Picture this: No jet black smoke from vehicles. No constant noise from engines. No toxic carbon-laden air to choke your lungs as you walk along a city thoroughfare. It might sound Utopian now, but if there is a boom in electric mobility, this ideal could well become reality on Chennai roads. One of the first steps towards that has been by a private auto service provider, Makkal Auto, which rolled out the city’s first electric auto last week (August 25), .
The initiative has garnered appreciation from Chennaites for two reasons: one, electric autos would reduce emissions and pave the way for cleaner air. Secondly, a lot of old autos which would have been rejected now have the option of being converted to electric ones, ensuring livelihood options for the traditional auto drivers.
There are three electric autos plying across Chennai currently, but the Makkal Auto team is certain of taking the count to 100 by the end of the year. As the city takes baby steps towards going electric, Yasmeen Jawahar, CEO of Makkal Auto talks about the operation of their three wheeler service, the end goals and the policies for electric vehicles in Tamil Nadu.
At a time of escalating diesel and LPG prices, does the electric auto prove to be more cost-effective?
A diesel or LPG auto requires fuel worth Rs 350 to Rs 400 to ply a distance of 100 km in Chennai. However, you can cover the same distance at a cost of Rs 35 in an electric vehicle. Even when battery performance is low, the cost doesn’t exceed Rs 55 for 100 km.
What would the differential be between a diesel and an electric auto, in terms of overall capital and operational cost?
As most of the autos in Chennai run on LPG, let’s compare LPG and electric vehicles. Anyway, diesel, petrol and LPG come under internal combustion and the cost difference is only negligible. The capital cost of an LPG vehicle and an electric auto is the same — Rs 2.5 lakh. However, a major difference is observed in the operational cost (as mentioned above).
We can also cut down on maintenance cost in electric vehicles. The battery life of these vehicles is 15 years and even after that, these batteries could be used as UPS at home. However, parts of the LPG or diesel auto get damaged easily and drivers usually have to change it within three years of purchasing the vehicle.
What is the cost of conversion of a diesel/ LPG auto to electric?
Cost of conversion takes around Rs 2 lakh including the insurance and registration cost. If they buy an electric auto from us, it takes Rs 2.5 lakh + GST.
Chennai is ranked second in overall emissions among all the metros according to a report in Centre for Science and Environment. How would the electric auto help?
According to our statistics, Chennai air is better than Pune, Delhi and Bengaluru’s. Pollution here is only 20 to 30 percent of what you find in Delhi. By going electric, we can reduce 30 per cent of the carbon footprint in Chennai within 3 to 4 months. Autos — 1.2 lakh autos with 80,000 unregistered ones (sic) — and buses add to the city’s vehicular pollution.
Even though the government has banned two-stroke engine vehicles (as they cause high levels of air and noise pollution), a lot of drivers are still using them. But these two-stroke engine vehicles can be retrofitted into electric vehicles, which will change the city’s vehicular pollution scene and also work out economically for auto-drivers. Electric vehicles may not be completely eco-friendly as electricity is generated through thermal power. But we also have solar-powered vehicles that are completely eco-friendly.
Tell us more about the solar-powered vehicles. How do they work?
It is yet to be launched in the market. It takes an additional cost of Rs 50,000 to fit the solar panels. As the charge can be stored in the battery, drivers don’t have to worry about cloudy days.
Are there enough charging stations in the city?
There is a problem with the charging stations. Just like it took time to develop a universal charger for mobiles, it will take a few years to develop a universal charging type for the battery vehicles. However, Makkal Auto hopes to ensure 100 charging points in 10 zones of Chennai by October. In each zone, three charging points will have swapping technology where drivers can swap their battery with an already-charged one. This way, the drivers can save charging time of four hours.
What is the long term goal of Makkal Auto in the electric mobility sector?
To ensure the safety of school children and also provide a livelihood option for women, we will be rolling out 100 electric autos driven by women by September. We will operate 500 electric vehicles by the year-end. Our aim is to convert one lakh auto-rickshaws in Tamil Nadu to electric by 2020.
What is the procedure that you followed to obtain permission for electric autos from the transport department?
We got approval from Automotive Research Association of India, a central government unit in 2017. The approval from the Tamil Nadu government was granted in September 2018, for three electric vehicles. Old autos with RC book, insurance and pollution certificate are remodelled and re-registered with the transport department. The registration is valid for a period of three years.
Unlike Delhi and some other metros, Chennai still hasn’t seen a buzz or much activity on the electric vehicle front. What do you think is the reason for this delay?
India, in general, is a decade behind the world in terms of the electric vehicle experience. Unsupportive government policies has been the major reason. The central government introduced the ‘Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid &) Electric Vehicles (FAME)’ programme at a budget of 10,000 crores in 2017 to give a boost to electric mobility in India. It is only recently therefore that states in India have started to formulate policies for electric vehicles.
Absence of charging infrastructure is also a setback. Unlike Delhi, Chennai doesn’t have charging points in fuel stations. Vehicle manufacturers plan to launch electric vehicles in Chennai only in 2020 and 2021 .
What were the challenges you met in converting a diesel auto to electric?
We did not face too many challenges, thanks to our in-depth research. It works out cost-wise as it is all about refurbishing the old autos. The only challenge is to educate the drivers to follow the set rules: to charge it to 100 percent at least every three days (to maintain the performance of the lithium iron phosphate battery) , to not use the brake constantly (to save electricity) and to not allow overcrowding (700kg is the maximum limit). It would run up to 100 km at full charge, only if these rules are followed.
How are you sensitising the traditional drivers about the instructions?
We are holding awareness sessions. Our drivers have an emotional connect with the vehicles as it saves them a lot of money. Many of them are really impressed, having converted their own old vehicles into electric ones.
You mentioned lithium iron phosphate battery. Do we have enough resources for that in the country?
In India, we don’t have enough resources for lithium because we have traditionally relied upon internal combustion (diesel, petrol and LPG) vehicles. We are currently importing battery cells from China and Japan. We are hoping that with demand, lithium resources will also increase in future.