Electric shock to diesel

It is wiser to get off the diesel route quickly and adopt electric mobility. Is India listening?

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Thursday 06 July 2017

Volvo electric bus on the line number 55 in the city of Gothenburg. Credit: Wikimedia CommonsVolvo’s decision to go fully electric or hybrid for all its car models and dump internal combustion (IC) engine is a disruption that will shake up the technology roadmap of the global auto industry. As this ‘bold move’ draws accolade, doubters ask if this is premature as electric vehicles are only one per cent of the global vehicle market. But this is also a rapidly growing market which is an opportunity for the early bird. One compelling reason behind such corporate decision that must also be understood is the early recognition that meeting Euro VI and beyond with IC engines, especially diesel ones, will get more complex, difficult and expensive. It is wiser to get off the diesel route quickly and adopt electric mobility. Is India listening?  

In fact, Volvo has also stopped selling conventional diesel buses for city bus services in Europe. They are either doing hybrids or electric. Electric mobility linked with public transport is a win-win situation in polluted and climate-challenged world. It was an interesting experience for me to travel in Volvo electric bus on the line number 55 in the city of Gothenburg in Sweden last month. There are segments on this route that are also car-free and only trams and buses ply. The bus ride was a good experience—noiseless and comfortable, with facilities to plug in laptops and enough space to stand and sit. Its key highlight was the opportunity charging. As the bus docked in the terminal for few minutes, the overhead high-capacity rapid charger descended automatically to charge it enough to do the return trip. Such short-term charging allows for smaller batteries and lower costs. 

Volvo electric bus in Line number 55, Gothenburg. Overhead high-capacity rapid charger automatically recharges the vehicle. Credit: Anumita Roychowdhury / CSE

It is interesting how a ground-up petition from citizens targeted at legislators and local representatives and involvement of bus manufacturer, academia, experts and policymakers have helped to put this system in place in Gothenburg. "ElectriCity" is a consortium of partners, including bus manufacturer— Volvo—government and academia whereby costs and revenues are shared. Bus manufacturer provides the buses and some of the funding and is responsible for maintenance of buses and earns annual revenue. Thus, upfront capital cost of buying expensive buses is avoided. The operations are handled by the consortium as also the revenue. Consortium looks at bus stop solutions, traffic management systems and safety concepts as well as systems for energy supply and energy storage.

As India is drawing up its electric mobility programme and reforming its FAME (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric) scheme, public transport is becoming an important part of this conversation. This, of course, is still very expensive for us. Locking in of huge investments in fewer buses raises serious concerns in public transport-deficit cities of India. But electro-mobility roadmap is already looking at the possibility of focusing on low-range shuttles, feeders and paratransit that can go a long way in meeting travel demand in cities. If done well, sales volumes can allow economy of scale and reduced costs. If renewable energy portfolio also expands, the source of energy can become carbon-neutral.

When I got a chance to see the motor of the electric bus, I understood why it makes so much sense to dump diesel. Its simplicity is in its size, architecture and components. In contrast, a diesel engine and its emissions control system to comply with Euro VI is a monstrosity. The packaging of after treatment systems in a Euro VI diesel bus typically includes constantly regenerating particulate trap to cut particulate emissions and selective catalytic reducing systems (SCR) with urea storage and mixer to cut nitrogen oxide (NOx). It is a challenge to maintain these systems during the lifetime of vehicles. They can even remain suboptimal and less effective for some parts of urban driving conditions leading to higher emissions. There are also fears of rampant use of defeat devices to disable the SCR system. India does not have defeat device regulations. In Brazil, for instance, nearly 46 per cent of vehicles fitted with SCR systems have been disabled with defeat devices, leading to uncontrolled NOx emissions. How will India cope? 

Several European cities are enforcing driving bans on diesel cars and switching to electric. This is a public transport street in Gothenburg. Credit: Anumita Roychowdhury / CSE

Diesel cars in Europe have already generated enough evidence to show how these systems are not working effectively and are emitting several times higher NOx than the limit, forcing in new regulations of real-world emissions monitoring. Several prominent European cities, including Paris, London, Munich, Stuttgart and Oslo are enforcing driving bans on diesel cars. In fact, in 2016, 34 per cent drop in diesel car sales was reported in London. In the US, diesel cars are only 5 per cent of the total fleet. As diesel car market begins to shrink in Europe, there will be an even bigger push from the global auto giants to hard sell these engines of the devil in Indian market. India will have to stave off this pressure with stringent real-world emissions regulations, equal prices of diesel and petrol or a fiscal disincentive for diesel cars. Only fools suffer the trash of others.

It perhaps makes sense for us to look at the electric mobility early. Electric mobility also makes business sense for the automobile industry that is struggling to meet Euro VI with diesel. With volumes, the cost curve will reduce. India’s trajectory can be different with more public transport-oriented approach for a win-win solution. Bus strategy can be based on both short and long-range vehicles and innovative financing support for fleet purchase. Energy storage can be built around either battery swapping, dedicated charging or smart charging. Also, polluting segment of two-wheelers needs to be targeted. Apply polluter-pays principle to create dedicated fund for supporting e-mobility. Link electro mobility with pedestrianisation of city centres, plazas and commercial areas. Non-fiscal incentives, including public and private charging, adaptation of building code, linking charging with parking infrastructure and safe battery recycling can be among the many steps taken to make the paradigm shift. Link electric mobility incentives with zero emissions mandate, and meanwhile, industry can accelerate technology development, including range, battery and efficiency.

Sign on the wall is clear—internal combustion engine will die. The developing world at its early stages of its growth can fast-track this change to avoid locking in enormous pollution and carbon in the IC engine fleet. Our indigenous e-rickshaws are our spontaneous, affordable and inventive response to combine mobility with zero tailpipe emissions to move masses. The coming decades will be about more disruptive ideas not only in the area of technology but also in the realm of mobility where even a personal car can become a fossil.

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