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World Drives Towards Futuristic EV Tech: Can India Keep Pace?

World Drives Towards Futuristic EV Tech: Can India Keep Pace?

Traditional EV charging technology is far too slow for India's EV startups ambitions

Overseas markets have progressed beyond India's current standards for vehicle analytics and EV technology

The most pressing need that is currently felt is research and innovation in the procurement of lithium or its alternatives

The writing on the wall is clear. The world is gravitating towards cleaner technologies and smart mobility. There is an increased global call to save ecology and the transition to electric vehicles has the world’s consensus with most major economies moving towards green mobility.

India’s EV startups and auto giants are also accelerating towards creating an EV-friendly ecosystem. With more than 1.5 Mn EVs on Indian roads, they are fast overtaking other countries, albeit few, despite challenges such as policy issues, charging infrastructure, affordability and dependency on China.

According to Datalabs by Inc42, the capital inflow in electric vehicle startups has grown exponentially between 2014 and 2019. “Taking the outlier funding rounds into consideration, the total capital inflow in the electric vehicle sector was at $601 Mn whereas the capital inflow into electric vehicle startups peaked at $394 Mn in 2019,” says the report.

One of the factors in favour of India is the technological advances happening across the mobility ecosystem including AI-powered smart engineering, innovations in storage technology, battery sizing methodologies, among others.

But are they enough to achieve the government’s target of 30% penetration of EVs by 2030? And exactly how far behind the EV market leaders is India?

World Drives Towards Futuristic EV Tech: Can India Keep Pace?

Indigenous Tech Propelling EVs

Let’s talk about one of the biggest gaps in the Indian market i.e. EV batteries. The four types of batteries that are commonly used in EVs in India are lead-acid, nickel-cadmium (NiCd), nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) and lithium-ion (Li-ion). Out of the four, the market is dominated by lithium-ion sets globally and in India because of the higher specific energy.

But one of the biggest problems with Li-ion is very expensive and accounts for 40% of the total cost of an EV. Therefore, there is an increased need to wean the industry off lithium-ion and go towards several new technologies currently being tested.

Next-Gen Batteries

Such as graphene, sodium air, aluminium air and hydrogen fuel cells. However, these are yet to be tested for EV applications and commercially not viable as of now. These technologies claim to be lighter, cheaper and more durable than the existing Li-ion batteries. They also aim to solve range anxiety and have a much faster charging time.

For instance, state-owned Indian Oil Corp (IOC) is looking to build-up India’s capacity for developing indigenous batteries powered with new metals. The metal-air batteries will produce energy by oxidising metals such as iron, zinc, and aluminium. These batteries cannot be recharged, but one can replace plates to power them up almost instantly, making it much more convenient for users, thereby eliminating the need for charging infrastructure.

Solid-state batteries are expected to be a disruptor as well, but these could result in lithium chemistries dominating the cathode.

“No alternative battery chemistry that does well for EVs is close to commercialization as of 2020. It is quite possible that lithium’s dominance may continue well beyond 2030,” said Narasimhan Santhanam, cofounder and director, Energy Alternatives India.

In August 2019, a research team from the Indian Institute of Technology developed the world’s first iron-ion battery that offers a low-cost stable alternative to Li-ion. It is made using an anode made from low-carbon steel, instead of pure iron, along with a cathode made of vanadium pentoxide, which is suitable for the movement of iron ion, due to its larger gap. These are, as claimed by IIT-M, also safer to use as it prevents short-circuiting of batteries because of the inability of iron to produce dendrites during the charging process and therefore, prevents short-circuiting of the batteries.

Smarter Battery Charging

The electrification of automobiles in India requires significant commitments to infrastructure, making it an expensive prospect overall. Traditional charging technology today takes between 2-6 hours to charge the battery and thus companies are working at fast-charging solutions.

For instance, ABB, a global leader in electric vehicle charging, offers Terra HP fast-charging system that can charge a car for 200 km in a single charge in 8 minutes. ABB currently has more than 10,000 direct-current fast-charging stations across around 73 countries and has already installed one in India at NITI Aayog. The charger converts alternating current (AC) from the grid to the direct current (DC) used by EV batteries.

While the industry is looking at charging infrastructure and a stable grid, battery swapping, where you just swap a depleted battery for a fully charged battery, is being seen as an ideal alternative and a promising charging option for electric three-wheelers to resolve range anxiety.

“When we launched our SmartAuto in 2015, it was the first electric 3W in India to be launched with a Li-Ion battery-based swapping system. We have made refuelling experience as convenient as petrol pumps by eliminating wait time for charging, make better use of land, and give an increased available run time,” said Raja Gayam, CEO, Gayam Motors, a [email protected] incubated startup.

The startup is also exploring battery swapping stations on the wheels that can carry many fully charged batteries and drive up to an EV to swap a battery within a few minutes in addition to static battery swapping stations.

Battery Management Systems

Safety has been a common concern among consumers when it comes to switching to EVs. And that is the reason, there is increased research on Battery Management System(BMS). The system is tightly integrated with the battery, monitors the key battery operating parameters and controls the charging rate to ensure constant voltage. BMSs are very crucial for the safe operation of the high-voltage battery.

World Drives Towards Futuristic EV Tech: Can India Keep Pace?

BMS also helps track any problems such as excessive heat or fire and maintains the battery temperature at an optimum 45 degrees Celsius. Some startups have developed predictive maintenance software to manage the battery management system (BMS) that both protects the battery and collects data on its internal state. Today, some systems can even notify us about certain parts that need to be checked before an issue arises. Wireless BMS is also a new trend being explored in recent years. This eliminates the danger involved in wiring methods.

Lightweighting

Technological innovations are also being taken in making EVs lighter to reduce energy consumption.

“This light-weighting is necessary as most vehicles and chassis are currently made for diesel vehicles and are thus heavier to absorb noise and vibrations. When such chassis are used with electric drivetrains, they result in a higher consumption,” said Amitabh Saran, CEO and cofounder, Altigreen.

With existing battery-swapping solutions in the market designed for 2Ws, a drop in efficiency is being seen when the same solution is adopted for 3Ws. Thus many startups are currently working on reducing our battery weight further and increase energy efficiency.

In 2018, global volume sales of automotive lightweight materials reached approximately 74 kilo tonnes, says a Fact.MR report. At present, plastic represents only 10% of the weight of the vehicle, but it occupies about half the overall volume. OEMs are looking at the use of technologies that can reduce the weight of the vehicles such as increasing plastic and aluminium. Additionally, innovations are undertaken to reduce vehicle weight especially in interiors, vehicle front end modules and passenger airbags.

Connected Software

Need for connected software on EVs is being increasingly felt by engineers. Called tablets on wheels, another key direction for innovation involves AI and machine learning useful in repetitive driving profiles, (big) data synthesis and analysis, ADAS and baby steps towards Autonomous vehicles.

“Needless to say, suitable road/signal infrastructure will also be needed to make use of these innovations. Our telematics and Vehicle Management systems work on global standards. The communications algorithms are optimized to overcome the low data network coverage in parts of India and other developing countries where even basic 2G connectivity is often patchy,” added Saran, Altigreen.

The companies also leverage mobile and web-based apps to continuously analyse and report real-time drive data. The IoT solutions are designed to keep a watch on the health of the electric vehicle and driver behaviour. It also delivers a host of benefits by enabling proactive maintenance & alerts, asset tracking, state-of-charge, driver feedback, drive summaries, and more. The provision also exists to integrate the EV data real-time with fleet management systems.

Next-Gen Motors And Controllers

Though batteries and storage systems are the most critical aspects, electric motors also play a significant role in EV performance. The R&D teams of EV manufacturers also work on designing motor systems and transmission technologies that offer comparable performance to combustion engines while minimising energy requirements.

In line with environmental solutions, automotive manufactures and startups are trying to ensure that the electric power-train is operating at high efficiency. The electric motors used for automotive applications should have characteristics like high starting torque, high power density, good efficiency, etc. Thus manufacturers are moving from permanent magnet motors to induction motors.

Globally, companies like Tesla, Toyota, and GM are using induction motors. In India, Mahindra e2O, Tata Tigor, and Mahindra e-Verito use induction motors. Induction motors are also cost-effective. However, alternatives are being looked at as with induction motors speed control is difficult and starting torque is less.

The latest Tata Motors’ Nexon EV, India’s first fully-electric SUV, is powered by in-house Ziptron technology. It is a modular electric powertrain platform powered by an impressive 30.2 kWh, IP67 certified battery pack.

“At the heart of our future EV line-up, this technology will deliver a thrilling driving experience to our customers aspiring to go-green. Rigorously tested across 1 million kms, ZIPTRON technology is well-proven, advanced and reliable,” said Guenter Butschek, CEO & MD, Tata Motors.

Extreme Weather, Tricky Roads

India has unique demands such as extreme climatic conditions, dependency on two-wheelers and three-wheelers, slow-moving traffic. Thus there is a need for technologies such as high-efficiency motors and controllers that meet the demands of the Indian climate. “India should use the next ten years window to become a leader in next-generation battery technology, suitable for extreme Indian weather and road conditions. This is the only way to pursue EV dreams without being critically dependent on any country,” said Raja Gayam.

Li-ion battery technology is where today’s race is to create the ‘perfect battery’ and bring down costs across the entire assembly line. But we may have other alternatives to batteries as well. There have been encouraging solar-powered car trials recently. Hydrogen cells are also seemingly a viable alternative if we can get over logistics and handling issues.

“However, one way to reduce our exposure to lithium imports will be to develop an excellent domestic Li-ion battery recycling infrastructure. Today, almost 100% of lead from lead-acid batteries are recycled in India. If we can reach that level for lithium by 2025, we have mitigated the lithium exposure risk to a certain degree,” said EAI’s Santhanam.

He added that the other way is to look for lithium reserves in India. Talking about the recently found lithium reserves, he said, “This is, of course, a long shot, but worth exploring. While it is fairly small that has been discovered so far (about 10,000 tons against Li-deposits running to millions of tons in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Bolivia & Australia), it still is a significant beginning that should encourage us to use the latest technologies to hunt for more deposits within India.”

Innovation in business and financial models can also bring improved price-performance balance. “Models that allow the leasing of vehicles and batteries encourage the overall growth of electric mobility. This is important because although the upfront cost of electric vehicles is high (due to the cost of the battery), the total cost of ownership is 35-40% less when compared to an ICE vehicle. In long term use, EV’s have proven to be much more cost-effective (operational terms) against ICE vehicles,” added Saran.

There is also a further need for an efficient BMS in a country like India with extreme temperatures and a high vehicular population. Innovations in BMS are further expected to increase investments in the EV landscape. India would also need to reskill a large number of motor mechanics. They cannot repair EVs because of the sophisticated electronics.

“We have had a few false starts in the EV adoption. For the most part, India has been importing cheap EV products and selling them in the Indian market. Most of these were not designed to function in harsh Indian climate and hence didn’t perform well,” said Jeetender Singh, CFO, Napino Auto & Electronics Ltd.

Since also believes that India needs to develop products that are suited for the Indian climate, road conditions and driving behaviour, and expectations of high performance matched with long endurance.

To make more Indians switch to EVs, there is also a need to focus on design. For instance, including shape, aerodynamics, additional features such as analytics and dashboard has to become more appealing, feel experts.

“We need to promote long-term R&D in advanced and compact batteries, high capacity chargers at affordable cost, smart battery management system and safety aspects,” said Alekhya Datta, area convenor of electricity & fuels division, TERI.

World Drives Towards Futuristic EV Tech: Can India Keep Pace?

Think Global, Act Local

The US, China and Norway are taking huge strides in electric mobility. The US leads in innovation and pushing the boundaries of EV performance; China in terms of making EVs affordable and manufacturable in a very large scale; and Norway for its vehicle policies that enabled the fastest adoption of EVs globally.

According to an IEA report, around 45% of electric cars on the road in 2018 were in China – a total of 2.3 Mn – compared to 39% in 2017. In comparison, Europe accounted for 24% of the global fleet, and the United States 22%.

EV charging, specifically DC fast charging, from countries such as Germany and UK and battery recycling – from companies working on this in China and South Korea are some of the areas that India should be looking at. Additionally, battery efficiency technology is definitely something we can improve on.

Fuel cell development for cars is growing at a pace faster than anticipated with fuel cell vehicles already on the roads in the US (Rivian) and Japan (Mirai). Now, fuel cells could be the disruptor for the EV battery market even before 2030, though conservatively the automobile industry does not expect any large scale commercial development of fuel cells for mass-market EVs before 2025 owing to technical and economical challenges in both hydrogen production and storage. 

“Inductive or wireless charging, opportunity charging infra for electric buses, bi-directional chargers for V2X enabled services and Hybrid drive train enabling long-distance fleets are some of the technologies that India should be adopting from other countries,” said TERI’s Datta. 

Promoting Mobility R&D

In countries like South Korea, China and Switzerland, where there is a robust R&D ecosystem with regards to EV technology, technology improvements have been known to reduce per-unit costs by around 6%-10% each year.

“A lot needs to be done to really kick-start the adoption of EV’s in India. While the government has been doing its bit in pushing regulations, FAME2 etc, a lot more needs to be done to encourage innovation around the entire EV Value Chain,” added Jeetender Singh. 

Any new technology has a long gestation period; therefore, it is important for financial institutions and government policies also to take this into consideration and provide scale financing for R&D or “guarantees” against future policy swings. R&D in educational institutions should also be encouraged, through industry participation, and joint initiatives, say experts.

There are several educational institutions across the country focussing on EV technologies and encouraging their students to participate or innovate in the same is another way experts feel India can drive innovation. Institutions associated with ARAI and other recognised bodies have introduced electric mobility in their teaching curriculum.

Incubation centres and labs have started in several academic institutions across the country (not just the IITs), which aim to connect students with startups and companies in the e-mobility space. This facilitates better interactions between both parties and allows students to learn from firsthand experience.

India also needs to be selective in its R&D investments. Rather than go upstream into battery chemistry research where many countries have a two-decade lead, India should focus more on fuel cell research where there is no clear leader right now in the world.

Similarly, R&D efforts should go into battery management systems and into vehicle design, both of which need to incorporate research and innovations that are specific to India thus providing Indian researchers with a clear competitive advantage. Also, R&D in EV power electronics could bear some fruit as India already has excellent research capabilities in this domain and some of the world’s largest power electronics companies (ABB, Schneider, Bosch) already have a large research presence in India.

“This is a wide-open field. India should provide all the support it can to its entrepreneurs and let them do their magic. It should not worry about the fact that it needs to import batteries, mining the raw materials is destructive to the environment and it can let China do this dirty work. It should instead focus on building innovative solutions on top of this base,” sums up Vivek Wadhwa, a technology entrepreneur, a researcher, and an academician.