Even as the much-expected-to-be eventful 2018 gets off to an electric start, automobile companies the world over are heading for green cover.

With a serious acknowledgement and understanding of the prevailing scenarios, both on the environment and technology fronts, carmakers are scouting for sustainable ways to preserve the ecosystem, and at the same time, lay futuristic foundations through innovation. And among the best ways they look to accomplish this roadmap is through alternative powertrains, predominantly the tried, tested and trusted electric mobility platforms.

Historic context

A matter of fact remains that both the automobile and electricity have transformed the future of mankind. Electricity is a freely occurring natural phenomenon, whose existence was discovered in 1752 by Benjamin Franklin, while more than a century later, Karl Benz invented the motorcar in 1885.

However, it was more than a century afterwards, when cars were already commonplace, that carmakers began to deconstruct ways of bridging these two pathbreakers.

“Cars mean unstoppable use of non-renewable fuel, adding to pollution, and loss of green cover, even if in the long run. Also comes the impact on the car owner’s pocket, in terms of fuel and maintenance costs. Call it a means to find ways to use more environment-friendly sources to run a vehicle or to seek technologies that help the industry grow in relevance as days go by, electric mobility holds the key to revolutionise the automobile industry of the future,” says an auto expert from a leading consultancy, not wishing to be identified.

Interestingly, the first thought to even use electricity to power vehicles came in 1832, when Scottish inventor Robert Anderson invented the first crude electric carriage powered by non-rechargeable primary cells.

By 1897, EVs had become quite popular. The first e-taxis had begun serving New York City, while Connecticut-based Pope Manufacturing Company became the first large-scale American electric automobile manufacturer.

It’s what fuels best

While throughout the earlier half of the 20th century, EV pioneers experimented with various ways to tame the needed technology, internal combustion engine-run automobiles had already made their point strongly.

With the two World Wars requiring immediate use of road vehicles, tanks, aircraft, submarines and ships, industry had to use the most suitable powertrains around – coal and internal combustion – to aid the war effort. Hence, interest in electric vehicles dwindled a little.

However, around the 1970s, concerns over soaring oil prices due to the Arab Oil Embargo, led to renewed interest in EVs. In 1972, Victor Wouk created the first full hybrid vehicle out of a Buick Skylark, while the Sebring-Vanguard Citicar of 1974 is widely regarded as the first true electric car.

Over the next two decades, electric cars and hybrids were seen steadily getting to their feet. In 1997, Toyota unveiled the Prius, the world’s first commercially successful hybrid car, which sold 18,000 units in its first year. Toyota reached a major milestone in annual sales of electrified powertrains in 2017, with over 1.52 million sold worldwide. Additionally, cumulative sales of electrified vehicles now exceed 11.47 million. Toyota has been at the forefront of EV tech. It launched the Mirai in 2014, first mass-produced fuel cell electric vehicle.

Retrospectively, global media reports assert that by the turn of the millennium, most of the E V programmes of international carmakers were discontinued.

Charging resurgence

The auto expert tells DH that over the last 10 years at least, there has been more focus on the part of automakers to look back at the potential of electrification.

“But when trying to extract the best out of a new technology, costs and relative challenges become unpredictable. This is a risk that a lot of carmakers might be unwilling to take readily. However, there is a silver lining. Luxury carmakers, who boast of a well-informed and travelled customer base, are pushing the charge,” he says.

With a confirmed high purchasing power, the luxury segment ought to be the place where the EV industry could think big.

The greatest assertion came last year, when Sweden’s Volvo Cars announced that every Volvo launched from 2019 will have an electric motor, marking the historic end of cars that only have internal combustion engines (ICE), and placing electrification at the core of its future business.

The announcement represents one of the most significant moves by any carmaker to embrace electrification and highlights how over a century after the invention of the ICE, electrification is paving the way for a new chapter in automotive history.

“People increasingly demand electrified cars and we want to respond to our customers’ current and future needs. Volvo Cars has stated that it plans to have sold a total of one million electrified cars by 2025,” Volvo Cars President and Chief Executive Officer HÃ¥kan Samuelsson had said.

Volvo will introduce a portfolio of electrified cars across its model range, embracing fully electric cars, plug-in hybrids and mild hybrids, launching five fully electric cars between 2019 and 2021, three of which will be Volvo models and two of which will be high performance electrified cars from Polestar, its performance car arm.

Similarly, Germany’s Audi is eyeing an EV future as well. “We fully believe in the future of EVs. Globally, Audi is launching three EVs by 2020, and by 2025, we are planning to have at least 40% volume share from only EVs, of the entire Audi volume sales,” Audi India Head Rahil Ansari says.

Powering investment

Looking at the Indian market, first of all, auto manufacturers are investing heavily in this technology. Both the local as well as global manufacturers are bullish at the same time.

“We’ll be in a position to launch an EV in India latest by 2020. However, we will make a decision only when we have clarity on the progress in infrastructure,” Ansari adds.

Carmakers are confident that India has massive potential for the establishment of an ‘EV and hybrid culture’.

Lexus India marked the first year of operations in India last month, by placing Indian customers behind the wheel of the edgy hybrid electric SUV, the NX 300h.

“Lexus’ priorities in India for the next year are to continue to build brand awareness and to maintain our focus on hybrid electric vehicles,” comments Lexus India Chairman N Raja.

According to an Assocham study, the Indian EV market is expected to grow at double digits till 2020. The industry, however, is at a nascent stage, comprising less than 1% of total vehicle sales.

In 2015, the government introduced the scheme – Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles (FAME) – under the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP), aiming to mobilise six million EVs on Indian roads by 2020. Even the GST on EVs has been moderated at 12%, in a bid to make them competitive.

A report by Persistence Market Research titled ‘Electric Vehicle Market: India Industry Analysis (2012-2016) and Forecast (2017-2025)’ observed that the India EV market is expected to expand at a CAGR of 77% in terms of value during the forecast period.

Charging infrastructure is also coming up in a sustainable manner privately and through the PPP route. For instance, Tata Power has partnered with Tata Motors to make Maharashtra EV-ready by establishing charging stations in the state for public use, and in Bengaluru, startup Ather Energy has launched ‘AtherGrid’, a network of charging stations open to all EVs.

Currently, there are few players in the Indian EV and pure hybrid space though. But with the luxury carmakers betting big on these technologies, and the government trying its best to explain the relevance of electric mobility, there is much hope in the domestic market too.

Recently, Mahindra & Mahindra, which retails the country’s only electric car ‘Reva e2o’, announced the launch of Automobili Pininfarina, an Italian sustainable luxury car brand, wherein it would design, engineer and manufacture high-technology, extreme performance and luxury EVs for discerning global customers. “The Mahindra Group has bet big on electric vehicles. They are the future, and when power, beauty and high-end EV technology come together in one car – that will be the perfect luxury vehicle,” says Mahindra Group Chairman Anand Mahindra.

Toyota Motor Corporation on its part is looking at a strong future in electrification. It recently tied up with compatriot Suzuki Motor Corporation, whose subsidiary Maruti Suzuki India is India’s biggest carmaker. It has been reported that the duo will roll out a small EV for the country’s mass segment by 2020. The two have also concluded a basic agreement toward the mutual supply of hybrid and other vehicles for the Indian market.

Elon Musk’s Tesla has offered a glimpse into what the future of automobility could look like, and the Indian car market already seems to be powering itself on the fast charger.

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