The growing debate over electric mobility

by Autocar Pro News Desk Mar 19, 2015


By Ravi Pandit, chairman and Group CEO, KPIT Technologies

Some of the world’s earliest automobiles were electric vehicles (EVs), but by the early 20th century, internal combustion had comprehensively outcompeted them. The success of internal combustion was built largely on two pillars: first, the widespread availability of cheap petrol, and second, the range and convenience afforded by it. Today, both those pillars are crumbling.

Fossil fuels are suddenly not as widespread and inexhaustible as they once seemed, and their financial and environmental costs have mushroomed to frankly ridiculous levels. Simultaneously, different EV technologies are eroding the range and convenience advantage of fossil fuels in different ways. The world has gone full circle, and the future is electric.

Electric mobility comes in different flavours, and the debate today is really about which type of EV is best. Battery electric vehicles (BEVs), which store electricity in batteries, and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), which use hydrogen to generate electricity, are the primary contenders to displace the internal combustion engine.

To summarise the debate, BEVs are very efficient and can be charged virtually anywhere using electricity distribution infrastructure that is already in place. But batteries add weight, usually take hours to charge, and typically offer only limited range. FCEVs are less efficient, and while hydrogen distribution could, to a significant extent, build on and mimic existing supply chains, it isn’t nearly as mature as the electrical grid. But FCEVs can refuel in a few minutes rather hours, and have weights and driving ranges similar to today’s cars. They therefore require less of a shift in behaviour and expectations.

The trade-off isn’t crystal clear, and it will only get trickier. Fuel cells are getting more efficient. At the same time, batteries are being charged faster and faster, and one day might even be swapped when discharged (although the spectacular failure last year of a battery-swapping venture indicates that this idea is harder to implement than it seems). Most hydrogen gas today is produced using natural gas, which is imported and carbon-intensive. But batteries merely store grid electricity, which comes predominantly from coal, which is even dirtier – and some studies, such as one by the UK Energy Research Centre, suggest that the global supply of lithium (used in batteries) might be a matter of concern in the long term.

Such arguments and counter-arguments could go on. And there are strong proponents of both sides. We have Tesla, Renault and almost every major auto OEM rooting for BEV vehicles. And with its Giga-factory, Tesla promises to bring li-ion battery costs in an affordable range. And then on the other side, we have Hyundai, Toyota and Honda making the case for HFC EVs.

So which is better?

To answer that question, we must envision and experiment. The vision must be holistic, and the experiments must be vigorous.

Let us, for example, envision what the world of FCEVs might look like. India generates 600 million tonnes of agricultural residue every year. Imagine that this residue is used to generate hydrogen, either via biogas (which contains methane, the principal constituent of natural gas), or by an optimised process of direct gasification. If, in some cases, agricultural residue proves too costly to collect, imagine growing carefully selected, high-yielding crops for this purpose (quick calculations show that an acre of land, planted with such crops, can yield enough hydrogen for over 100,000 vehicle kilometres every year). If, despite best efforts to optimise land use, concerns about interfering with food security remain, imagine growing fast-growing algae on nutrient-rich sewage water, and producing hydrogen from these algae.

You just imagined a world where cars are powered by domestically grown fuel, the production and distribution of which engages farmers and a multitude of small businesses, providing employment, dignity, and economic security in a distributed fashion (you might have noticed some broad similarities with the way the sugarcane and dairy sectors operate).

You just imagined a world where vehicles run silently, with no suffocating tailpipe emissions, and where virtually all the carbon released during the production of fuel was first pulled out of the atmosphere by photosynthesis, making the process very near carbon-neutral.

Of course, we’ve only imagined the production of fuel for FCEVs. What if fuel cell technology itself was driven domestically? Indeed, what if we innovated heavily around the fundamentals of vehicle design, incorporating new materials, more precise and powerful manufacturing techniques, and clever synergies in efficiency across vehicle subsystems?

Then, repeat for BEVs. Might BEVs spur smarter electricity grids? Might they also be powered by carbon-neutral sources of energy, such as solar, wind, and biomass? Might new energy storage solutions mitigate some of the shortcomings of today’s batteries? How about super-capacitors and psuedo-capacitors – dispensing with the need of lithium? The painting of the canvas (or a few different canvases) in a holistic way, identifying opportunities and ramifications, for each of the two alternatives, is step one.

Step two: experiment!

The vision is grand, but validating assumptions, ironing out bottlenecks, and getting a real handle on costs, outputs, and efficiencies is essential. Pilot projects, designed and implemented with the needed expertise and a lot of thought, will yield valuable lessons. And we have to do these experiments here in India, by ourselves, because they will provide tremendous learning .

So, in context, BEVs or FCEVs? It’s too early to know. But the question is too important to not answer. In context, FCEVs might be better than BEVs, or vice-versa. It’s even possible that a combination of the two – BEVs for city commutes, FCEVs for longer travel – might make sense. But we don’t know for sure.  We need more data – data relevant to a world where the fullest potential of the candidate technologies is leveraged to create a clean, affordable, inclusive transportation sector.

Here at KPIT Technologies, we are envisioning and experimenting furiously, learning lessons and gathering data every day. We are excited about BEVs and their different variants, and how they can be leveraged. Indeed, we are close to commercialising a solution that moves existing cars one step closer to BEVs in an affordable, accessible and minimally disruptive manner.

We are working on affordable solutions for electrification of intra-city bus transport. We have produced efficient electrolysers for hydrogen generation so that we can burn fuel more efficiently. We are working on better and indigenous energy storage devices, so that our petroleum import is not substituted by lithium imports.

We are also keenly exploring the possibilities of FCEVs and the associated value chains. We are working towards a technology where there is distributed generation and consumption of energy so that a large swathe of our population can participate in our economic miracle. And we leave a cleaner world for our children and grandchildren than the world we stepped into. The fact that India could launch the Mars mission at a tenth of international costs gives us hope and optimism that finding affordable technology is not an impossible task, but an exhilarating exercise.

We are excited by what the future holds – whether BEV or FCEV – and even more excited by the part we are playing in shaping it. 

This exclusive column appeared in Autocar Professional's December 15, 2014 issue 

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