At bus stops and metro stations in the Indian capital and towns around it, passengers are accustomed to the familiar call by three-wheel electric rickshaw drivers to take an eight-cent, shared ride to their offices, homes or markets.
The ride-hailing trade is flourishing according to the hundreds of rickshaw drivers crowding the streets.
“It is much better than a petrol vehicle. It does not create pollution and it is cheaper to run. After charging, my battery lasts for 80 to 120 kilometers,” said Abdul Alam, as he stood outside a metro station in Gurugram, a business hub, to which thousands of commuters travel daily from New Delhi.
In India, most electric vehicles are not cars, but three wheelers that ferry passengers and deliver goods or two wheelers used for personal mobility. Accounting for 90% of the country’s nearly three million electric vehicles, they are at the forefront of India’s transition to clean transportation.
That is not surprising — in developing countries like India, these vehicles provide an affordable means of transport.
In the case of electric rickshaws, they help decarbonize small trips.
“The market is basically pushing it and it’s taking care of last mile mobility,” according to Moushumi Mohanty, head of Electric Vehicle Technology at the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi.
Their popularity has grown as subsidies by the federal and state government for manufacturers, along with tax incentives, drive down costs. Spiraling petrol costs in recent years have made them more attractive.
Adhir Bhiya, who worked as an office help, left his job three years ago and took out a loan to buy his own rickshaw for $1,500. “I spend about $25 in a month to charge the batteries. It gives a good income to provide for my family,” said Bhiya.
As e-commerce booms, three-wheel electric vehicles are also playing a key role in making deliveries to customers. Road trips for deliveries are adding to carbon emissions according to experts, as people increasingly opt for the convenience of ordering everything from groceries to clothes online.
Zyngo EV Mobility, a start-up launched three years ago, uses an all-electric fleet of vehicles to make about 20,000 deliveries a day in and around Delhi.
“We wanted to adopt something which is more futuristic,” says Prateek Rao, founder of Zyngo. “Sustainability is something which is very close to our heart. We are all new-age people, we are a very young and aggressive team, we think that somewhere we are contributing to the eco-system back then why not? So we adopted EV’s as the core technology, so that we help reduce carbon emissions.”
Rao took a cue from the COVID-19 pandemic when Delhi residents glimpsed clear blue skies instead of the customary grey that shrouds the city as vehicles disappeared from roads during lockdowns and work-from-home norms.
The switch from petrol or diesel to electric vehicles is important for a city where the millions of vehicles clogging its toads contribute to almost half the emissions that dirty the air— Delhi is one of the world’s most polluted cities. Commercial vehicles are among the biggest contributors to toxic fumes.
“This will help a whole lot because look at the numbers that we are trying to transition,” points out Mohanty. “If you are converting say ten, twenty or 30% of these vehicles into electric, it basically means there is zero emissions from there.”
The government is pushing for a rapid expansion in the coming years — Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, called on automakers Tuesday to accelerate the transition to electricity and bio-fuels to curb vehicular pollution.
But there are challenges to be tackled before electric mobility can take off on a larger scale.
“Charging infrastructure is a pain point,” said Rao, “It is being ramped up, especially in Delhi but if we need faster adoption of EV’s across India, we need to improve the pace.”
Experts also say that India needs to step up domestic manufacturing of batteries and improve battery technology. While batteries are assembled in India, components are mostly imported.
“We need to reduce the dependence on imports of critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, graphite, etc. from China,” according to N.C. Thirumalai at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy in Bengaluru. “We have to de-risk the supply chain and look at other countries also.”
India also needs to develop batteries that are adapted to local conditions. “It is hot and humid here and we have roads which don’t always give you a smooth ride. So clearly you need batteries that have high temperature tolerance and can withstand high vibrations,” said Mohanty.
The long-term challenge is an even bigger one. In a country where coal is still king for power generation, the electricity source that charges batteries will also have to be cleaned up.