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The Move To A Sustainable Future Through Electric Two-wheelers

The Government should encourage battery development in India to enable innovation in this high value market.

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The 2018 Environmental Performance Index ranked India 177th out of 180 countries making India one of the worlds’s most polluted countries. Particulate matter (PM) and NOx were the main pollutants with PM levels in nearly all cities above the acceptable limit and causing health hazards on a massive scale. Additionally, India’s dependence on fuel imports had been costing the exchequer $70 Billion every year and given the global geo political scenario and its impact on oil prices, is likely to further increase. It is this context that has triggered a serious dialogue on the transition of vehicles dependent on fossil fuels to those using renewable sources, especially electric vehicles.

India as a country has a mixed record of being able to drive dramatic changes effectively. This note attempts to lay down the choice of action areas for accelerating this transition to cleaner cities and lesser dependence on fuel import without impeding transportation needs and assuming no material change in public transport infrastructure. This note drills down on the role of 2-Wheelers, risks to be mitigated and factors to be considered in policies for increasing the adoption of electric vehicles.

Firstly, 28% of the particulate matter causing air pollution in India’s most populous cities like Delhi in winters is due to vehicles on road and the rest from fuel and biomass burning largely for cooking and general heating needs. Within the vehicular particulate matter pollution, 2-Wheelers are at 25% of total vehicular PM (7% of total PM), despite being ~80% of the total number of vehicles. 

Moreover, one of the main factors causing vehicular pollution is the proportion of aged vehicles and the traffic congestion within India’s towns and cities. Vehicles older than 10 years have emissions at much higher levels than the current regulated norm for new vehicles. Cars and trucks in use currently have a high proportion (~17%) of vehicles over 10 years of age.

Also, studies have corroborated that at low speeds such as during congestions, vehicles burn fuel inefficiently and pollute more per trip. India’s key metros have congestion levels (% additional time to travel in peak hours) ranging from 130-170%. 2-Wheelers do not cause congestion and given the ease of traffic navigation on 2-Wheelers, their emissions are rarely a significant contributor of pollution caused by congestion as opposed to passenger cars which have much higher rates of causing pollution when in congestion. 

It is important to understand the efficacy of energy usage within the country for transport needs given the massive fuel import bill. The average mileage or fuel efficiency for a 2-Wheeler is ~60 Km/L compared to ~20 Km/L for passenger cars, implying lesser fuel consumption per passenger kilometer for 2-Wheelers, being significantly lower.

Furthermore, the simple 2-wheeler is an instrument of progress (esp. in rural parts of the country) providing much needed affordable access and low cost mobility to millions, making the country’s progress more inclusive. In the absence of public transport infrastructure for a considerable mass of the population, a 2-Wheeler provides the most cost and emission efficient transportation option.

With BS VI norms getting enforced from April 2020, emission norms for 2-Wheelers and passenger cars will be at par with the most developed economies of the world. Public transport in India is also used on an average by 30 million Indians daily to travel an average of 7+ Km. Undertaking an effort to significantly overhaul the public transport vehicles to use alternate fuels or electric energy may provide most immediate and significant impact both on the levels of air pollution within the country and on India's import bill.

Additionally, in order to ensure an effective transition to EVs, the government and the OEMs would need to ensure certain basic performance standards in terms of durability, reliability, quality, safety etc. to be acceptable to this mass segment. A push to transition to EVs will only be meaningful if the cost of vehicle ownership doesn’t increase significantly, as even at current prices there is low penetration of 2-wheelers (~12%). If the price of a 2-Wheeler goes up we might be giving the masses a less sustainable alternative. Lower cost options such as lead acid battery run vehicles pose significant issues in terms of shorter life, lower battery capacity as well as an environmental risk in disposing of used batteries.

Even as the government plans a significant transition to electric vehicles, it is important to ensure that the transition is seamless - alternate fuel and hybrids could represent a faster bridge transition to EV. The government and the broader ecosystem will need to ensure that the charging infrastructure is robust enough to drive adoption. 

The Government should encourage battery development in India to enable innovation in this high value market. We will need to put in place a talent reskilling (to EV) plan to create jobs across the supply chain. 

Lastly, recent studies have compared “well to wheel” emissions in case of internal combustion powered vehicles with similar end-to-end assessment of producing batteries, electric vehicles and providing electricity. As per the study, transition to EV is not favourable considering CO2 emissions. Further research is required to validate this outcome for India. 

All these aspects need to be considered carefully with proper analysis to ensure the highest level of impact in terms of the change undertaken. Understanding the role of each mode, risks from a consumer behavior perspective and addressing these systematically will be the difference between a successfully implemented change initiative and a poorly executed non-starter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Mukesh Malhotra

The auhtor is Founder and CEO of a Startup. He writes on Strategy, Technology, Investments, Telecom, Disruption and Startups.

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