Clean Car Technologies: Can Indian innovators contribute?

It was interesting to hear Ravi Kant of Tata Motors suggesting that ‘India should focus on producing cheap, efficient and small electric cars over the next five years’ at Pan-IIT Global Conference 2008. Why didn’t Tata Motors, the only Indian car manufacturer in real sense, take that initiative? Why was it left to Maini and its Reva?

Ravi Kant and the whole lot of auto enthusiasts globally understand this global necessity in the interest to cut down the global warming. The same is true for all the IITs and many nationally known institutes such as Central Mechanical Engineering research Institute at Durgapur. Don’t the scientists, technology researchers and the policymakers in India know how successful has been the Toyota Prius in US? American Big Three missed on the opportunity because of the powerful oil lobby and the world knows why the US has lost the lead in auto business to Japanese. However, very lately all the three are working hard for developing a viable hybrid, more so electric cars. GM perceives its Chevorlet Volt as savior in competition as well as for its survival. Ford is also in the queue for electric cars.

I don’t know if the three will continue with the focus or give up as the price of oil has come down again, as one report says, it has gone cheaper than even mineral water.

Interestingly, the Chinese have already launched their electric car that is technically competitive with the other available product. The Chinese company has a superior battery technology.

With almost very little fossil oil of its own, India would have done a serious work on alternative energy sources for auto application. Indian policy makers must appreciate how automobiles decide the economic growth and employment of a country. Every car produced generate on average employment for at least two persons. Today perhaps the country must be getting a large number of semiskilled persons engaged as drivers every year. Here are some alternate technologies at which Indian industry and policy makers must focus.

1.Plug-In Hybrids. Plug-in hybrids, with 40-mile all-electric range and the ability to recharge from standard house current, will be on the market in the next two or three years. The leading (and only) mainstream players are General Motors (which plans on introducing a Saturn Vue plug-in hybrid) and Toyota (with an adapted Prius). Ambitious startups (Fisker, BYD) are also planning to field plug-in hybrids. All of them are developing lithium-ion battery packs that can stand up to repeated discharge and recharge cycles and still demonstrate the longevity that today’s nickel-metal-hydride hybrid battery packs have had.

2.Battery Electrics. Lithium-ion is the current leader, but is it ready to carry four passengers in a fully featured, crashworthy sedan more than 200 miles? Nissan has plans to bring an electric car to the U.S. by 2010. Chrysler has also surprised the world by suddenly announcing a concept car known as the Dodge EV, a sports car. It claimed 150-mile range and blistering acceleration of zero to 60 in less than five seconds. The sports car was clearly aimed at the Tesla Roadster, a California-built $100,000 exotic which (like the Chrysler) sports a Lotus-designed body.

3.Range Extenders. General Motors’ Chevrolet Volt, with production slated for the end of 2010 is something new: an electric car with a gas motor whose only function (it’s not connected to the wheels) is to keep the electric motor spinning after the batteries are depleted. As with plug-in hybrids, 40 miles can be enjoyed in battery-only mode, but the gas engine extends that to 400 miles or more.

4. Very Small Cars. High fuel prices have created a strong market for very small cars. Tiny, fuel- and space-efficient cars once relegated only to Europe or Asia will enter US too. Toyota iQ, the minuscule car is just 118 inches long, but can carry three adults (plus a child) and reportedly achieves 60/51 mpg fuel economy. Tata Motors’ Nano can join the competition.

5. Fuel Cells. Hydrogen can be the fuel. The possibilities are endless, since hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. Big drawbacks now are the cost of the fuel and, of course, the cars themselves. Manufacturers are General Motors ( Sequel and Equinox SUVs under test) and Honda (FCX Clarity).It is interesting to know that ISRO is working on fuel cells for auto application.

6. Salad Oil. Companies such as Massachusetts-based Greasecar have found a niche converting diesels to run on 100 percent biofuel.

7. Liquid Hydrogen. BMW’s Hydrogen 7 can run on a tank full of energy-dense liquid hydrogen. Hydrogen is expensive to begin with, and it liquefies at -423 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning a super-cooled cryogenic tank is obligatory. If a car left alone for too long, much of the hydrogen will return to a gaseous state and vent out. The big challenges: affordable hydrogen production and liquification; easy refueling; and answering safety questions.

8. Ethanol. GM and Ford are world leaders in producing “flex-fuel” vehicles that can run on ethanol or gasoline. While America is stuck with a “food vs. fuel” controversy, Brazil has become pioneer in using ethanol from sugarcanes. India can and should go Brazil way

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