Hybrid cars in India

The Times of India on Jan 15th had a special report on India’s new-found love affair with the car and the resulting potential devastation on cities already crippled by a shortage of road space and parking, cratered by potholes, and snarled by mismanaged traffic. Although not explicitly mentioned in the TOI, the general anarchy on roads caused by a complete disdain of drivers towards driving rules and etiquette, the rising air pollution caused by a lack of enforcement of emission controls, and the hefty cost of petrol (nearly $6 or 4 Euro per gallon) are also severe issues facing Indian citizens as the the number of cars surge in the country. For good measure, one can also add the possible oil addiction, akin to the US, that India will face with the unchecked growth of cars in the country.

There is a solution for each of these problems. Let’s start with air pollution, the cost of petrol and the resultant inflation, and oil dependency.

Urban India is tailor made for electric cars, or at the very least, hybrids. Think about it for a moment. A drive of 15 kilometres in Mumbai takes between 25 minutes to over an hour, depending on traffic and time of day. It’s not very different in any of the urban metros in India. Not even Delhi, with its relatively superior infrastructure. Cars rarely go over 60 kmph, 80 kmph (55 mph) is the F1 speed of urban India. When traffic does move, vehicles are constantly in a stop-and-go mode. The need for strong acceleration is low, and the need to drive sustained distances at high speed is low. Rarely does a commuter drive more than 40 kms (25 miles) to get to work, or for errands.

So why not the Indian government push for hybrid cars or electric cars with subsidies? The government subsidizes rice, grain, power, agriculture, even laptops. Next step: subsidize green eco-friendly cars. We have seen the improvements in air quality from moving to CNG. Imagine the additional improvement if we can shift our means of transport to electric or hybrid powered vehicles.

The Honda Civic hybrid was far more expensive than the regular Honda Civic when it was launched in India. It put paid to the experiment with hybrid cars. Yet, sales of hybrid vehicles have mostly increased in the developed world. Toyota sold more than a million hybrid vehicles in Japan in 2010. In the US, sales of hybrids have gone up in since they first came out. However, the US government subsidizes the cost of petrol, and therefore hybrid car sales fluctuate based on the fluctuations of petrol prices and the state of the economy. Such an unpredictable situation hasn’t deterred car manufacturers from launching more and more hybrids in the US. Virtually every manufacturer has a hybrid model available in the US, including premium brands such as BMW, Mercedes and Lexus. The writing is on the wall. The day of the gas guzzler is now falling into night.

What has helped is that virtually every developed country, and quite a few countries with emerging economies, provide either tax incentives or rebates with the purchase of electric or hybrid cars. The USA provides up to $7500 as tax credit depending on the state one resides in and the battery size of the car. Canada provides up to $8000 as a rebate, the UK government will cover 25% of the cost of the car up to $8000.

If the Indian government is serious about air quality, and the country’s dependence of oil, then it should provide incentives to both auto manufacturers and consumers to increase the number of hybrids and electric vehicles on the roads.

Taking the argument further, the Nano should have been built as an electric car, or at least a hybrid, and subsidized by the government. The cost incentives to the consumer would have been far higher. An electric Nano might actually have sparked the auto revolution that the Tatas so desired.Even now, as the Bajaj family enters the world of four wheeler mini cars with the RE60, it should consider electric, or at least hybrid technology, as the means to power the vehicle. The RE60 will give 35 kms/litre, but an electric version would provide even more fuel economy at very little cost to air pollution.

In the meanwhile, here’s what China is doing to push the use of hybrids and electric cars. It is time for India to seriously consider similiar strategies as the rest of the world in moving to an oil-free and pollution free automobile experience.

I will discuss solutions to some of the other problems, such as traffic anarchy, in a separate blog post.