The Move to a Sustainable Future through Electric Two-wheelers

The 2018 Environmental Performance Index ranked India 177th out of 180 countries making India one of the world’s most polluted countries. Particulate matter (PM) and NOx were the main pollutants with PM levels in nearly all cities above the acceptable limit and causing health hazards on a massive scale. Additionally, India’s dependence on the fuel import has been costing the exchequer $70 billion every year and given the global geo political scenario and its impact on oil prices, is likely to further increase. It is this context that has triggered a serious dialogue on the transition of vehicles dependent on fossil fuels to those using renewable sources, especially electric vehicles.

India as a country has a mixed record of being able to drive dramatic changes effectively. This note attempts to lay down the choice of action areas for accelerating this transition to cleaner cities and lesser dependence on fuel import without impeding transportation needs and assuming no material change in public transport infrastructure. This note drills down on the role of two-wheelers, risks to be mitigated and factors to be considered in policies for increasing the adoption of electric vehicles.

Firstly, 28 per cent of the particulate matter causing air pollution in India’s most populous cities like Delhi in winters is due to vehicles on road and the rest from fuel and biomass burning largely for cooking and general heating needs. Within the vehicular particulate matter pollution, two-wheelers are at 25 per cent of total vehicular PM (7 per cent of total PM), despite being 80 per cent of the total number of vehicles.

Secondly, the main factor causing vehicular pollution is the proportion of aged vehicles and the traffic congestion within India’s towns and cities. Vehicles older than 10 years have emissions at much higher levels than the current regulated norm for new vehicles. Cars and trucks in use currently have a high proportion (17 per cent) of vehicles over 10 years of age.

Thirdly, studies have found that at low speeds such as during congestion, vehicles burn fuel inefficiently and pollute more per trip. India’s key metros have congestion levels ( per cent additional time to travel in peak hours) ranging from 130-170 per cent. two-wheelers do not cause congestion and given the ease of traffic navigation on two-wheelers, their emissions are rarely a significant contributor of pollution caused by congestion as opposed to passenger cars which have much higher rates of pollution due to congestion.

It is important to understand the efficacy of energy usage within the country for transport needs given the massive fuel import bill. The average mileage or fuel efficiency for a two-wheeler is 60 Km/L compared to 20 Km/L for passenger cars, implying lesser fuel consumption per passenger kilometer for two-wheelers is significantly lower.

The two-wheeler is an instrument of progress (esp. in rural parts of the country) providing much needed affordable access and low cost mobility to millions making the country’s progress more inclusive. In the absence of public transport infrastructure for a considerable mass of the population, a two-wheeler provides the most cost and emission efficient transportation option for this segment.

With BS VI norms getting enforced from April 2020, emission norms for two-wheelers and passenger cars will be at par with the most developed economies of the world. Public transport in India is also used on average by 30 million Indians daily to travel an average of 7+ Km. Undertaking an effort to significantly overhaul the public transport vehicles to use alternate fuels or electric energy may provide most immediate and significant impact both on the levels of air pollution within the country and on India's import bill.

To ensure an effective transition to EVs, the government and the OEMs would need to ensure certain basic performance standards in terms of durability, reliability, quality, safety etc. to be acceptable to this mass segment. A push to transition to EVs will only be meaningful if the cost of vehicle ownership doesn’t increase significantly, as even at current prices there is low penetration of two-wheelers (12 per cent). If the price of a two-wheeler goes up we might be giving the masses a less sustainable alternative. Lower cost options such as lead acid battery run vehicles pose significant issues in terms of short life, lower battery capacity as well as an environmental risk in disposing of used batteries.

Even as the government plans a significant transition to electric vehicles, it is important to ensure that the transition is seamless - alternate fuel and hybrids could represent a faster bridge transition to EV. The government and the broader ecosystem will need to ensure that the charging infrastructure is robust enough to drive adoption.

Further study is also required to compare “well to wheel” emissions in case of internal combustion powered vehicles with similar end-to-end assessment of producing an electric vehicle and providing electricity. We believe we also need to focus on modernizing our power plants and the distribution grid to avoid energy losses due to inefficiencies.

Lastly, India should encourage battery development in India to enable innovation in this high value market. We will need to put in place a talent reskilling (to EV) plan to create jobs across the supply chain.

All of these points need to be considered carefully with proper analysis to ensure the highest level of impact in terms of the change undertaken.

Understanding the role of each mode, risks from a consumer behavior perspective and addressing these systematically will be the difference between a successfully implemented change initiative and a poorly executed non-starter.

(The author is Founder and CEO of Ecoforus Sustanable )