Reva Arrival Drives India’s Alternative Fuel Revolution
It may come as a surprise but the world leader in pure electric cars is India’s Reva launched in Delhi (and unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show). There are already 700 Reva’s running around Bangalore and 1000 in London. There are some big opportunities and big risks for India’s tiny electric car, says CNN’s Eco Solutions report, but automobile industry commentator Murad Baig gives us his insight in Reva and India’s alternative fuel revolution.
THE REVA REVOLUTION
From Murad Baig in Delhi:
It may come as a surprise but the world’s leader in pure electric cars is India’s Reva that was just launched in Delhi. There are already 700 Reva’s running in Bangalore and 1,000 in London. To encourage this `Zero Pollution’ little car the British Government has cut taxes and London charges no Congestion Tax. It also provides free parking with free electricity provided at several car parks. It is not only being used as a second car but is a great hit with many high profile lawyers, doctors, architects and corporate executives who find parking and travel in congested city areas difficult. Paris and several other European cities are expected to follow soon.
The Delhi government also offered lower local taxes but the little car still carries customs duty or taxes on imported and local components and excise duty. But though it still costs Rs. 3 Lakhs the buyers will have to spend very little on electricity and almost nothing on repairs and maintenance.
The Reva can comfortably seat two large adults and two kids in the small back seat and go at a speed of up to 80 kmph with a range of 80 kms per charge making the energy costs 10% of the smallest petrol car. It is very easy to drive with just a brake and accelerator to manage. It also has seats that can be heated or cooled and the deluxe model has an air-conditioner.
ALTERNATE FUELS FOR FUTURE CARS
Indian motorists got a recent shock when the Government raised the prices of petrol by Rs. 5 and diesel by Rs. 3 but with the price of crude oil now above US$ 130 a barrel there may be even worse news in the near future. The automotive world industry is seriously worried because they too know that the unending increases in the prices of fossil fuels will adversely impact their future sales. Unlike the oil companies their business is of making and selling vehicles so they are very serious about promoting any fuel that can propel their car sales.
Until quite recently, the low cost of petroleum products had caused people to believe that fuel alternatives, like hybrid, hydrogen, fuel cells and agro-based fuels, were uneconomic. But this is no longer the case.
A few pioneers, like India’s cute little Reva, have developed electric cars but these have a limited range of about 80 km between battery charges. There is also an Electrotherm electric scooter. (As these are zero-pollution vehicles, the central and state governments need to be encourage them with a total tax holiday until they become popular.)
Mahindra & Mahindra had displayed a hybrid Scorpio prototype at the Auto Expo and now Honda has launched their Civic Hybrid in India. It will have the comforts of a luxury saloon and will perform equally well. It will need only half the fuel of the normal car and so will generate half the pollution. However, as it will be fully imported, taxes will unfortunately make it cost twice as much as the normal Civic. The Toyota’s Prius model, which is selling quite well in several world markets, has a similar technology.
The new car’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) advanced three stage variable valve timing-intelligent 1340 cc petrol engine has not been set for maximum performance so it only generates a modest 94 hp as compared to 130 hp of the normal Civic’s 1800 cc engine. The engine is, however, complimented by a 20 hp electric motor that has nearly the same torque as the petrol engine to provide excellent acceleration. When accelerating, the engine and the motor work together to provide responsive power but when the foot is lifted off the accelerator, the engine quietly shuts down and the electric motor takes over for cruising or idling. On de-acceleration, the motor turns into a generator to recharge the big nickel-metal hydride battery pack and to provide engine braking. The result is that, despite weighing 80 kg more than the standard model, it gives excellent performance with half the fuel consumption and it therefore reduces CO2 emissions by half. CO2, HC (soot) and NOX emissions that normally double during acceleration are also cut when the electric motor cuts in to assist. The battery is recharged whenever the engine is running or the car is decelerating. Then the three-way catalytic converter reduces pollution to 1/10 of the highest emission norms.
Several car companies, such as GM and BMW, also have prototypes running on Hydrogen that can be fed into a mildly modified conventional petrol engine. When the Hydrogen and Oxygen burn, the exhaust is only steam for supremely clean exhaust emissions. But the Hydrogen is made from electricity that usually comes from a polluting power station. But overall, it is much less polluting and the pollution in a city is usually lower than the area near the power plant. But no one will buy a Hydrogen car unless there are several hundred pumps dispensing Hydrogen. It is reported that China is contemplating setting up 10,000 hydrogen pumps to help clean up the pollution in their cities.
Many auto makers feel that fuel cell is the most promising long-term technology which uses a reformer to extract Hydrogen from Methanol, CNG or other fuels in its fuel tank. The fuel cell then separates the electrons and protons to generate electricity that drives an efficient electric motor. The problem is that the power output is still rather small, while the cost of the technology is high. But this may change with better technologies and volume production.
CNG and AutoLPG
CNG and AutoLPG are successful auto fuels with low pollution levels that can be adapted for any petrol engine. Certified kits for both fuels are available at costs of about Rs 15,000 to 25,000. CNG is however, a pure gas and can only be transported by high-pressure pipelines, so its impact has only been in areas around Delhi and Mumbai. AutoLPG (not kitchen LPG – which is both illegal and dangerous) is far easier to transport and is used by about 12 million cars in 14 countries. It is stored at low pressure and as liquid can be easily delivered by road tankers to any city. So AutoLPG will be the quickest way to reduce atmospheric pollution in most Indian cities while also offering a lower cost fuel. But investments in special dispensing pumps, similar to CNG dispensers, are necessary for this fuel to become successful and India’s oil companies have yet to take it very seriously.
In the area of bio fuels, Brazil was one of the first to introduce a mix of 25 per cent Ethanol, derived from sugarcane, with petrol to make Gasohol, which was popularised with a slightly lower retail price, over thirty years ago. Formula 1 cars use 100 per cent Ethanol (as it does not catch fire). But a 10 per cent mix can be used in any petrol-powered car without any modification to the engines or fuel systems. However, Ethanol has slightly lower power and fuel efficiency.
Now a 5 per cent mix is being belatedly used in India. Ethanol can be made from maize or sugarcane so many worry that promoting ethanol could food availability. But in India Ethanol mainly obtained from the molasses used for making alcohol after the sugar has already been extracted.
For trucks, buses and diesel cars, pure Jatropha oil, with a small amount of additives (tiny quantities of valve detergents) can be used instead of diesel without any modifications to the engines or fuel systems. Jetropha oil compares well with diesel. The Cetane number is about 15 per cent better than diesel, resulting in a smoother and quieter performance. But the power output is about 3 per cent less. On the emission front, Bio-diesel contains no Sulphur so there are no SOX while NOX is very low.
Jetropha oil, by itself, is a useless plant that came to India from Mexico along with imported wheat in the sixties. It cannot be used for food, fibre or fuel, and it is only used as a hedge crop. But because it can grow on barren, saline and eroded wasteland, and thrives with little water or care, it competes with no other food crop. The bush produces berries with seeds that can produce a good quantity of inedible oil. According to estimates, two tonnes of seeds can be obtained from one hectare of average land, yielding about 500 litres of oil per year worth about Rs. 25,000 at the price of normal diesel. The cost of producing this bio diesel, including the refining, costs roughly Rs. 30 per litre, which is a bit higher than the cost of diesel without the burdens of taxation. But as this bio diesel could help reduce India’s huge import burden, and help India’s poor farmers, many are interested in developing it.
Recent price increase in petrol and diesel does not fully meet the high costs of crude oil, so further price hikes can be expected in the months to come. All the available technologies are now quite well known so the time has come for the Government and the auto industry to take them up on a war footing to make them popular. This means that the central and state government must work on a `war footing’ to provide incentives for promoting desirable technologies and making alternate fuels available while the auto manufacturers must be encouraged to bring their latest technologies to India.
Much of this report by Murad Baig, an acknowledged expert on the automotive industry in India, appeared Swagat, the Air India flight magazine
There was also a report on CNN’s Eco Solution programme, where reporter Mallika Kapur pointed out that there are some big opportunities and big risks for India’s tiny electric car, the Reva. With reports every Monday and a monthly show, Eco Solutions takes viewers around the world to meet people with solutions to preserve the planet who are putting them into practice.