Vehicles sans tailpipe — an upcoming trend

A vehicle without a tailpipe or without an engine is the upcoming trend in mobility and it will not be too long before we see many of these on our roads. Not having a tailpipe will naturally mean that it is a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV). What and which ZEV is this anyway? These are Electric Vehicles (EVs) that run on battery power through an electric motor powering its wheels. Interestingly, EVs are not new to mankind as their history can be traced to the late 19th century on this planet.

An EV has three major systems — traction motor, traction batteries and the power electronics. These are integrated in various architectures through controllers, energy management systems, and communication and power distribution networks. The power electronics manages the traction motor output and thermal needs based on the driver’s demand and battery charge, and other parameters in the vehicle. It is mandatory that in an EV the major systems are developed in tandem, integrated and optimised together as they are not mutually exclusive. They cannot be developed in isolation and then integrated in pockets if we are looking for a winning solution. Another interesting fact that younger consumers care about is – styling of these EVs and the aesthetics.

EVs have been deployed by many auto manufacturers in overseas markets and some in India, on different scales. The extent of success and penetration are still an issue. This is because of the overall cost of the vehicle, in particular the cost and weight of batteries, the lower credibility of battery management systems, the pairing of traction motor-electronics for applications, charging infrastructure for batteries, driving range offered, after-sales experience, the skill set availability – for development, manufacturing, aftersales service; regulatory policies in place and the recyclability of the components. To overcome these challenges, different business models have been developed and deployed by auto manufacturers, venture capitalists and enthusiasts through governmental support and broad-brush actions in different parts of the world.

EVs cater to 2-wheeler consumers and go across to the 4-wheeler and public transport applications. The 2-wheeler applications have been commoditised with plug-and-play components assembled on chassis frames and a pair of wheels with basic controls that limit the vehicle maximum speed for inner city driving and shop-hopping locally. On the other hand, the 4-wheeler applications have seen a breadth of development catering to inner city driving, small town deployment and for high performance – long-range driving experiences.

A question to be asked in the Indian context is whether an EV is required for performance or to fulfill a desire for a long-range drive between cities or for a careful and viable deployment across the mass market in city driving. The public transport applications worldwide have been in captive settings and for short-range applications in city driving. In advanced markets there are aftermarket outfits that convert a conventional vehicle to an EV, at a cost — some of these are for performance delivery and some for fuel efficiency. All these may appear to be baby steps in the backdrop of the long history and development of a conventional vehicle. But the magnitude of thought process, time and resources to develop and deploy them is tremendous.

Holistic opportunity

In the ecosystem, EV development is a holistic opportunity where the auto manufacturers, consumers, energy providers, urban planners, academia and research labs, healthcare agencies, policy makers and government have to partner. This holistic business model canvas must have the respective modules to fit into the vision and mission of sustainable EV deployment. To make this a successful business model, it has to be nurtured, monitored, resourced and deployed in unison. Currently in some parts of the world, the challenge of EV deployment has been passed on to the auto manufacturer and the acceptance of the product to the consumer. This creates a huge gap and challenge on the cost front and sustainability of the technology solution.

In the Indian ecosystem, the vendor base to work with the auto manufacturer is at a loss due to lack of visibility and volumes. The developers of the major systems are unable to find solutions that work in unison since there are no common platforms that integrate and provide a direction. The skill set base is lacking and the socio-economic environment does not encourage the fraternity to pursue this as a career due to the many other factors mentioned above.

In advanced markets, the business models for battery and other components have been explored and researched extensively with no silver bullet yet. Auto manufacturers have worked together with like-minded businesses and leveraged policies to come up with battery leasing plans, battery assurance plans and the like. Whether the auto company should own the battery leasing or outsource this business opportunity to a Tier-1 or the energy provider — the jury is out on many such business models. The other aspect is to pull in the energy providers upfront when making assumptions and at the start of development to streamline the outcome.

Globally, the battery charging and ownership is in itself a unique situation especially with traffic congestions and lack of urban planning to install charging stations. It is unlike the ownership of a conventional vehicle where the driver pulls into a gas station and fills up. The challenge in a developing economy is the lack of infrastructure, power supply, investors that believe in such a mobility solution ever growing into a business opportunity, the battery technologies in the marketplace and the volumes to make the business proposition viable. To capture the cost of installations, running and maintenance of these charging stations is important. Whether these are universal charging stations which will allow any battery technology and battery management system to power on, could be an added cost.

The charging infrastructure cost is a major aspect whether it is in an office, plant or business environment. It is required to capture the cost when employees bring in their EVs — it can be billed to the business owner or the employee or as a perk to the employee. To promote the use of EVs and for road safety, a special driving lane in inner cities would be a good idea as they do not produce the general noise levels of conventional vehicles and could otherwise catch pedestrians by surprise.

To overcome the economies-of-scale challenge, one of the business models discussed about few years ago in SIAM in the Frontier Technology Committee was to make the EV powertrain as the heart of a vehicle, and plug and play the engine for integration to make it an XEV. This is a very interesting strategy that would get the EV a lot more traction and catapult it as the mainstream mobility option. The National Hybrid Propulsion Programme (NHPP) unveiled by the Prime Minister in January 2103 rolls out a systematic plan to grow the EV and its ecosystem. The NHPP interestingly encompasses this ‘EV at the heart of vehicle' philosophy. Through the NHPP, the government is playing its role to support and nurture the technology, provide the platforms for transparent discussions and get stakeholders to shape the pathway for an effective EV deployment.

The EV story needs to be a holistic synergy of stakeholders for a win-win proposition. It is important to develop the major systems through a collaborative effort, total commitment, vendor participation and global perspectives have to be incorporated in the strategy to ensure that the EV delights the consumer.

Dr Arun Jaura is Managing Director and Founder of TRAKTION Management Services; Board of Director, SAE International; Member of India’s National Board of Electric Mobility
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