Battery swapping can propel India’s electric car revolution

Amid choking pollution, India is pushing hard for wider use of electric vehicles, but many challenges remain. One of them is lack of charging infrastructure, say ADB’s Sohail Hasnie and Gayam Motors’ Raja Gayam.

Imagine you’re buying a car, and the manufacturer forces you to purchase not only the vehicle itself but also demanded you pay upfront for 10 years worth of fuel. About $25,000 for the car and another $50,000 for the gas. Would you still purchase the car? Absolutely not, unless the gasoline was given at a discount price, right?

Anyone shopping for an electric car could be forgiven for thinking that manufacturers are asking to pay upfront for future energy use. These vehicles are still on average about 35 per cent more expensive than non-electric cars— despite gradually declining battery prices and the promise of practically zero maintenance fees.

It’s the cost of the battery technology that pumps up the sticker price. This explains why not many electric cars are being sold in developing countries like India, and people are waiting for battery prices to come down further.

Many Indian cities are among the world’s most polluted, and vehicular pollution is one of the major causes. Having signed and ratified the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, India is obligated to bring down its share of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Electric vehicles can be a solution to air pollution, as they can be charged from any power outlet. But they are not seen as the solution yet by the poor because of the prohibitive upfront cost.

This is now an urgent issue in India, where the government is currently drawing up the details of an ambitious plan to promote electric vehicles, including banning the sale of non-electric vehicles by 2030.

Electric vehicles can be a solution to air pollution, as they can be charged from any power outlet. But they are not seen as the solution yet by the poor because of the prohibitive upfront cost.

Tenders to procure 10,000 high-performance electric cars have already been announced, and the government is expected to invite bids for 50,000 electric three-wheelers from the original equipment manufacturers by end of this year.

India’s push for electric vehicles is moving forward, but many challenges remain. One of them is the country’s lack of charging infrastructure.
Buying storage as a service

Beyond installing more charging stations, which will be a sure thing once electric cars become mainstream, maybe the short-term solution could be sharing the infrastructure (batteries) rather than building new infrastructure so users can charge their batteries individually.

In 2014, while Indian electric vehicle manufacturer Gayam Motor Works (GMW) was designing and developing electric three-wheelers for a Japanese firm, it became clear to them that the key to electric vehicle adoption in India was to make charging as simple as going to a fuel station.

People don’t want to buy batteries; they want to buy storage as a service. One liter of gasoline delivers the equivalent of 9 kWh of electricity, while an average car battery stores about 30 kWh.

Comparing side by side, the Nissan Leaf electric car has a range of 160 km on a single charge (30 kWh), whereas the non-electric Nissan Maxima needs 15 liters of gasoline (or 135 kWh in electricity) to travel the same 160 km.

However, new generation batteries—lithium-ion and not to lead-acid—are characterised by their relatively high power-to-weight ratio, energy-to-weight ratio, and energy density. Lithium-ion batteries are smaller and lighter as well as more durable and reliable; they reduce the weight and improve the performance of the vehicle.