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Finally taking charge
A decade after they first appeared in India, electric cars have yet to catch on. Now, as new models launch, TOI-Crest finds out what its like to drive down the electric avenue.
She calls it a happy co-incidence. Just when Shompa Chopra decided to change cars because of a shoulder problem (the Maruti 800 she had was not helping matters), she heard of the Reva. "I did a lot of research on electric cars and felt this little car would best suit my thinking and personality, " says Chopra. But her family was not too pleased, "because they felt the Reva was too light for Delhi roads". That was a while ago. Now, not just the family but many in the neighbourhood, too, are converts to the electric cause. "I see a lot of Revas around, " smiles Chopra, adding, "people no longer feel that it is just a ladies' car. I see a lot of young men at the wheel too. " No longer limited by gender or age, this market is now seeing greater activity with Mahindra launching its e2o earlier this week. Electric cars, which didn't really make waves since being introduced in India in 2001 (the Reva was the first model, followed by the Reva i), are still seen as a new concept. Only 5, 000 sold over a decade, and this includes exports to Europe. But rising petrol prices, increasing awareness about the need to protect the environment and a greater stress on manoeuvrability have made many people seriously consider this option.
Chetan Maini, the Reva's promoter who was designated its chief of strategy and technology after the company's takeover by Mahindra, says the car is "an almost perfect amalgam of the advancements in automotive technology, electronics and IT. " Pooja Thawrani, assistant manager, marketing, Mahindra Reva, adds: "We've addressed the drawbacks that our drivers earlier had to a great extent. The e2o has additions like an Intelligent Energy Management System (IEMS) which connects the car to the service station all the time, a phone application with which you can switch the AC on or off from your office or home, and other such innovations. "
The plan apparently is to pitch the e2o as a "serious car" - one that is a viable alternative to conventional fossil fuel ones. And economy is a huge advantage. The e2o's running cost is just Rs 0. 50 a kilometre compared to Rs 4. 50 for petrol, Rs 2. 70 for diesel and Rs 2. 12 for CNG cars. On the flip side, the high price of the car itself, a low driving range and an unconventional design have proven to be dampeners, acting as a drag on sales.
But what is it like to own an electric car? Chopra says the "unique shape" of the car often attracts a number of inquisitive onlookers. "I'm always inundated with questions, especially about the battery, how often it needs to be charged, and the maintenance of the car. " Her model runs a little over 80 km on a single charge but it takes about 7-8 hours for a full charge. "But this is hardly a bother because I don't drive more than 30 km in a day, " she says.
Even her electricity bill has gone up only marginally. "The difference must have been of about Rs 200, which is not much. " And the fact that the car is environment-friendly is important for the 55-year-old school teacher: "As someone who is looked up to by her students, I need to show that I practice what I preach, which is being environmentally conscious. "
Nitin Rai bought a Reva six years ago and says he has no regrets. "It's perfect for a city like Bangalore where the distances are small, " says the 46-year-old ecological researcher who works with an NGO, Asoka Trust. It is the family's only car and is used mainly by his wife. "It's a small-sized car so we don't have any parking problems. We have no children, but if we did it would be able to accommodate them too, " he says.
Rai wanted a car that was environmentally friendly. "It wasn't size alone, we also have alternative views on energy. We wanted a car which would give us a guiltfree ride. " But he adds that electric cars are not as clean as they are perceived to be. "It runs with energy that has been generated somewhere - coal has been burnt for thermal power, dams have been built by inundating forests for hydropower. So, in effect, what you have done is merely 'off-sited' the pollution. " Still, Rai says he would never buy a petrol/ diesel car, and counts himself among those Reva owners considering the new e2o now that his old car is nearing the end of its life-cycle.
Maneet Sehgal Dey is another happy user. Ever since she picked up her Reva four years ago, she feels she leaves behind a trail of smiles. "There's something cheerful about this car - I see happy reactions at every turn, " she says. Dey remembers the first day she took it out on the road. "Some cops in Gurgaon asked me to pull over - not for any rule that I had broken but to have a look at my car. " Having driven an electric car when she was in the US, Dey was aware of its benefits. But it was only after she switched jobs in Delhi and had no access to a regular cab facility that she chose Reva.
And it's not just the cops who have been curious about her car. "I think my entire office must have taken a test drive. Wherever I park, people walk up to ask questions. " The only downside, she feels, is the air-conditioning in peak summer. "Since it is battery-driven, the AC is not too effective. But I'm told the new model has taken care of this too, " says the 31-year-old.
Because electric cars run a limited distance, Reva owners usually need to plan their journeys carefully. Nitin Rai says that the driving range is the biggest hindrance in an otherwise great car. "For instance, if I am running errands, I need to break up the journey in such a way that I am able to charge my car's batteries in between. I need to keep in mind where the plug points are and plan in a manner so that I can spend two hours there so that my batteries can charge to 80 per cent. " He believes electric cars would be more popular if there was a better network of charging points across cities. It is a suggestion that could help power up the market.
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