The way to the electric transportation future — emissions-free and green — passes through solar-powered electric bikes, motorcycles, and scooters. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Global EV Outlook published during last month’s Clean Energy Ministerial at New Delhi, however, only focuses on electric cars (or vehicles, EVs). Electric transport has widespread policy support in the US, China, Europe and also in India’s National Electric Mobility Mission 2020. And that is including for two-wheelers.
Though electric cars get the headlines, their supporting ecosystem — the charging infrastructure and “range anxiety” — are more on the critical path than the EVs themselves. To draw parallels from cellular telephony, network “coverage” matters; it is integral to all phones and their operating systems.
OUTSIDE LIMIT OF NEED
In the early days of cellular, I worked for US phone company Sprint and visited stores to listen to the conversation of customers with the sales staff. “Do you have service in …?”, the prospective user would name a remote town. The sales person would reply, “by second half of 2000 …” “But that is over a year away!” the customer would say, “I cannot buy your service.”
The customer here typically was an urban dweller and had plenty of coverage. The story was: “My in-laws live in a remote farmhouse. We visit them each Christmas. If your cellular coverage does not reach them …” It did not matter that the farm had traditional telephony, or that only a handful of calls would be made during Christmas at that location.
The insight gleaned: Customers buy service to the outside limit of their need, not where the bulk of usage is going to be. Further, telephone service has insurance value and is empowering; that I can call and be reached is valuable beyond any call itself.
In the nascent EV industry, the comparable phenomenon is “range anxiety.” Will the battery have charge when I need it? Each charge for Mahindra Reva’s e2o lasts for 100 km, and over 320 km for the Tesla Sedan. These represent normal use ranges. Yet, for five days a year, or during emergencies, a customer might travel more. The car must go wherever needed. That is the benchmark set by today’s car and petrol ecosystem.
In addition to car attributes, customers buy both use and the potential for use. This is troubling for EV makers. They have to not only develop the vehicles with innovation inherent in new product development, but also create the charging ecosystem or equivalent. Better Place did that. The New York Times, October 2, 2012, notes, “Mr (Shai) Agassi founded the company five years ago with the ambitious goal of replacing the world’s gas pumps with battery-swapping stations for electric cars. But despite vast publicity, the idea has gained little traction so far.”
That battery swapping has not worked is unfortunate, for “range anxiety” is a thorny problem for EVs. Installing charging stations does not solve it, for charging takes hours, though fast charging in 30 minutes for a fraction of the capacity is available.
Where should charging stations be? Charging whenever parked is a new paradigm — distributed charging — at every garage and parking lot, at home, workplace, and in between. Just as cellular coverage. Should electric utilities manage charging stations? Not necessarily, though NRG Energy is doing that.
Accommodating expectations, new infrastructure, and new behaviours may be the principal barriers to EV use. “Green” intent may not be an unambiguous motivation to embrace new behaviours; while EVs are emissions-free, while coal-based electricity is among the leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Could rooftop solar charge automobiles? Yes, Mahindra Reva offers solar charging as does Tesla, eco-friendly and off-grid.
Electric carmakers are engaged in pioneering, future-friendly and even heroic work at Tesla, Mahindra Reva, Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric, Mitsubishi i-MiEV and elsewhere. And given less than 200,000 vehicles on the road worldwide, and the experiments of a few manufacturers, we do not know enough to judge EV prospects.
How will the industry “cross the chasm” to the mainstream market? What constitutes a tipping point signalling takeoff? For sure, the charging eco-system has to be simple, as ubiquitous, and nearly invisible as cellular coverage, or electric plug points. Charging economics and customer behaviour requires research, even novel business models.
No RANGE ANXIETY
The pre-occupation with electric cars is fine in the US, but might not be an optimum Product-Market-Technology mix for the rest of the world. I wish manufacturers emphasised solar-powered motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles. The charging load is less, solar panels at home and at parking lots can handle it, and solar use helps overall economics by offsetting fossil fuel costs. A spare charged battery under the seat eliminates “range anxiety”.
Above all, demand and affordability exists for two-wheelers, for the youth market and on campuses. Well-designed, powerful solar or hybrid motorcycles require modest development costs. Solar-powered two-wheelers could be a stepping-stone linking traditional cars and EVs.
Finally, “range anxiety”, just as “coverage”, is only one of the parallels and intersections among telecom, electric utilities and transportation.
Also in play are telematics, measurement and billing, integration of display, geographical, and consumption information. Three major industries — electricity, transport, and telecom — are in the midst of a mutually reinforcing, great and historic transformation.
(The author is visiting professor of strategy at IIM Kozhikode.)