Imagine a system where you are stuck at a traffic light and switch off your engine, but keep the air-conditioner on and the stereo playing. And then—when you slip into gear as the lights turn green—the engine starts seamlessly! No sputtering or tension of the engine failing to start.Pawan Goenka, Chief Executive Officer, Mahindra Automotive, worked closely on hybrid vehicles while he was in the US over a decade ago. He feels that the aforementioned “micro-hybrid” technology will become prevalent in many vehicles sold in India by late 2009. And Mahindra has taken a lead—installing it in their Scorpio and Bolero utility vehicles earlier this year. Goenka says if the first batch of vehicles does well, the technology will make it across all vehicles that the group makes.
Full-fledged hybrids have not been that successful in India. Honda’s attempt with the Civic Hybrid was a sales disaster and the company had to slash prices by Rs 7 lakh to get rid of the stock. The problem is that hybrid vehicles in India have to be imported and thus face the punitive taxes that are levied on Completely Built-Up (CBU) vehicle imports.
According to experts in the industry, making an indigenous hybrid would add between Rs 2.5 to 3 lakh to the price of a vehicle. Even with government incentives and lower excise duties, the vehicle would still cost Rs 1 lakh more than a standard version. Says Goenka: “It will be a niche success, but I believe it will still take some time to convince most car users that a hybrid makes economic sense.”
The all-electric Reva has also seen tepid sales in India, even though it has had moderate success in the UK (as the G-Whiz), because despite virtually no duties, it still costs over Rs 3 lakh. The real growth story will unfold, however, in the electric twowheeler market that has seen strong growth in the last couple of years. Soaring price of fuel and the advent of low-cost models has pushed as many as 80 different manufacturers, ranging from relatively small players to auto biggies such as Hero Motors (in a tieup with UK-based Ultra Motors) to invest in this market. With the retail and real estate markets in a slump, expanding dealer chains will be difficult, especially for smaller players.
According to some industry estimates, the e-bike market in India is estimated to grow from 170,000 units in 2007-08 to 240,000 units this year. Ultra Motors expects to sell around 60,000 units this year. Electrotherm India has also jumped in, with scooters under the YoBikes brand name. However, problems persist both in terms of technology and marketing of e-bikes. For starters, the battery technology remains limited to lead acid variants, with mileage of not more than 80 km per charge. More modern variants are expensive, adding to the overall cost of the vehicle, making it unaffordable to consumers. While Pune-based Ace Group has tried to locally manufacture batteries to slash costs, it’s only a small step in cost reduction.While smaller 100-150 watt bikes don’t require a two-wheeler licence to ride, larger scooters housing a 250-watt engine does require one. The vehicles have varying speed between 20-60 km/hour and some electric two-wheeler makers claim these bikes cost as little as one-tenth of their petrol counterparts (per km) to operate. In addition, at least two state governments—Delhi and West Bengal—have offered subsidies on electric two-wheelers, making them an even more compelling ride.
Alternatives on wheels
—With Rahul Sachitanand