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Electric & Hybrid Cars in India

Snapshot: The Hybrid and Electric car market is plodding along. Does it have a potential in India?

Sometime back, Mahindra Reva has just launched a new electric vehicle in the market, called the e2O. It appears snazzy and promises much better performance than its predecessor, the ‘normal’ Reva. A slew of other manufacturers are also lining up their pure electric and hybrid vehicles for the Indian market, but it will be interesting to see the prospects of hybrid and electric cars in India. Will they find takers?

That is the big question. Interestingly enough, electric cars are not a new idea. Electric cars were in fact the first cars made in the world before the internal combustion engine was invented, way back in late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Electricity was among the preferred methods for automobile propulsion, providing a level of comfort and ease of operation that could not be achieved by petrol driven cars of the time. Later, advances in internal combustion engines lead to the decline of electric cars, and of late the world is again taking notice of them from the end of the 20th century. The middle road then is a hybrid car. But what exactly is a hybrid? A hybrid vehicle is a vehicle that uses two or more distinct power sources to move the vehicle. The term most commonly refers to hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), which combine an internal combustion engine and one or more electric motors, arranged in parallel or series.

The first hybrid car to be sold in India was the Honda Civic hybrid, in the year 2008-9. This experiment did not go down too well with Honda, because the initial cars priced at Rs. 22 lakh a piece, did not sell at all. It was only when the company dropped the price to Rs. 12 lakh, as a stock clearance measure, did all the cars get sold. More recently, Toyota has been selling its Prius Hybrid for around Rs. 38 lakh, and understandably has not found too many buyers. Toyota is now selling the Camry Hybrid for around Rs. 30 lakh. Recently, BMW also joined the game by launching the ActiveHybrid7 for Rs. 1.35 crore. Saving the environment seems to be an expensive proposition at the moment.

The Government is also doing its bit. Recently it announced the National Mission for Hybrid and Electric vehicles, where a number of measures have been announced to promote the use of environmentally friendly vehicles in India. This includes offering subsidies, research grants and promotion of domestic industries on battery packs, electric motors, controllers etc. The Delhi government in fact also offers a number of incentives like free registration and road tax and other freebies for electric vehicles.

But this is not enough. To promote the use of Hybrid and electric vehicles, the first thing that the Government of India needs to do is to eliminate the taxes on import of Hybrid vehicles. This is something that it is not wont to do, because the domestic industry will start crying foul, although currently the capability to manufacture Hybrid and Electric cars does not exist in India. Even with something as radical as Mahindra Reva’s e20, the compromises are far too many. A limited range, only two doors and limited space makes the e20 an expensive proposition at Rs. 6 lakh. Couple this to the fact that you need to change the battery pack every 5 years, does not make this a very attractive proposition. Limited charging areas also remain a problem and those who live in condominiums will also find charging a challenge.

Globally also electric vehicles are not doing well. The only cars which have met with some success are Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi i-MIEV. This is in advanced countries which have charging points for electric cars and infrastructure is better geared up to handle this relatively new technology. It would be worth noting that most other vehicles by automobile manufacturers are still only in the concept phase and most have not left the golf courses they were initially designed to have run in.

The future for electric and hybrid cars is very bright – infrastructure problems and other grey areas not withstanding. The Indian Government is trying to push their use whilst countries across the world are doing their bit. City centres like Shanghai now do not allow two-wheelers with conventional engines to enter the main central area of the city – only electric bikes are allowed. European countries do not impose a congestion tax on electric and Hybrid vehicles, while America is doing its bit by offering a number of incentives to electric vehicle owners.

In India, a lot of other important matters need to be grappled before looking at the aims of this strategy. Sure, promoting Hybrid and electric cars is a major thing to do, but in a country which is electricity deficient and produces most of its electric power from coal, the benefits of driving an electric vehicle seems to be a distant dream.

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