Monday, February 6, 2023
HomeOpinionDashboardFor Indian buyers, Hybrids can be pitstop. EVs still the future

For Indian buyers, Hybrids can be pitstop. EVs still the future

The gold standard for EVs in India will have to be established with the passenger cars. But the choices remain relatively limited, and expensive.

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A few months ago, in one of my early columns for ThePrint, I had argued that your next car should be electric. While I stand by my words, and nothing has dramatically changed in these six months, I have received a lot of feedback on my advice. And much of that is around the launch of ‘strong’ hybrid vehicles in the recent past from Honda, Maruti-Suzuki and Toyota. That, coupled with the limited choice of electric vehicles in the market, particularly affordable ones, there are some cogent arguments being made against a rapid adoption of EVs. What also concerns many is that the affordable options on the block also bring with them high levels of parts dependency (particularly batteries) on China — two of the larger players in the electric passenger vehicle space are Chinese: SAIC (through the MG brand) and BYD.

However, I continue to believe that electric vehicles are the future. Yes, there are some serious questions surrounding them, particularly involving two-wheelers. But with the large established manufacturers such as Hero MotoCorp, which is launching their Vida brand of electric two-wheelers in early October 2023 and Bajaj and TVS ramping up production, many of the smaller fly-by-night operators will fade away. In the three-wheeler space, while the e-rickshaw is a dangerous impediment, the entry of well-funded companies with proper designs and manufacturing processes will transform the segment. In Delhi, the entry of the ‘Blue autorickshaw’ is changing perceptions. And in the cargo space, electric three-wheelers and small commercial vehicles, colloquially called ‘chota haathi’ are already transforming e-commerce deliveries in metropolitan areas. And then there are buses. As manufacturers such as Switch Mobility bring their electric double-decker to Mumbai, buses too are going electric. In the past week, a massive order of 5,600 electric buses was placed by Convergence Energy Services Limited (CESL), a joint-venture company owned by power-sector PSUs that will be deployed in several Indian cities.

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All this is well and good. But the gold standard for electric vehicles in India will have to be established with the passenger cars. And the fact is that choices remain relatively limited, and expensive. Although that might start to change later this week with the introduction of two hatchback EVs, the Tata Tiago EV and the Citroen C3 EV. While the prices for both these vehicles might be 30-50 per cent more than their equivalent petrol-powered counterparts, the running costs of EVs is negligible compared to internal combustion engines. Smaller hatchbacks like these will have a running cost of a rupee a kilometer or less. Even large EVs like the Audi e-tron Quattro cost less than two rupees a kilometer, the equivalent Audi Q5 that runs of petrol costs between Rs 10-12 per kilometer—this in Delhi where petrol is significantly cheaper than most other cities where the Q5 can cost as much as Rs 15 per kilometer to run. But the e-tron costs Rs 30 lakh more than a Q5. And even if you add up the savings and assume that over the lifetime of the vehicle, petrol prices will rise 30-40 per cent at the very least, the math still is marginal at the very best. In smaller cars, the math makes a little more sense because they have smaller battery packs, the single most expensive part in an EV. Though smaller battery packs mean less range. So there is that compromise to make.

I have no doubt that improvements in battery chemistry and optimisation software will lead to dramatic improvements in range and performance in the coming years. Look at the Apple iPhone: in the past decade, the size of the standard device has not increased all that much but its capabilities have gone up manifold, including improvement in battery life without much increase in the size. More efficient motors, better regenerative systems and other improvements will allow for these range and performance improvements in EVs.

That is not to say that range concerns are not an issue today. Coupled with the massive price differential for EVs, it is leading to a simple question: does it make sense to buy an EV today? Not in 2023 or 2024, when an electric vehicle could tick most of the boxes, but in the here and now. Particularly in segments where people are buying cars, such as the extremely lucrative ‘Creta’ segment. A few weeks ago, I had reviewed the upcoming Mahindra XUV400 EV and that is a nice vehicle but needs a bit more finishing work; the Hyundai Kona EV and MG ZS EV are both attractive, but cost around Rs five lakhs more than equivalent petrol/diesel models. And looking at the efficiency of the Hyundai Creta Diesel versus the Kona, even factoring the shorter diesel vehicle lifespan or rooftop solar-power generation at home that can reduce per-unit electricity costs substantially, the calculations today make no sense to go electric. Sure, if you are altruistic towards the planet, and you ought to be, it does, but finally, not really.

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Which brings me neatly to strong hybrids like the Honda City e:HEV and Grand Vitara, which I have reviewed earlier. These petrol cars have a small battery pack and extremely complicated running gear, which makes them cost around Rs two-three lakh more than their non-hybrid models. Strong hybrid cars, unlike say, Maruti’s ‘Smart Hybrids’, are cars where the battery can propel the car by itself, independent of the engine. On the Honda City e:HEV, the hybrid gives a real-world fuel economy nearly double that of a petrol variant. While I am yet to drive a Grand Vitara or the Toyota Hyryder in daily-use conditions, the economy of the hybrid versions will be far superior compared to the regular versions. Instead of costing Rs 10-12 a kilometer, they could cost Rs five-six a kilometer and make up for the price differential (at today’s petrol prices) in 7-8 years of ownership, all while being better to the environment.

The problem is that Hybrids attract the same rate of taxes that normal cars do, which has led the government to revisit the suggestion that cars be taxed not by their length or engine size but by the amount of emissions. If this happens, like it does in many European countries, it will make Hybrids much more attractive while India can lay out the infrastructure — from manufacturing batteries to putting up charging points that support EVs. It makes more sense to buy a strong hybrid today. It may not be the case by 2024, but you always buy a car in the moment.

The iPhone 15 will be better next year, but if you need a phone today, you’d get the iPhone 14.

@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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