The future of cars
There are some exciting electric cars coming out in the next few years, but the real future lies in powerful hybrids
I am a petrolhead. I race and rally, my jeans have oil stains, my nails always have grease in them and I like my cars and bikes to make a god-awful amount of noise. The lack of noise is the reason I haven’t been able to sit through a single race of the Formula E electric racing series. I’ve also been steering people away from buying the Mahindra Electric e20, pointing them towards the automatic Tata Nano GenX.
Despite my love of petrol, however, I do believe electric mobility is the future. Last week, I drove a car that only the likes of Sachin Tendulkar can afford, and it had me convinced. BMW’s i8, a plug-in hybrid sports car, might struggle to keep up with the Audi R8. And it might not make your nerve-endings explode like the Audi’s V10 motor shrieking at 8,500 rpm does. But it doesn’t take the intellect of Steve Jobs to realize you’re staring at the future. As much as I love internal combustion engines, fact is, sooner or later, we will all choke and die on their fumes. This is the solution. Pure electric cars are not going to be a realistic option for some years. They need heavy infrastructure, which is only now being built in the US. In India, where we can’t even seem to build roads that don’t turn into craters in the monsoon, a network of charging stations is pure fantasy. So plug-in hybrids is the next step.
This is how the BMW i8 works. You plug it into a charging socket at home and you can drive 37km on pure electric power. That’s enough to get you from Malabar Hill to the Bandra-Kurla Complex in Mumbai or from Connaught Place in Delhi to Gurgaon, adjoining the Capital. No charging point at the office? You’re not going to be stranded. The three-cylinder petrol engine fires up and you drive home.
What the i8 also does (just like a multi-million dollar Le Mans race car) is recover kinetic energy lost during braking to top up the battery and give you additional electric juice.
Next month, Volvo will launch the XC90 Twin Engine T8, a big luxurious SUV that will do 22km on pure electric power before the petrol engine kicks in. If you have a charging point at your office (and if you can afford this car, you can surely ask HR to sort out a plug point), you can drive to work and back, daily, on just electric power.
The i8 costs in excess of Rs.2 crore and the XC90 will cost in excess of Rs. 1 crore, but it’s a matter of time before powerful hybrid cars become more accessible.
In the meantime, it’s worth assessing what the available options are in terms of electric cars. The big deterrent to buying one is that you have to always worry about whether you are going to run out of power when you’re not near a plug point. The Mahindra e2O has a solution to this. Via the accompanying app, you can call up the reserve charge on the battery and get to somewhere with an electric socket. But the problem is, in its current state, the e2O asks you to compromise too much: It is too cramped, too bumpy, too flimsy of build and too slow (its top speed is 81 kmph) to justify the Rs.6 lakh-plus price. And, in addition, the car doesn’t look futuristic.
The Nissan Leaf doesn’t either. That’s why it doesn’t sell. The Renault Twizy does, but has sold less than 18,000 units since its release in 2012. Purely electric cars have struggled to find takers.
This changed thanks to Tesla Motors, the electric car manufacturer run by Elon Musk, whose Tesla Model S, with its falcon-wing doors and Ludicrous mode acceleration, is so sexy that when a cheaper version was announced in June, tens of thousands paid a deposit without even seeing one in the metal.
You don’t need the next iPhone 7, but you bloody want it, don’t you? It’s the same with a Tesla car. With a full-charge range of over 300km, zero compromises on the speed, control and comfort a petrol car provides, mind-warping acceleration and the ability to drive itself (the recent death in an accident notwithstanding), the Tesla Model S can happily participate in saving the world. The Tesla S is an expensive car, though, at a base price of $71,200 (around Rs.47 lakh). The cheaper version is around $5,000 less. And neither model is available in India. So we will have to wait two years, till the Model 3, which is expected to be priced from Rs.18-24 lakh and could have an assembly plant in India, to buy a Tesla car.
There is progress being made by Indian companies in building electric vehicles too. Bikers will be excited by the S430 electric scooter being developed by Ather Energy in Bengaluru and the Tork T6X electric motorcycle that’s going into production by year-end in Pune. Both Ather Energy and Tork are tech start-ups in the Silicon Valley mould (and thus “cool” by extension), have a bunch of connected apps with their vehicles, which will appeal to the smartphone generation, and if they can ensure the bikes don’t fall apart in the first six months, like the flood of Chinese electric scooters did a few years ago, the transition to electric mobility might happen sooner than you think.
As for cars, the options right now—and I’m talking sensible money options—are the mild hybrids in cars such as the Maruti Ciaz and a whole bunch of Mahindras. These cars combine start/stop—a feature that cuts the engine out when you’re idling at a traffic light to cut pollution as well as consumption—with energy recuperation while decelerating. The energy recovered is fed into the extra battery to top up the electrical systems so the alternator does not have to run continuously. It isn’t exactly the sexiest tech in the world, but we will just have to make do.
The seven landmark electric cars
Porsche car company founder Ferdinand Porsche’s first car was the Lohner-Porsche, a full-electric car with wheel-hub motors shown in 1900. This evolved into a racing car with motors in all four wheels and then grew into the Semper Vivus, which was the world’s first hybrid. The Mixte was the production version that went on sale in 1901.
General Motors EV1
It’s hard to imagine it today, but General Motors was once at the cutting edge of R&D and introduced the world’s first serial production electric car, in 1996. The fabulously futuristic EV 1 was offered on lease in parts of the US. Despite overwhelmingly positive reactions and equally positive press, GM cancelled the programme in 2002, repossessing and crushing all but 40 cars. The self-sabotage remains one of the great mysteries of the automotive world, with allegations of both oil industry lobbying and GM’s own fear that an electric vehicle with fewer parts would hurt its profitable spare parts business.
The first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, the Prius went on sale in 1997, and with celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Leonardo Di Caprio picking one up, it quickly became the world’s best-selling hybrid, which it still is.
Chetan Maini returned to India from the US and launched India’s first electric car, the Reva, in 2001. It didn’t take off as Maini envisaged.
At the turn of the century, Nissan invested $6 billion to develop electric cars . The Leaf was among the first of the company’s electric cars. Five years on, it has sold 200,000 units, making it the best-selling all-electric car, but Nissan’s bet is yet to really pay off.
Tesla Model S
It is the second best-selling electric car ever, the world’s best-selling electric car in 2015 and the best-selling luxury car in the US. While the car’s batteries last from 340-500km on full charge, Tesla is also expanding the US-wide supercharger network to make range-anxiety a thing of the past. And in Ludicrous mode, the Model S P100 can go from 0-100 kmph in 2.7 seconds—that’s faster than a Lamborghini.
Its success has led to the Model X SUV with falcon-wing doors and for the forthcoming Model 3, which will be its affordable and mass-market electric car.
BMW launched its BMW i brand in 2011, and its first vehicle was the i3. Project i cars will use a carbon-fibre monocoque (tougher and lighter, though much more expensive) to improve efficiency, and backing up the futuristic tech are electric and hybrid powertrains. BMW i cars are designed from the ground up to take advantage of there being no internal combustion engine in the nose. The i3 is a city car—a hatchback that looks like the future—while the newer i8 is a sports car.