On 30 January the first E2O car rolled out of the Mahindra Reva plant in Bangalore. It marked a significant change in the 120-year-old DNA of the auto industry. The E2O comes with its own solar-charging system. Once you buy the car, you don’t need to pay for fuel; the only cost involved will be in replacing the batteries every few years, based on usage and recharging patterns.
The four-seater, two-door compact car with automatic transmission spells a new future in private transportation: It disconnects car ownership permanently from fuel costs. It goes a little further than that, of course. Solar power is clean. There is no emission. At this point, quibblers will introduce the great “but” to wobble logical argument: But the older models of the Reva can also be charged using a solar panel—what’s so unique about the E2O?
The major change has been in size—this is a compact car with seating for four, not the squished configuration of the original Reva. Aside from that, the E2O is also a much smarter car, with mobile connectivity that is used for features like smart charging, computerized speed limiters and other new functions.
Five years ago, when Reva began its search for answers to crowded roads, increasing fuel costs, difficult-to-improve efficiencies of fossil-fuelled internal combustion engines and rising emissions, it decided it wasn’t enough to make a revolutionary car. It was necessary to relook the entire philosophy of personal transportation, changing the basics of the manufacturing process and automobile engineering, to reduce the huge dependence on oil imports.
The E2O marks a dramatic shift from cars that were primarily mechanical machines to ones that are more of an electronic device; ones that were dependent on expensive and finite fossil fuel to ones that use a clean and infinite supply of solar energy that has no recurring cost; ones that were focused on moving people from point A to point B to ones that are also a personal power plant that can drive (not literally!) washing machines, television sets, air conditioners and computers in your home; from being a product that automobile manufacturers depended on for long-term service revenue to a vehicle that is called in for service only when required. Ah, freedom from the quarterly service charges and mysterious component replacement with each service that you were afraid to question your mechanic about, isn’t it? The E2O has no oil filters, radiators and other “stuff” that needs replacement. All this born in a plant that is highly energy-efficient and takes the concept of frugal engineering to the cutting edge (see “Smart car, smart plant”).
Chetan Maini, Mahindra Reva’s founder and chief of technology and strategy, almost rolls up his sleeves in delight before explaining the most outrageous use for the E2O: “When the northern grid went down in mid-2012, resulting in the worst power outage in the history of the country, it would have taken just 100,000 E2O cars in Delhi to feed 1,000 MW of energy back into the grid.”
The purist is bound to say, “I want a car, not a power plant.” That is such a last century thought. For example, no one today says, “Hey, give me a phone and I don’t want that camera, the GPS, the music player, the accelerometer, or photo book.” Not any more. The technologist may be tempted to argue, “Solar power cannot be fed back into our ancient and tottering power grids. To do this, we need modern smart grids.” And that’s right too. The first smart grid in the country, catering to 87,000 homes, is coming up in Puducherry, set up by the Power Grid Corp. of India Ltd (PGCIL). The future is at our doorstep (in Puducherry anyway).
The E2O designers, who have spent five years putting together the blueprint for the vehicle and its ecosystem, have however decided to be realistic. They aren’t waiting another decade for smart grids to proliferate. Instead, the E2O has a solution called Car2Home where a 3x3m solar panel installed at home can charge an inverter that you can use to power your household. The solar panel costs just under Rs.1 lakh, which Mahindra estimates to be around a year’s fuel cost in normal vehicles, but the panels are supposed to work for 30 years. Of course, you will need to make sure that the panel is fitted in a place where it’s safe from damage from, say, stray cricket balls.
For India, which has been increasingly drawing criticism for the lack of globally relevant innovation and has a poor manufacturing reputation (compared with the shining example that is China), the E2O spells a landmark “Made in India” moment. The vehicle has been completely designed in India, using 30 patents that Mahindra Reva has registered globally. Not surprisingly, international business magazine Fast Company lists Mahendra Reva at No. 22 in its list of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies for 2013. The Fast Company list includes names that make “the greatest impacts across their industries and our culture as a whole”.
The E2O is controlled by 10 on-board computers and is linked to a central server, spelling the start of the connected, intelligent, smart car era. While the details of the technologies incorporated in the car are being kept under wraps until the launch date, we had the opportunity to drive the car and experience its advanced systems.
Siddharth Patankar, editor—auto, NDTV, says: “I am yet to drive the E2O but I can tell you that most electric cars today are fun to drive. They lack as sporty a character as a fuel-driven car at times, but companies like Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW are going to great pains to improve driving dynamics and offer sportscar performance with an electric drivetrain.”
According to Maini: “About 75% of the bill of materials in the E2O is for components never used in a car before. That’s one reason we didn’t need a hundred years of experience in automobile design to build the E2O. Past experience in developing and manufacturing a game-shifting car like this is almost irrelevant.”
So what does the connected car do that can be revealed? For one, the central server does a daily remote heartbeat check on the car. Should anything need attention, it is flagged immediately to the owner. The car is called in for a service only when the diagnostics indicate a necessity. The car has the ability to provide a power boost using a mobile phone. In the event a car runs out of fuel, a simple text to the help desk can remotely unlock a discharge at a deeper level from the battery than is normally allowed.
Also, like all electric cars, the E2O uses only a third of the components of a regular car. This means reduced servicing requirements. A complete recharge can take place in 6 hours overnight from the batteries filled up with solar cells, or by plugging it into a 15-amp wall socket.
The only problem is its range. The car can do 100km on a single charge (maximum speed: 85 kmph). For most people in India this covers a day of driving to work, dropping children to school and perhaps shopping on the way. But it doesn’t cover city-to-city transport. The truth is that today’s cars cost so much because they have been (over) built to cover distances of roughly 400km on a single tank—something that most car owners infrequently require. Such massive distances need to be covered on a regular basis only in countries such as the US. It would, however, be logical to assume that the E2O makes a reasonable choice as a second car for Indian households.
It is interesting to see that electric vehicles are finding an increasing number of users. In Norway, where Oslo is recognized as the electric vehicle capital of the world, electric car sales constituted 2.59% of new car sales between January and June 2012. By September, that figure had reached 5.2%.
Patankar says: “The Indian automobile manufacturers have been lobbying for long to get the government to offer incentives for environmentally friendly vehicles. Lowering taxes and duties on electric and hybrid cars will make them more affordable and therefore more attractive to Indian buyers. While a proposal was set to be adopted by the ministry of finance, it’s yet to happen, which explains the delay in launching the new Mahindra E2O and even the hybrid range from Toyota-Lexus.”
He adds: “In India I worry about infrastructure, because unlike some cities in China where all parking lots now need to have plug points to allow for car charging, in India there is no such move. Buyers may also find it difficult to charge these cars at their own homes due to lack of power sources at the place of parking.”
The Mahindra Reva plant has a capacity of 30,000 vehicles per year. The price tag for the E2O has not been finalized. Fast Company puts the estimated price at $11,000 (around Rs.5 lakh) , while some analysts are predicting a lower price, but still above Rs.4 lakh. Mahindra Reva will take a final decision on the price after the government announces its automobile manufacturing and renewal energy policy—both of which can have an impact on the price. The car is expected to be in the market next month.
SMART CAR, SMART PLANT
It’s not just the car that’s eco-friendly, even the factory is designed to reduce waste and pollution.
When you enter the Mahindra Reva plant you are struck by its curved, translucent architecture. This design ensures that the use of artificial light is minimized and the air within the plant circulates naturally. When the plant does use artificial light, it is non-heating LEDs, largely powered by its own solar cell farm (installed capacity 75 kW). Thirty-five per cent of the plant’s energy requirement is harvested on its own campus.
They are a bit obsessive about this. When the E2O’s drivetrain is being tested, the car’s rotating wheels generate power that is stored in batteries for later use. All said and done, the plant saves 53,000kg of CO2 emissions per year and 22,000 litres of diesel.
The philosophy of frugal engineering ensures that the plant has reduced the 150-odd manufacturing steps used in conventional automobile plants to 28. This makes it highly efficient and easily replicable.
Cars are bonded using space frames—a process used in the manufacture of Formula One cars and by aerospace companies. As a consequence, there is no welding work at the plant. Instead, machines pressure-fit the parts in a process that is a little like sticking plaster. Finally, there is no paint shop. Paint shops can lead to waste and pollution; instead, Mahindra impregnates the metal with pigment while it is being cast.
This is the first automobile plant in India to be certified Platinum—the highest rating for green plants—by the Indian Green Building Council, a Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)-led initiative promoting green buildings.
Arun Katiyar is a content and communication consultant with a focus on technology companies. He is a published author with HarperCollins and has extensive media experience spanning music, print, radio, the Internet and mobile phones.