Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Baby, You Can Plug In My Car-India's electric car Reva sets the wheels in motion in climate-conscious UK

Where's my wire: A Reva charging point in London's Covent Garden area

Thrifty Lady
* No engine, only a motor. No fuel tanks, no exhaust, no emissions, and no noise.
* Drive 10 km every day for a year for the price of a single tank of petrol
* Speed 70 km an hour, range 80 km on a single charge from a normal socket for a
few hours. Charging stations introduced in central London.
* Parking free, and no congestion charge either in the UK. Savings on this alone
pays for the car in a year.
* Zero emissions; save the climate, and money
* Car service at your door
It's only a little longer than a longish stride and as silent as tip-toeing; it's a car without a conventional engine or fuel tank that so far only Bangalore and London really share.

A member of the Green Party can drive to a meeting where a parked G-Wiz will say what words can never.

G-Wiz: that's what the London distributors of the Bangalorean Reva car are calling it. And that's what an excited London media is exclaiming too. Just about every newspaper and TV channel here has been smitten by this little phenomenon on wheels.

With about 900 cars on London's roads, a fair bit more than the 650 in Bangalore, G-Wiz has claimed more attention than sales so far. But this is a breakthrough car; the first car to run on batteries that works in an everyday kind of way. At 70 km an hour, it is fast enough for city driving, and with an 80 km range on a single charge of a few hours in an ordinary electric socket, it gets far enough for ordinary use. It's cheap to use; you can run it for a year averaging 10 km a day for the price of a single tank of petrol. At £7,000 (Rs 5.7 lakh), the cost is not as little as you'd like. But count in the savings, and that price can drop pretty fast.

And the price could come down. "The cars are imported from Bangalore, which means we pay import duty of 6.5 per cent, and VAT 17.5 per cent," says Keith Johnston, MD of GoinGreen, the car's London distribution company. "We're really looking for a signal from the government to cut taxes and to offer incentives for imports, in order to bring down the price further." The car does need more than 900 owners.

So, who are these 900? "They are environmentally aware, well-educated and reasonably affluent," says Johnston. "Age-wise, they are across the board, but it's mostly the middle-aged urban professional." The zero emission from the car itself answers a rapidly louder call across Europe for cutting carbon emissions from car exhausts. An industrially induced rise in carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere is thought to contribute to global warming, precipitating unwanted climate change. That makes G-Wiz perfect for a globalising conscience of the green-minded.

You'd like to think you're driving from point A to B without a speck of a glacier melting along the way. But, of course, the glacier will not remain untouched if power to the point you plug the car into has come from a power plant burning oil or coal, and therefore sending off those warming emissions. But, at least the owner is not twice the sinner. In the ideal world, power to that plug point would come from a solar panel or a wind turbine. That's when a member of the Green Party can drive to a meeting where a G-Wiz parked outside will say what words can never.

Right now the London G-Wiz driver is not doing that much to cool the allegedly warming world; it would be nasty to point out that these 900 cars, even with their Bangalore population added on, is just a minuscule fraction of the 700 million cars worldwide. But what does work, here and now, is "the saving of those other emissions from the pocket", quips Johnston.

London is peculiarly placed to cut these emissions.

Parking in central London, otherwise prohibitively priced at up to six pounds an hour, is free for G-Wiz. That could mean a saving of 20 pounds a day or more on just parking in central London. Save also the eight pounds a day congestion charge slapped on those polluting cars for driving into London. "You could save up to £600 a month on this car, in a year it will pay for itself," says Johnston.

So this, more than its 'greenery', is the car's big selling point. Well, it's certainly true for Rachel, inspecting the cars at the distribution centre in Southall. Rachel is less worried about capsizing island countries (because warming atmosphere melts glaciers and so sea levels are rising, they say) than her bills. She runs a small courier company in Hounslow, located to collect packets from nearby Heathrow. For distribution in central London, she thinks her usual petrol-driven car can take her packets up to Hammersmith just outside central London. Then on, a G-Wiz could take over, with enough room on the left seat, and with the back seat flattened to make room for parcels. This can bring substantial savings that, she says, she can pass on to clients, consequently making herself more competitive.

But the car can mean savings to just anyone. Just plug it in as you would a toaster, and away you go in a couple of hours, with 80 per cent charged. The remaining 20 per cent takes more than twice as long, for reasons that batteries know best. So it's not the car in which you'd want to explore the highlands and islands of Scotland. It's the car for local hopping. In time, people will get used to G-Wiz workers who need a power point, and guests who drop in and plug in.

But on the other side, London's eccentricities are not an unmixed blessing. The car needs off-street parking simply so a normal electricity cable can be plugged into the battery. Running an electric cable across pavement space into the car is not exactly illegal, but if someone were to trip over it and fall, you could lose a lot more than the car can save you.

Now Westminster council in central London has begun to put up power points where the batteries can be charged as you park. That should make even a longish ride into central London possible. The problem is to make that mental leap from the idea of a 'proper' car to riding a trail-blazing insect. But even conventional car manufacturers now see Reva as a sign of times to come. The ceos of Nissan and Renault have just said that the future is electric. And not hybrid either, where you might mix the two; doing both is expensive, among other things. By 2012, many conventional car makers are planning to launch purely electric cars.

Reva, with its English cousin G-Wiz, is gearing up for the new competition. The insect has already metamorphosed swiftly from DC current to more efficient and powerful AC usage. Its older drive system is being changed to make the car a good deal nippier. A new generation of lithium-ion batteries will be introduced in 2008 to make charging quicker, and last longer. Software is not all that Bangalore has to show to the world.

Chetan Maini, chief technology officer of Reva Electric Car Company, got the idea of the green car from his days at the University of Michigan, US, in the 1990s. He teamed up with Dr Lon Bell from California to work out manufacturing in India. "The styling and engineering was done jointly by a team in the US and in India," Maini says. Distribution centres have now been set up in Norway and Spain, and others are planned in Cyprus, Greece and Ireland.

It's all on low budget. Reva sells in London without a showroom, without an advertising or marketing budget.There are no car salesmen; existing users offer to take new customers on a test drive. You buy online, servicing comes to your door. "Our showroom is the streets of London," says Johnston.

That means that with the distribution centre located in Southall, no one gets to see the car more than Southall Sikhs—and nobody seems less interested. There has been only one inquiry from Southall so far, and that didn't lead to a sale. "It's a bit odd, isn't it?," says Johnston. But then he doesn't understand Sikhs. The car is environment-friendly, not sardar-friendly. As seen by Southall's Sikhs, G-Wiz suffers a continuing problem: it never will be a vaddi gaddi
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