India is motoring toward an electric vehicle revolution -- on two wheels.
That's what figures from the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers show. Of the 22,000 electric vehicles sold across the country in 2016, just 2,000, or 9 percent, were four-wheeled automobiles.
The trend mirrors a fondness for two-wheelers in general, with motorbikes and scooters making up 80 percent of total vehicle sales in the 2015-2016 fiscal year.
Passenger cars accounted for a further 14 percent and commercial vehicles and three-wheelers added another 3 percent each.
"Unlike most OECD countries, growth in electric vehicles is expected to be rapid in the two- and three-wheeler segment [in India], and eventually grow into [the] four-wheelers [segment]," said Madhavan Nampoothiri, managing partner of the financing firm Aspiration Cleantech Ventures.
Indian lawmakers are keen to push electrification on the back of growing motor-vehicle ownership. By 2020, India is expected to become the third-largest vehicle market in the world.
This is forecast to lead to a huge increase in fossil fuel consumption, along with soaring air pollution.
To head off the problem, India launched a National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP) in 2013 aiming to get between 6 million and 7 million electric or hybrid vehicles on the road by 2020.
In 2015, the government launched a further plan, called FAME India (for Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of hybrid and Electric vehicles), under the NEMMP 2020. The two-year initiative was due to end in March this year but has been extended to September.
Meanwhile, in June, Indian lawmakers announced plans to phase out internal-combustion engine vehicles by 2030.
The government announced it will unveil a revised electric-vehicle policy by the end of this year, and is pressing ahead with charging station initiatives in conjunction with component makers and energy firms, including Bharat Heavy Electricals, REIL Electricals India and NTPC.
Private-sector players are also looking to move into the charging station market, Nampoothiri said. Last month, the electric-vehicle manufacturer Mahindra Reva installed 25 stations in Bangalore.
“Similar pilot stations are coming up in cities like Delhi, Jaipur and Chandigarh,” said Nampoothiri.
The government provides support of up to INR₹29,000 (USD $455) for two-wheel vehicles, ₹61,000 ($955) for three-wheelers, ₹138,000 ($2,160) for four-wheelers, and ₹187,000 ($2,930) for light commercial vehicles.
Despite this, cost remains a barrier to electric-vehicle adoption in India. A Mahindra e2o, India’s best-known all-electric four-wheeler, costs around ₹800,000 ($12,530) compared to around ₹500,000 ($7,830) for an ICE equivalent such as the Maruti Suzuki Wagon R.
At this price, which is mainly due to the cost of the battery, observers say the electric-car option simply does not make economic sense in India, even assuming lower running costs.
Range anxiety and a lack of charging infrastructure are other factors conspiring against wider adoption. Because of this, and despite the fact that India’s first domestically produced model, the Reva, came to market way back in 1994, electric vehicles remain an unfamiliar sight in the country.
Today, FAME India estimates there are around 151,800 electric vehicles on the road, having cost taxpayers ₹187,500,000 ($30 million). They are “predominantly seen as an urban transport tool,” Nampoothiri said.
Undeterred, a growing number of vehicle manufacturers are targeting the market, primarily with sights set on two-wheeler sales.
HeroMoto Corp is India’s top electric motorcycle brand, said Nampoothiri, and has invested in a startup called Ather Energy that is looking to launch a high-end scooter called the S340 by the end of this year.
Other contenders include Ampere Electric Vehicles, which is targeting rural customers; electric bike pioneer Tork Motorcycles; and Emflux Motors, which is looking to launch a superbike with a top speed of 170 kilometers per hour.
While most of the electric-vehicle action is undoubtedly on two wheels, India also boasts a limited number of manufacturers of four-wheel vehicles. Mahindra, India’s No. 1 utility-vehicle maker, also leads the way in electrics with the e2o and the eSupro van.
The country even has a budding luxury electric-vehicle maker to rival Tesla. Mean Metal Motors hopes to bring its stylish M-Zero model to the Indian market in 2019, at a price of up to around ₹8,000,000 ($125,000). Whether anyone will buy it -- or just opt for a much cheaper two-wheeler -- remains to be seen.