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India Goes Electric With Battery-Swapping Rickshaws

Pankaj Kumar drives his autorickshaw up to a charging station in a covered parking lot in Gurugram, a satellite city of New Delhi. He flips open a lid on the side of the box that was the driver’s seat. One at a time, he pulls out the two batteries powering the small vehicle, each about a foot high, five inches wide, and weighing 26 pounds. Kumar taps his key fob on the station, a large black box a bit shorter and wider than a vending machine. A locker pops open, revealing a fully charged battery. He pops it in, then repeats the action for the second battery. After just a few minutes of downtime, Kumar and his electric ride are back on the road, fully charged and looking for the next fare.

Globally, transportation accounts for 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and electric vehicles are a big part of the solution. In the US and Europe, governments have worked to push people into electric cars. But in India, where fewer than four million cars are sold annually, two wheelers, autorickshaws (called tuk-tuks in other Asian countries), and buses remain the dominant modes of transportation. Which is why some manufacturers are now, for the first time, starting to power them with electricity instead of gasoline.

For Indians, this is about more than meeting the commitment they made in the Paris climate agreement. A study published in The Lancet found that in 2017, the country’s air pollution—some of the worst in the world—killed 1.24 million people. In February, the government, in a bid to get more people out of gas-burners, approved a $1.4 billion, three-year scheme to subsidize electrics. Still, the vehicles remain out of reach for most buyers.

One company thinks it has an answer: drive down costs by splitting the vehicle from its most expensive component, the battery. A not quite two-year-old joint venture between electric car maker Virya Mobility 5.0 and solar power company SUN New Energy Systems, SUN Mobility is working with EV makers, providing the batteries for those vehicles. The twist is that SUN retains ownership of the batteries. When they run low, the driver heads to a SUN station and exchanges them for fresh ones, paying only for the electricity he has consumed.

“Our solutions for India need to be a little different,” says cofounder Chetan Maini, a longtime advocate for ditching internal combustion. He built India’s first electric car, the Reva, in 1999. The tiny two-seater ran on lead acid batteries and never broke past novelty status. Today’s lithium-ion batteries offer better performance and pricing, but in India, even a $35,000 Tesla Model 3 is nowhere near workable for the vast majority of drivers. “When you separate the batteries, it’s cost neutral in the immediate term and cheaper in the mid to long term,” Maini says.

SUN Mobility is starting off not with cars, but with autorickshaws and buses. It has an agreement to provide bus manufacturer Ashok Leyland with batteries and charging services for 18 buses. It will supply batteries for 500 three-wheelers to SmartE, a startup that runs electric autorickshaws from metro stations to neighborhoods within a few miles. (Both companies are also working with battery providers running on traditional plug-and-charge models.) “We have tied up with SUN Mobility for when swap solution makes sense,” said Karthick Athmanathan, head of electric vehicles and e-mobility at Ashok Leyland. “It’s offering an innovative concept.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because battery swapping has been tried before, most notably by Better Place. In the late 2000s, the Israeli company had raised more than $800 million and convinced Renault to make a car model using swappable batteries. But the idea never caught on, and Better Place went bankrupt in 2013. Maini dismisses the comparison, saying his business model is different. For one, the Israeli firm was focused only on cars and had tied up with one client (Renault) to sell its products. For another, its charging stations were expensive to install, and at least some were miles from the highway. SUN, Maini says, can work with any manufacturer. It can install its autorickshaw swapping stations, like the one Kumar uses for his vehicle, in crowded neighborhoods. SUN will fit its bus changing stations into 20-foot containers, using a robotic system to swap out the 1,430-pound battery in less than three minutes.

Not everyone is so confident. “There are no global standards on swapping, no large proven test cases,” says Jasmeet Khurana, who works on mobility for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. “Conventional wisdom is that swapping works for smaller, lighter vehicles like two and three wheelers.”

The autorickshaw side of the business, indeed, has a more positive example to follow than Better Place. Since launching its battery swappable scooters in Taiwan in 2015, Gogoro has expanded to Japan, France, and Germany. Its riders now swap some 86,000 batteries a day.

Maini is convinced the market will support swappable batteries, and is in the process of signing new clients, including food and package delivery companies whose drivers are out and about on two-wheelers all day long. If those drivers are like Kumar, Maini shouldn’t have a problem. “The other one takes too much time to charge,” Kumar says. “This is quick and I can get back to work and get back to earning money.” And keep the air cleaner while doing it.

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