Electric cars are the past as well as the future. They predated the internal combustion engine and competed with it in the early days of passenger vehicle production. Internal combustion engines won the battle once Henry Ford rolled out the affordable Model T, and it took a century for electric passenger cars to make a comeback.

In the present century, batteries have improved at a faster pace than conventional engines and it seems a matter of time before fossil-fuel propelled transport becomes obsolete. But that time has not yet come, and technology does not necessarily develop at an even rate. Rushing the process can prove disastrous, yet that’s what India keeps attempting.

In May 2017, the government’s preeminent think tank, NITI Aayog, and the Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit dedicated to environmental issues, convened a two day Transformative Mobility Solutions Charrette in New Delhi. “Charrette” is a fancy word for workshop, and is derived from the same root as “car”, so one could say the meeting was a cart about carts. India’s government followed up by putting the cart before the horse, twice.

The charrette produced a jargon-laden report mapping the future of electric vehicles in India. It recommended significant regulatory changes, setting up dedicated government bodies, and building capacities in the private sector. Specifically, its first proposals were for enabling interoperability of transport data, creating a central data sharing institution and establishing Unified Metro Transit Authorities at state and city levels.

‘I will bulldoze it’

The government has done none of these things. As far as I can tell, it hasn’t even begun consultations on applying the suggestions. The same is true for most of the recommendations further down the list. Instead, the message the government distilled from the report was, “ban internal combustion engines”.

In September 2017, Nitin Gadkari, Minister of Road Transport and Highways, announced a transition to all-electric passenger cars by 2030. He told automobile manufacturers, “I am going to do this, whether you like it or not. And I am not going to ask you. I will bulldoze it.”

Car makers protested against the idea, but began making adjustments to their plans based on the proposed legislation. Then, in February 2018, Gadkari took a sharp U-turn, not only discarding the radical transition, but abandoning the very idea of an electric vehicle policy. “There is no need for any policy now,” he said. “The electric vehicle standards finalised by NITI Aayog will be used as final benchmark.”

A week ago, NITI Aayog showed it had learned no lessons from that episode. It announced that all three-wheelers manufactured in India would have to be electric by 2023, and two-wheelers with an engine capacity up to 150cc would follow by 2025. If Gadkari’s idea was the equivalent of a tropical depression in the middle of the ocean gathering strength and making its way toward land, NITI Aayog’s diktat is like a Category 5 hurricane about to hit a densely populated city. If carried out it promises to destroy the motorcycle, scooter and auto component industries in India.

Leading two-wheeler manufacturers are furious, and with good reason. They have had no opportunity to plead their case, not having been invited to the 2017 charrette. And their case is pretty strong.

A Mahindra electric vehicle at at charging station. Credit: Mahindra Electric via Facebook
A Mahindra electric vehicle at at charging station. Credit: Mahindra Electric via Facebook

Vehicles that use lead acid batteries lag internal combustion engines in performance, and aren’t likely to find many buyers. Lithium-ion batteries can match internal combustion engine performance, being more energy-dense than lead acid batteries, but are very expensive. Customers are likely to be frightened off by prices and hold on longer to old bikes and scooters. Since these emit more pollutants than newly certified internal combustion engines, it will offset environmental gains from the conversion to electric.

There is no indigenous supply of critical elements of li-on batteries like lithium and cobalt, leaving us as dependent on imports as we are with respect to petroleum. There isn’t a single manufacturer in India making li-on batteries for two- and three- wheelers, nor is one likely to emerge in the next few years that can compete with China on price. We therefore risk killing a flourishing component manufacturing industry in favour of Chinese exporters.

We have not established even a semblance of the infrastructure required for wide electric vehicle adoption. Consider the case of taxis that have to be run on compressed natural gas. The mandate has existed in Bombay for over a decade and yet drivers often have to queue for hours because there aren’t enough CNG pumps in the city.

Charging challenges

Motorcycles and scooters are widely used in rural and semi-urban India, where infrastructure is in much worse shape than in the metropolises. What are the chances that enough charging stations will be set up in such places to service millions of new electric vehicles? Currently, there are fewer than 500 public electric vehicle chargers in India. China has over 300,000, but isn’t planning to ban internal combustion engines.

Power cuts are depressingly common across India. They last for hours and in some states it is common for outages to run for days. What are the odds that the government will manage to set up, within five years, a dedicated supply of electricity to charging stations along with a special tariff structure that would make electric vehicles cost-effective? Finally, the environmental benefits of switching to electric vehicles will be constrained by India’s dependence on mining and burning coal to produce electricity.

The abbreviation EV is used in poker as well as the car industry. It stands for “expected value”, which is the average outcome of an action like a bet. The NITI Aayog’s play of going all-in on electric two- and three-wheelers is negative EV to the highest degree. I anticipate a Gadkari-style U-turn, but the very idea that the think tank could consider making this bet lowers its reputation in every area of its operations.