India’s first electric car goes on green overdrive

July 26th, 2008 - 5:04 pm ICT by IANS  

By Himank Sharma
The ’sweet sound’ of a car engine shuddering to life when one turns on the ignition is missing. So is the adrenaline pumping torque power. That could be the future of the global auto industry as it grapples with soaring fuel costs and stricter green norms - and a tiny Indian car has already become a pathbreaker. The Reva, a noiseless, smokeless electric vehicle (EV), is all set to come into the mainstream as manufacturers and consumers search for alternative fuel technologies - after the global splash of the Nano, the $2,500 car made by India’s Tata Motors.

A start-up based in the Indian tech city of Bangalore, the Reva Electric Car Co (RECC) is at the forefront as EV manufacturers provide a solution.

In January last year, General Motors (GM) chief executive Rick Wagoner spoke about the imminent rise in fuel prices and the company’s plans to foray into the EV and hybrid market aggressively.

A few months later, in August, Nissan displayed its concept EV ‘Mixim’ car at the Frankfurt motor show.

Mitsubishi too has formalised a 2010 launch for its maiden electric vehicle.

But leaving them all behind, RECC has already begun manufacturing and exporting its indigenously developed model, the Reva.

Although only 2,500 units of Reva - India’s first and only EV - have been sold so far, Chetan Maini, the brain behind the world’s largest selling electric car, is unperturbed.

Electric cars will outnumber the sales of petroleum driven vehicles in the next 15 years, said Maini, RECC deputy chairperson and chief technical officer (CTO).

“And if oil prices keep rising at this pace, it could happen much earlier,” said a visibly pleased Maini.

“In the 1970s, we had the oil crisis but there was no technology. In the 1980s and the 1990s we saw some good technology, but there was no environment consciousness and oil was as cheap as $15-20 a barrel.

“Now fuel prices have crossed $145 a barrel, technology is ready, and environment consciousness is as its peak. Never before in history has everything come together.”

Reva has a fuel economy of 40 paise (one cent) per kilometre. When it was launched in 2001, it had a capacity of 40 kilometres with a top speed of 65 kmph. The new model Reva can go up to 80 kilometres on a single charge (129 kilometres if the variant is without air-conditioner), and has a top speed of 80 kmph.

RECC is now all set to meet the expected demand. The company has received $20 million from the Global Environment Fund, which invests in businesses around the world that provide cost-effective solutions to environmental and energy challenges.

Following this fund infusion, RECC has started overhauling its assembly line facility. “By the end of the year we will have a capacity of 30,000 cars annually,” said Maini, who is banking on Europe to drive sales.

“In Europe, people have been traditionally excited about small cars and now are getting increasingly environment conscious. Sales for SUVs have dropped by 20 percent in the last two years in the UK alone, and Europe will be our biggest market.”

Not exactly a boy’s toy, Reva is the result of over seven years of research and development and a $20 million investment. Till date, over $50 million has been invested in the project.

Maini readily confesses it wasn’t environment consciousness that was the prime driver behind his vision.

“I was more excited about the technology and what it could do,” said the University of Michigan grad, a member of the varsity team that made a solar car to race 3,000 miles across Australia.

“But over time, I became more conscious of environment and it is part of everything we do now.”

Maini made his first Go-Kart at the age of 14, which ran on an old scooter motor. The preceding year, he had developed a remote-controlled toy car.

“Chetan was an innovator at the age of seven, and an engineer by 17,” said a proud Suresh Maini, father of the Reva founder.

“I wanted India to be the leader in at least one technology before I died. And I’m happy that we are selling more electric cars than any company in the world today,” he said.

Chetan Maini started researching for the technology in 1994, and registered 10 US patents over the next five years.

“In 1999, I decided everything should be in India and operations had to be commercialised.”

About 100 engineers were recruited, and by 2000, 40 cars were ready for tests.

The first Reva rolled out without much fizz and fanfare, and although it was featured in every newspaper and auto-magazine then, sales were slow.

The company decided to go offshore, and is now sold in over 13 countries worldwide. Reva has sold over 1,000 units in Britain alone under the brand name G-Wiz.

Maini attributes its success in Britain to government policies and initiatives there.

“Policy is a big factor contributing in sales in the UK. G-Wiz owners enjoy substantial subsidy on the price along with perks such as free parking at most places and free charging points all over London. There are over 100 points and around 400 more charging points will be added this year.”

Back home, the Delhi government recently passed a legislation providing 29.5 percent subsidy for EVs in the national capital.

A proud owner of Reva, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit described it as a “cute car” and requested people to be environmentally responsible and switch to the vehicle.

Charging points for EVs will now be installed across the city, Maini said.

“In Banglore, the idea has already taken shape, most malls have parking spots with charging facilities, Wipro offers parking with charging points at its office complex.

“People can plug their cars when they go for a movie or to work, and when they return, the vehicle is fully charged.”

Maini feels energy companies could chip in to promote EV use by setting up charging points, and selling electricity at cheaper rates during off peak hours to charge one’s car.

“With the right policy, more than 10 percent of the cars in India can be battery-powered within the next five years,” he said.

“We are promoting a technology that holds the key to the global energy crisis.”

Jagdish Khattar, the former head of Maruti Udyog Ltd - the country’s largest car manufacturer - and the incumbent vice president of the Society of Indian Automobile manufacturers (SIAM), hails the technology.

“It’s just a matter of time when alternative fuels become a necessity. All manufacturers are currently exploring options and getting ready. With fuel prices mounting, battery power just might become the industry standard.”

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