On the Road to the Future – Electric Vehicles
Electric vehicles. They have been around us for centuries, but have never managed to go big. From the first electric car in 1859 up to about twenty years ago, they have been largely restricted to auto expo’s and research prototypes, mainly due to cost issues. However, in the last decade or so, electric cars have travelled: from R&D labs to the road.
“Sustainable development”, “renewable sources of energy”, “going green”. We hear these phrases everywhere nowadays, and it’s not without reason. Air pollution is tormenting most cities in Asia, and is expected only to rise, with vehicles being one of the main contributors. In come electric vehicles, our solution to the pollution woes in our cities. But one would ask, how can a technology that has failed to work commercially for 150 years, suddenly change our lives? The reason is, put simply, that we didn’t have the technology nor the need to make it happen back then. Now that we do, companies are rushing to, as they say, “play their role in promoting green technology”.
Tesla is probably the best known and most successful venture into the electric car industry right now. Founded by the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk (if you haven’t heard of this guy, Google him up ASAP), it aims to produce electric vehicles and energy storage devices through sustainable development. 10 years ago, it was just another startup in Silicon Valley, but now it’s a revered company among tech enthusiasts. That’s because Tesla knows how to innovate. With style, too. Their cars are sleek, fast, safe (in fact, the safest), and use some pretty cool tech inside, like the Autopilot mode, in which the car can pretty much drive itself. But what’s interesting is that, despite all the new tech, the basic motor used in Tesla vehicles is built around an AC motor that was designed and patented by Nikola Tesla himself, way back in 1888.
Of course, this isn’t the only venture into electric cars. Electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt are slowly becoming mainstream, and there are several startups that have also sprung up focusing on electric vehicles and associated technology. However, India hasn’t embraced electric vehicles very well. The Mahindra Reva, Hero Electric scooters, and other electric vehicles have failed to meet expectations in terms of units sold. However, Ather Energy, a startup by two IITM alumni, is working hard to change this trend. Ather Energy is going to begin shipping its smart electric scooter, the S340, in a couple of months. Their electric scooter comes with a range of features, including a touchscreen dashboard and a lightweight body. In short, Ather Energy is aiming to provide to India, what Tesla has provided to the US: an affordable and modern substitute to conventional gasoline vehicles.
Now, this all sounds too nice. There has to be a catch, right? Well, the main problem is that electric vehicles need a large number of charging stations for people who plan to travel long distances, along the lines of the existing network of gas stations. Tesla already has a network of 660 superchargers (exclusively for Tesla) across the US, Europe, China, and Japan, and Ather has set up 31 charging points in and around Bengaluru, which is all good and great. But if each company plans to build its own individual network of stations (unlike gas stations, which are common for all automobile companies), then it may take a long time before such stations are ubiquitous enough to enable daily usage of electric cars over longer distances. Fortunately, there are now stations that can charge a large variety of electric vehicles, but most of these are limited to the US, for now. Also, electric vehicles are generally more expensive than normal gas vehicles, and that definitely won’t help sales in a money-conservative country like India.
So there you have it. It looks like modern technology and government subsidies will be making sure that electric cars are going to make a significant impact on our lives in the near future. But don’t get too enthusiastic. There’s still a lot to be worked out before they can replace the gas guzzlers that we have today.