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Maruti Suzuki’s strategy reveals that it is not convinced about the mass adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) in India anytime soon. The country’s top carmaker sees more sense in taking the hybrid route than pressing its pedal hard on electric vehicles (EVs). Chairman R.C. Bhargava recently said that hybrid technology, natural gas and biofuels offer a better path towards a cleaner future than fully-electric cars. It’s no surprise that Maruti plans to launch its first hybrid offering along with ally Toyota in the coming months. That these auto firms favour hybrid engines, which combine battery power with fuel combustion to move wheels, may partly be because they lag others on the EV development curve. Globally, many electric models have hit the streets. Even in India, MG Motors, Hyundai and Tata Motors offer vehicles that liberate users from petrol or diesel refills. However, both India’s and the world’s largest carmakers, Maruti and Toyota, have stayed in the slow lane. Does this presage their loss of market share around the next bend? Or are sceptics of an all-electric shift onto something?

India’s government favours a rapid EV transition, as road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari has often indicated. This, though, requires an ecosystem to recharge or swap batteries. Home set-ups for overnight charging can’t be installed for everyone; besides, long-distance travel makes roadside options a must. Further, charging stations must attain a critical mass of reach for ‘network effects’ to kick in, multiplying its utility as it expands. Plans for this are being worked out and some plug-points do exist for public use in big cities, but our slow progress suggests hype has overshot reality. Without a more robust private-public effort, EV sales may not pick up speed. Given the premium pricing of EVs, there are two other sticky issues that also need to be tackled. First, their eco-friendly credentials in a country that runs largely on coal-fired energy remain too hazy. And this summer’s wet-bulb heat and power shortfalls—in spite of a renewable ramp-up—raised doubts about the Indian grid’s pace of carbon reduction. Second, confidence in their safety was shaken by reports of battery fires. Regulators and engineers should work together to credibly minimize the “thermal runaway" risk of EV power-packs before a small likelihood gets a chance to turn into a big deterrent.

Though an electric recharge can cost as little as one-tenth of a petrol refill for the same distance driven, the on-road prices of EVs also need to decrease vis-a-vis fuel equivalents for bulk buyers to be lured. As Maruti well knows, this is a cost-sensitive market. The Ukraine war has made battery-making inputs costlier, and, with both Russia and China key players in this value chain, geopolitical factors beyond our control could continue to get in the way of cost reduction. Tesla chief Elon Musk’s recent mention of his bankruptcy fear was taken as hyperbole, but the supply “nightmare" he spoke of was true. While oil prices have shot up too and threaten to stay elevated, if all the pieces of a fast-changing jigsaw are put together, it could explain Maruti’s bet on mid-stage demand for hybrids. Should cars powered by fuel-pistons in synchrony with dynamo-charged batteries get leagues ahead on fuel efficiency, their green story could impress buyers with a palpable impact on carbon emissions. Indian policy envisions EVs as the future, but let’s not count hybrids out of the race for cleaner mobility.

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