Did you know that the electric car was actually invented by a gentleman called Ferdinand Porsche? Yes, the same chap who designed Herr Hitler’s Volkswagen Beetle, the ‘car for the people’, and continued to develop it in a company that bore his name. The same guy who is worshipped by petrolheads because he refined the concept of oversteer, by putting a big, fat and heavy air-cooled engine over the rear axle, in a car called the Porsche 911. I digress, but the story gets even better – Ferdinand Porsche, at the age of 23, developed an electric car with hub-mounted motors (like on high-end Teslas). This was a man with no formal engineering education whatsoever, but his talent was spotted by Jacob Lohner, a Viennese coachbuilder. Of course, unsatisfied with inventing the battery-electric car, Porsche and Lohner went a step further and developed the world’s first hybrid vehicle in 1900.
118 years later, we are still debating what the path ahead for mobility is. While Porsche may have developed the first battery-electric and petrol-electric hybrid, which I guess qualified as what carmakers today would call a PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle), they really did not catch on – because the batteries that powered the car weighed 1.5 tons, and the car itself was open. However, Porsche’s revolutionary work did not go unnoticed. His development, which was the series-hybrid system – where the internal combustion engine does not directly power the wheels – became the basis for the development of the diesel-electric railway locomotive, which powers the freight industry. And NASA copied his transmission for the Lunar Rover.
But electric cars? Well, they didn’t take off. Batteries are heavy, even today, and while energy density in batteries has improved dramatically since 1900, humans have also created an entire extraction, processing and delivery infrastructure for an energy-dense liquid that we shall politely refer to as dinosaur juice. This juice has allowed us to span every corner of the planet. Make no mistake, the internal combustion engine is the single most influential discovery since we discovered the ability to harness fire. It is, in essence, the most advanced form of harnessing fire.
Using fossil fuel has a downside, as we all know – it emits carbon. Carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, unburned carbon and some nitrogen and sulphur gases as well. However, we need this dinosaur juice and the energy it stores within it to move – but we have also built up impressive infrastructure for electricity, those fastmoving electrons that keep our lights on and air purifiers whirring. And electricity can be used to charge the batteries that we need to move, and *that* movement will be clean, because an electric car does not emit harmful gases.
Electric cars are also sexy now. Just look at what the world’s greatest real-life James Bond villain, Elon Musk, has done with Tesla. Say what you will, but all three cars that Tesla makes right now look fantastic, and can perform pretty well when you hammer them, all in complete silence. Every major company is going electric nowadays – it is, after all, the biggest buzzword in the automotive industry. You have the BMW i3s (a car your writer reviewed in this magazine a year ago), which is not the prettiest BMW by any stretch of the imagination, but it moves you around in electrified comfort on a platform that will form the basis of the upcoming e-MINI. Then you have Porsche, the company that bears Ferdinand’s name, taking their ‘Mission E’ concept a step further and giving it the name ‘Taycan’ – they promise it will be a ‘Tesla killer’.
But are electric cars all that they are hyped up to be? Your writer has driven quite a few of them, and if you travel to Trump-land, the queues outside Tesla showrooms are a sight to behold, as are the queues waiting for your Tesla to be delivered, by all accounts. However, electric cars also have an environmental cost, and that cost is wildly different in different parts of the world, because all electricity is not created equal. In a country like Norway, for example, (a rich country that makes most of its money selling the world dinosaur juice extracted from under the North Sea), half of the new cars sold were electric. Volkswagen sells its e-Golf in droves in Norway, but hardly any in Germany. Norway has the highest density of Tesla supercharging stations, and Norway also produces most of its electricity from water falling from a height.
In India, even with a push for solar power and wind energy getting some traction all over again, the fact is that over 80 per cent of our power is generated by thermal energy, that is, coal. Coal is not clean, no matter what Donald Trump says. Indian coal is pretty dirty, and on top of that, the ‘flue gas’ (the exhaust from a thermal power plant that is pumped into the atmosphere via a ‘flue’, which is what those chimneys are called) is full of sulphur. India has a lot of people without access to regular and reliable power, and if we are seriously going to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, we have to give them electricity. While solar and wind power make for great headlines, they can’t provide reliable power. Nuclear energy is expensive and large hydro-electric projects are not exactly great for everyone. Indian electricity, therefore, is ‘dirty’.
There is also the cost of producing a car. Everything has a carbon cost nowadays – just look at your air ticket. In an electric car, 60 per cent of the price is the cost of the battery, and close to half the carbon expended is on processing and transporting that battery. If you lived in Norway, with a lot of clean energy, the carbon cost of producing the car and battery along with the noncarbon cost of running the car is minuscule, compared to a dinosaur-juice powered car. Even in countries where thermal power provides half the electricity, the carbon costs of running an electric car, after accounting for the carbon expended to produce that electricity, is less than that of even a hybrid car.
However, according to a study done by Toyota (the world’s largest car maker, and producer of the market-leading Prius hybrid car) a fully battery-powered car in India would actually have a higher carbon footprint than a plug-in hybrid car, although carbon emissions would be less than that of a regular dinosaur-juice car. Yet, our politicians (one in particular, and no, it’s not the man at the top) are the ones going nuts over battery-powered electric cars, in a country where there are still millions of households without electricity, and where regular and reliable power outside upscale localities in urban areas is a real problem.
The power that charges an electric car might be cheap, but the batteries are not. The price for every kilowatt hour of battery storage is estimated to be around $200, give or take 10 per cent for some manufacturers, which have brought manufacturing in-house. You can argue that you don’t need that much battery power, but there is this thing when it comes to electric cars that is called ‘range anxiety’. You know how you feel when you’re driving on reserve fuel, with no dinosaur juice outlet in sight? Yes, that, but with electric charging points.
We have, in the past decades, built an impressive network of fuel outlets, where you can, in about five odd minutes, fill up your car and be good for another 500 kilometers.
It does not work that way with electric cars. While you can charge them from a standard home socket with the requisite amperage, it takes a while, around eight hours, to get a full charge. Something like a Mahindra e20 or some of the new ‘electric’ cars acquired by the government have small battery packs, in order to keep costs down. As we said earlier, the battery accounts for half the price of the car. A small battery pack will keep the costs down, but you will keep worrying about when the charge will run out. There is no hard and fast rule about how far a single charge can take you, but at normal speeds, you will need at least 40-60 kilowatt hours of battery storage to get a range of 500 kilometers. That means batteries that cost a bare minimum $10,000-15,000 per car.
This is fine on a luxury barge like a Tesla, because it is a fraction of the overall cost, but you should not expect to see a small, affordable Maruti or Hyundai electric car with a decent amount of range any time soon, unless there is a very dramatic breakthrough in battery technology or costs; as far as the latter goes, costs have already dropped by 80 per cent in the past two decades and have levelled off.
What is the future for electric cars in India, therefore? I think the Chinese might come to the rescue. Sure, India’s trade deficit with China is ballooning, but they could have the answer to affordability and driving costs down, with their scales of mass production. Take, for example, the Roewe Marvel X electric car, a remarkable piece of affordable engineering by the Chinese. It has a 54 kilowatt-hour battery pack, which gives it a range of 500 plus kilometers at an average speed of 60 kilometers per hour. Recently, as a guest of SAIC Motor, the Chinese automotive behemoth which manufactures Volkswagen and General Motors cars but have also started their own brands, Roewe (the former Rover) being one of them, I saw this car. Despite the battery, despite the luxurious interiors and voice-activated controls, it costs just $40,000 (around Rs 30 lakh), which is not bad at all for a car the size of a Jeep Compass. So, a combination of cheaper, more affordable cars alongside an improvement and build-out of the infrastructure can make electric cars a reality, but let’s not hold our breath and expect an overnight change, like some of our policymakers do.