid version and an additional 85,000 if it’s lithium ion. “We are paying the price for operating legally as we need to incur 12,000 as GST, 6,000 for insurance, 10,000-15,000 on RTO registration. That’s 35,000 extra for a much better vehicle that also meets government norms, besides 90% built with local content,” rues Motwani, adding that the government needs to clamp down on illegal imports. While the break-even on unbranded e-rickshaws happens in less than six months, in the case of Kinetic it takes around nine months.
But the company is looking to convert the unorganised market by appointing a strong-dealer network and incentivising them. “Normal auto dealers make 4-5%, we are offering them higher margins of 8-10% as volume is low,” says Motwani, who has appointed over 150 dealers across the country. The company, which has invested 1 billion in the business, is also looking at the commercial delivery segment.
It is not something that has missed M&M’s attention, and they, too, have launched an e-rickshaw. The largest player, Bajaj Auto, also claims that it is ready with its product and will launch it in CY18. However, S Ravikumar, president of business development, refused to reveal further details saying, “it isn’t the right time to talk about it.” A Credit Suisse research note states Bajaj faces a massive threat from three-wheeler disruption as within domestic three-wheeler passenger vehicles, it has 60% share and in the small urban three-wheelers, it has a dominant 80% share. The domestic three-wheeler and exports three-wheeler business each account for around 10% of Bajaj’s revenue. “We reckon both its share as well as the 30% profitability that it enjoys in this business will come under threat from the transition to EVs,” states the report.
Even as the three-wheeler space is seeing increased interest, the two-wheeler space has found a momentum of its own. In FY17, 23,000 e-bikes were sold. But a majority of e-bikes sold in the country were lead acid batteries, which last for two-and-a-half years, are suitable for low speed and cost between 8,000 and 12,000. “While lead battery can power only low speed scooters, customers prefer buying it because of its economical pricing (30,000-40,000) and low running costs,” says Sohinder Gill, CEO, Hero Electric, which accounts for 70% of the e-bikes sold in the country. Aslam Sheikh, who is an internet service provider in Thane, a Mumbai suburb, had first bought a Hero Optima in 2016, but soon bought another 15 units for 30,000 each. “The reason was two-fold: as a businessman I can avail of accelerated depreciation on EVs in the first year and, second, the running cost for the first year is zero since all maintenance costs are covered, and post that, it’s much lesser than the petrol bikes,” he reasons. On average, each of his 15 technicians travel 30-35 km each day and since the e-bikes don’t clock more than 35 km at the top range, it suits Sheikh to use it for a limited geography. “I own an Activa for personal use as the distance and speed that I need is much higher,” he adds. Similarly Prathamesh Bhosale, who runs a restaurant in Mumbai, owns four Hero e-bikes. His reasons are exactly the same as Sheikh’s.
But e-bike makers are not stopping with low-speed bikes. They are upping their game, launching models comparable in terms of speed and looks with conventional two-wheelers. Bengaluru-based Ather Energy has unveiled an e-bike, S340, which has a smart interface that integrates an in-built navigation and telematics hub with the scooter’s dashboard. The telematics hub, claims Ather, will ensure two-way communication between the vehicle and Ather’s server, providing data such as speed, riding mode, temperature, braking and other parameters to improve the ride experience.
Tarun Mehta, co-founder and CEO, Ather Energy, which launched its two models, Ather 340 and Ather 450 in June aims to sell up to 100,000 scooters over the next two-and-a-half years. “Priced at 109,000 and 124,000 respectively, the cost per km for a conventional two-wheeler is in excess of 2, while in the case of an e-scooter just two units of power are needed to cover a distance of 60 km. The 340 model can achieve a mileage of 60 km on a single charge, while the 450 can touch 75 km,” Mehta mentions. The total outgo for the user is 10 at an average price of 5 per unit, translating to less than 20 paise/km. According to the Credit Suisse note, a 40% fall in battery prices would result in the payback period of an electric two-wheeler coming down to just two years from over six years currently.
A big factor in favour of electric scooters is that the pricing is relatively inexpensive when compared with cars. For a Honda Activa that sells at 60,000, its electric counterpart costs 90,000. However, according to Pune-based Gopal, who runs a coaching class, though lithium ion battery fares better than a lead acid battery, users like him haven’t had a good experience with e-bikes. “I had a Hero e-bike for which I had paid 20,000, but the battery conked off. I had to replace the battery for an additional 10,000. Now, if 50% of capital cost is going in maintenance you don’t feel happy about it,” says Gopal.
Despite the conflicting experience around e-bikes, there are close to 10 two-wheeler start-ups which are at various stages of product development. Kapil Shelke, founder of Tork Motorcycles, thinks the movement to electric is inevitable since no other fuel will work in India. “The big challenge lies in the perception of EV which is seen as a more cumbersome proposition vis-a-vis conventional fuel-driven vehicle,” he says. His motorcycle was unveiled in September 2016 and production is expected to start later this year. The price of the motorcycle is in the 125,000-150,000 range, which Shelke claims will be the cheapest e-motorcycle in any part of the world.
A shot in the arm for Tork came this February, when auto component manufacturer, Bharat Forge put in 300 million for a 45% stake. “That will be used for capex over time,” says Shelke.
Interestingly, all the prominent two-wheeler makers have invested in start-ups. While Hero MotoCorp has invested 2 billion in Ather, TVS Motor has bought a 14.78% stake for 50 million in Ultraviolette Automotive, a start-up engaged in electric two-wheelers and energy infrastructure space. TVS is also developing an electric scooter code-named U218, which may hit the roads sometime next financial year. TVS Motor CEO KN Radhakrishnan had earlier said, “In a year’s time, we may do both hybrid and electric.” For now, every player wants to have a slice of the EV pie.
Hop on, hop off
In 2014, the Centre unveiled a new plan to provide subsidies for hybrid and electric vehicles of up to 125,000 for cars and 30,000 on two wheelers, and also for public transport vehicles. The Department of Heavy Industries in December 2017 sanctioned 4.4 billion to 11 states for the procurement of 390 electric buses, electric taxis and e-autos as a pilot project under Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid & Electric Vehicles (FAME) scheme that offers up to 60% subsidy on e-bus procurement.
India has over 1.6 million buses. During FY17, the domestic bus market (medium and heavy) grew by 8% at 47,262 units. Both Tata Motors and Ashok Leyland dominate the domestic market with a combined share of about 76%. However, they are not the front-runners in the electric race.
While Tata Motors won the contract to supply 190 e-buses for six cities, Goldstone Infratech (GIL), a Hyderabad-based company that manufactures electric buses through a technical collaboration with China’s BYD Auto, has emerged as an aggressive player. Last year, Goldstone won a contract to supply 25 electric buses to the Himachal Pradesh government to be used between Manali and Rohtang Pass. This was followed by a contract to supply six electric buses to Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) in Mumbai. The total order size was close to 580 million, that comes to around 19 million per bus. In all, the Goldstone-BYD combine will be supplying 290 buses to Telangana, Mumbai and Bengaluru. These buses come with AC fast-charging as a standard feature enabling coverage of up to 300 km on a single charge with four to five hours of charging. “We see a huge potential for e-buses. Conservatively, we are expecting it to be 100-billion market in three years,” says NK Rawal, MD, GIL.
Though domestic bus makers are grumbling about BYD being indirectly subsidised by the Chinese government and not having a manufacturing unit in India, the government believes competition will enable it to lower the cost of public transportation. “The entry of a foreign company has brought costs down as Indian firms were earlier offering electric buses at 40 million. Now Indian companies are matching prices [BYD’s rate of 19 million],” a government official was quoted in a media report.
Whether the bus-maker is Indian or Chinese, what is also working in favour of EV adoption in public transportation is that the deals are largely structured as wet lease. Rawal explains, “It’s not an issue at all as the state undertakings (STUs) have decided to procure and pay on per km basis. It’s a win-win as STUs get the best technology with full after sales support and it ensures buses are functional for the entire life cycle.” For example, BEST is procuring 40 electric buses for Mumbai with around 360 million subsidy from the FAME India scheme. The buses will come with zero cost maintenance, fuel and driver and BEST will only have to pay a monthly rent of 51-55/km for the seven-year lease.
Miles to go
Though world-over EV sales at 1.1 million units constitute less than 1% of total vehicle sales, countries such as China and Norway stand out for the pace of adoption. While China has been leading in terms of sales and a robust ecosystem, EV sales in Norway has reached as much as 42% of the total cars registered in the country, but that has come on the back of a strong incentive structure that includes exemption from value added tax and purchase tax, which averages 43% of the cost of a vehicle. Also, EVs are not only exempt from road charges, they also have access to a dedicated lane, free electricity and free parking at numerous charge points as well as municipal spaces across the country. Christina Bu, secretary general, The Norwegian EV Association, says, “We have managed to build the first mass market for electric cars in the world, and the financial benefits have obviously been the most important tool to influence consumers.” In Norway, currently four out of 10 cars sold are EVs.
Indeed, government incentives are critical to push forward with big transitions. Alternative energy such as wind and solar would never have scaled the way they have but for the incentives. In the case of autos, the high initial cost of vehicles is a huge mental barrier for buyers and deters them from taking that leap despite the hugely favourable economics. Says Bhargava, “While there is lifetime cost of ownership, one cannot ignore that there’s also an initial cost of purchase. If the initial cost is high, will you be able to put down a higher chunk as down payment? Will you be able to pay the higher EMIs? We don’t have a clear answer to that,” says Bhargava. While continuation of incentives and a firm commitment on the part of the government will certainly help manufacturers take bolder calls, they certainly need to take bigger strides and invest in their own products. After all, it’s by no means a small market. “Yes, even if one out of four cars sold is an EV by 2030, it’s a 3-million market, which is what the passenger vehicle segment sells today,” admits Babu.
As for Mallick, things couldn’t have got any better. “The government’s actions have at least got the industry going and there are already 100+ startups working on the EV space. This movement won’t stop just because some auto companies fear change.”