Most discussions on electric vehicles (EVs) focus on benefits and sidestep serious questions. For example, do we know if a faster adoption of EVs would be in India’s interest? Is the currently used EV technology robust enough? Will EVs make us dependent on China?
Answers are straightforward. We just need to look at the most critical part of an EV – the battery. What the internal combustion engine is to a petrol car, the battery is to EV. Currently, all EVs use lithium-ion batteries (LIBs). It is the limitations of LIBs that will prevent widespread adoption of EVs. LIBs are expensive and do not support long-distance travel. Worse, raw materials needed to make LIBs are in short supply. Let us understand the seriousness of the issue.
The battery used in a typical EV is a massive 500 kg pack consisting of hundreds of large lithium-ion cells that use metals like lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese. Each metal serves a useful purpose. For example, lithium generates a flow of electrons and helps charge the battery. Cobalt prevents battery overheating. The problem is the world does not have enough of lithium or cobalt reserves needed to replace current automobiles with EVs.
Worse, most reserves are located in a few countries. So, 65% of lithium reserves are in Bolivia and Chile, while 60% of cobalt reserves are in Congo. Short supply has made both expensive. No wonder the battery accounts for 70% of the cost of two wheelers and 50% of cars.
So, all EV dreams depend on supply of cobalt and lithium from a few countries. This is a big worry for large players like Tesla and all countries except China. Always a long term planner, China has secured a supply of essential metals with purchases of mines in Congo, Bolivia, Chile and Australia. It controls half the cobalt mines in Congo.
With raw material supplies in place, China set out to become a global battery and EV hub. With shrewd policy and generous state support, Chinese firms command over 60% of global battery market share. China was also the largest EV producer with more than a million vehicles sold in 2018.
On average, an EV is twice as expensive as the comparable petrol vehicle. No wonder most manufacturers lose money on EVs, which can never replace currently used automobiles without a breakthrough in battery technology.
Realising this, many countries are investing in developing next-gen batteries that would replace LIBs. Panasonic, Tesla, Toyota and Chinese manufacturers are at the forefront of research. They are trying to reduce the use of expensive cobalt. Many firms are experimenting with sulphur, sodium and magnesium to replace cobalt.
Use of fuel cells is another big idea. Fuel cell EVs powered by hydrogen emit only water vapour and warm air. A significant challenge is to bring down the cost. General Motors and Airbus are part of the global Hydrogen Council which plans to push a transition to fuel cells.
A country then has two broad choices to pursue EV dreams. Buy expensive cobalt and lithium, develop expertise and make the battery. Or else import batteries. It is easy to talk about plans for setting up domestic battery manufacturing units but impossible to match the prices of subsidised imported batteries. Due to a global rush to set up large battery manufacturing units, already an enormous surplus production capacity exists.
Most firms take the import route. For example, India imports 90% of electric scooter components from China. Currently, an Indian car uses 10-15% imported parts. EVs will increase import dependence to 70% or more.
EVs are the future of mobility. But the future will happen only when an inexpensive next-gen battery is in the market. Work on that is at the beginning stage, and no market-ready batteries are expected before ten years.
Considering the above, India should not push for large scale adoption of EVs in the next ten years. Heavens will not fall. EVs are not new. Japanese EVs came into the market ten years back but could not break even because of limitations of battery technology. But even the new EVs use the same old LIBs.
India should use this time to take care of two pressing issues.
First, prepare for the coming disruption in the automobile industry. EV electric motors produce a constant torque at all speeds, eliminating the need for auto parts like multiple speed transmission system, clutch and gearbox. And no exhaust pipe since the EV is emission free. An EV has 20 moving parts, while a regular petrol or diesel vehicle has more than 2,000.
For this reason, when fully adopted EVs will kill most auto component firms. Survivors will have to move to an industry 4.0 format. India would also need to reskill a large number of motor mechanics. They cannot repair EVs because of the sophisticated electronics. End of ubiquitous roadside motor garages.
Second, and, more important, India should use the next ten years window to become a leader in next-generation battery technology. This is an honourable way to pursue EV dreams without being critically dependent on any country. This will require setting up of a high-ambition, well-funded institution headed by a recognised expert. That would be a project worthy of investing our national pride in.