Time to switch over to alternative fuel vehicles

Dr Sudershan Kumar
The dwindling resources of our mother earth, resulting from the non judicious use by the mankind have been a matter of grave concerns over the past few decades. Furthermore, the persistence of the precarious and volatile environment around the globe, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has resulted in a sudden surge in crude oil prices in the international market. A few weeks back, the cost of one barrel of crude oil nearly touched a whopping 120 to 125 USD and even today, it touches an exorbitant cost of 100 USD per barrel. If one goes by the data of the Ministry of Petroleum and Planning, one finds that the Government of India imports nearly 80 to 85 percent of its energy requirement from the international oil market. Thus, any variation in crude oil prices is bound to deeply impact the economy of oil-dependent nations. If one further analyzes the data in terms of money spent on importing the crude oil from the international market, one will find that India’s import bill for the year 2021-2022 (1 April 2021-31st March 2022) was around 110 to 120 Billion USD. This amount was almost double from the previous fiscal year, 2020-2021. Thus, to sustain the nation’s economy, the Government of India has to increase the prices of petrol, diesel and cooking gas. Ironically, the vested interests of some sides facilitate criticism of the Government without deliberating the actual concerns. The modes of criticism are manifold. To make their presence felt, they are holding protests, demonstrations with banners, placards and even holding empty gas cylinders. Some termed this hike in petrol/diesel prices a gift of inflammation to the common man. Few even raised the demand for the rollback of the decision without citing proper justifications.
However, as the responsible citizens of this great nation, it is imperative for them to get acquainted with their responsibilities to adopt a constructive approach to solve this national problem rather than becoming champions by announcing freebies. They should sit together and have a brainstorming session and suggest short term and long term workable solutions to the government of India. The solution can be either sharing a load of international price partially by the common man and partly by the Government or switching over to alternative fuel vehicles as a long term solution. An alternative fuel vehicle is a vehicle which runs on alternative fuel rather than on traditional petroleum-based products such as diesel, petrol and gasoline. These alternative fuel vehicles are based on Bio diesel, electricity, Hydrogen gas, Natural gas, Propane and other emerging fuels. Conventional vehicles can also be modified to run on different energy than a hydrocarbon-based power source. More than dozen alternative fuels technologies are either in production or in the early stages of development which, in the near future would be utilized in the advanced technology commercial vehicles as an alternative fuel.
Prominent among them are Battery operated Electrical Vehicles (BEV), Hydrogen based cars, and Hybrid vehicles. The electrical energy used to power the motor, which then inherently drives a BEV, is obtained from a variety of batteries arranged in a battery pack. The batteries used in the battery pack are mainly: the Lead Acid Batteries, the Absorbed Glass Mat or commonly known as the AGM batteries, the Ni-Cd (Nickel Cadmium) batteries, the Nickel Metal Hydride batteries and Lithium-ion battery. Besides a battery pack, electricity can also be stored in the super capacitors, which can be charged at regular intervals. In a Hydrogen driven car, hydrogen gas is used as a primary source for locomotion and powering the vehicle. These cars generally used Hydrogen in two modes. One is the combustion, and another one is based on fuel-cell conversion. In the combustion mode, the Hydrogen is burnt inside the engine, which is fundamentally similar to traditional gasoline-based engines. In the fuel-cell based conversion method, the Hydrogen fuel is converted into electricity for powering the motor. By either method, the by-product is water. In some instances, dry combustion using a Hydrogen-NOx micro mix is also possible. Besides, these vehicles also address the issues pertaining to environmental pollution, running cost and price rise. Therefore, developing various cleaner alternative vehicles and advanced power systems has become the top priority for automobile manufacturers in India. Further, various international automobile manufacturing companies looking at India as a global market are also paying great attention to addressing the problem pertaining to greener energy requirements. Thus, manufacturing companies all around the globe are working hard to develop plug-in electric passenger cars and light utility vehicles. These plug-in vehicles also act as a subset of electric vehicles. As of December 2020 report, Tesla-Model 3 is listed as a top-selling highway plug-in car with a global sales of around 8,00,000 units, followed by Nissan Leaf with 5,00,000 units. The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is the third best-selling plug-in Hybrid vehicle with global sales of around 2,70,000 units. Besides, there are nearly 31,225 passenger fuel cell electric vehicles powered by Hydrogen. The South Korean market has the largest stock, followed by the United States and Japan. But when we talk about the Indian market, the situation is not as encouraging as it should have been. In fact, in India, in the financial year 2020, the number of vehicles registered were around 1,52,71,519. This number may vary. But the sale of BEVs is less than one percent. It will remain so until the Government of India takes drastic steps to install user-friendly infrastructure for maintenance, availability of spares and charging stations at the doorsteps of the common man both in rural and urban areas of the country.
Moreover, the running cost of these alternative fuel vehicles should be low, with the efficiency of these AFVs better than petroleum-based vehicles. It is well-known that society will accept the new technology only if it is user-friendly and adequately propagated, highlighting its advantage over the available technology. Further assuring them of creating this new infrastructure in the automobile at their doorsteps. If one turns the pages of history, one finds that the mode of transport in early times was cattle driven carts. This mode of transport continued up to the 15th and 16th centuries. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the rulers had established proper stables for horses with provisions for adequate fodder and water and a stable caretaker at each halting station. Moreover, the rest houses known as Sarays for the travelers were also constructed on the roadside. The system in use was well-knitted and properly executed, which exhibited the system’s efficiency. Further, society also accepted this mode of communication with ease. However, when the vehicle engine powered by gasoline emerged in the 1860 and 1870s, it took nearly 70 years to completely dominate the original alternative steam engine of the 18th century with gas by the 19th century.
It is also true that the Government of India is also working in that direction. Quite often, we find on Indian roads battery operated tricycles, scooters, even buses etc. Also, the Union Minister for Roads and Highway has expressed an optimum strategy for adopting electric and alternative fuel vehicles in the coming five years. According to him, the sale of alternative vehicles will rise in the coming five years because of the big difference in the running cost of their vehicles. He further elaborated that NHAI will establish 560 charging stations at every 40 kms interval along the National Highways. But to break the shackles of petroleum dominance in the automobile industry, the government of India needs to adopt a bold and courageous strategy with a spine both for the short and long term basis. It is a fact that the Government of India spends a large chunk of money from the budget on importing nearly 80 to 85 percent crude from the international market. Therefore, judicious consumption of petrol, diesel in automobiles and cooking gas in houses is absolutely essential. The Government of India should moot a proposal for saving petroleum products. The following may be considered for long-term strategy: First, switching over to alternate energy is to be carried out in Mission Mode with the slogan “zero-emission, zero pollution and zero-carbon footprints”.
To achieve this, the Government needs to form a task force headed by leading experts to evolve a road map for the coming three decades with a target of 60 to 70 percent switching over to new alternate vehicles. This will improve the economy of the nation and provide impetus to zero carbon footprints. Secondly, the task force should form a consortium of brilliant young innovative minds and other stakeholders (Industry and users) to develop and manufacture highly efficient, cost-effective technologies for the rural and urban masses. Parallelly the Government should work on war footing for creation infrastructure at the doorstep of the common man. Third, the Government of India should announce incentives to encourage owners to convert their vehicles to alternative fuel vehicles. Besides maintaining production and supply chain, the Government should create an industrial base for manufacturing alternative fuel vehicles at cost much lower than diesel/ petrol vehicles. The author concludes with remarks that the above strategy is essential, keeping the new millennium challenges in view. If one goes by the forecast, the world population by the year 2050 will be around 9.1 billion. India’s population will be approximately 1.76 billion, with the landmass remaining the same and energy needs increasing manifolds.
Further, the current infrastructure will not be sufficient to cater for the needs of 1.76 billion people. So the major chunk of our nation’s budget will be spent on fulfilling the energy needs of 1.76 billion people. Therefore efforts to reduce the dependence on petroleum products in the automobile industry up to the minimum level must be initiated on a war footing. The authorities should step in to refrain certain section of society by announcing the freebies for self-fish motto at the cost of honest taxpayers money.