- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2009

NEW DELHI

The streets of Indian cities are clogged with noisy conveyances - hulking buses, cars, carts pulled by braying bullocks and motorbikes pyramided with passengers. Commuters idle angrily in traffic for hours each day.

With a long string of mass transit projects, the government is trying to solve the problem. But many Indians yearn for the status, peace and luxury of a car they can call their own.

Tata Motors in Mumbai is set to answer that call by rolling out the world’s cheapest car in April. The company has global ambitions for its $2,000 Tata Nano, a gasoline-powered, air-conditioned five-seater. But environmental activists say the vehicle will be a big polluter of India´s already smog-filled air.

So why isn’t India’s other automotive wonder - the electric Reva - getting the same attention? The Reva is the world’s most successful electric vehicle. It has been on the market longer, sold more cars and been driven more miles than any other electric vehicle in the world.



The Reva, manufactured near the city of Bangalore, has a sales tally of at least 3,000 cars since it was launched in 2001. It has been driven a combined 34 million miles in 20 major cities in Asia, Europe and South America.

But despite patented technologies, government subsidies, a groundswell of interest in electric vehicles and innovative marketing practices, the Reva is unlikely to put a dent in the global market with as much force as the Nano because the environmentally friendly, near-silent plug-in car costs three times as much as the Nano and has only a limited appeal for cash- and credit-strapped first-time car buyers.

“It is very much a second car in the household,” said Chetan Maini, the company´s chief technology officer, who once raced a solar-powered vehicle across Australia.

Mr. Maini points out that five years ago, 22 percent of cars sold in India were a second vehicle; today that number is nearly 40 percent. “The highest growth is in the second-car buyer [market].”

Mr. Maini, who has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, worked on electric cars in California. He relocated to Bangalore in 1999 after the California Air Resources Board reversed a 1990 mandate that 10 percent of new cars sold in the state should be nonpolluting. In India, he launched the Reva in 2001, exporting to Europe three years later.

If the Reva were sold in the United States, it would be significantly cheaper - about half the cost - of General Motors’ Volt, the highly anticipated electric-gas vehicle that is expected to reach showrooms in November 2010. Analysts estimate the Volt will cost between $30,000 and $40,000 - the price of 15 Tata Nanos.

About the size of a standard Indian auto-rickshaw, the 8-foot long, two-door Reva hatchback seats two comfortably - more uncomfortably.

The current version of the car, the Reva-i has a top speed of about 50 mph and requires eight hours for a full charge and 2 1/2 hours for an 80 percent charge. Long charge times make owning the car a challenge for buyers who live in apartment buildings and without access to a dedicated outlet. The car has a range of about 50 miles on a full charge.

The price of the Reva varies, according to the country in which its driven. In New Delhi, considerable tax breaks, rebates and subsidies bring the car’s price to about $6,000, making it one of the most affordable places to buy the car. In Ireland, it costs closer to $20,000.

The newest version of the Reva, due out in May or June, with lithium-ion batteries and a solar panel on the roof, will cost about $14,500 in India. Unlike the much-anticipated GM Volt, due out late next year, the Reva is all electric, with no gas option. Reva sold about 500 cars last year and expects to triple sales this year.

Like many European models, strict safety and testing regulations make the cost of entering the U.S. market prohibitively expensive.

“Our next-generation products might be able to fit that bill,” according to Mr. Maini, who said the company plans to introduce a new model every year.

In the United States, vehicles like golf carts and other small electric cars commonly found on college and corporate campuses and in retirement communities are not subject to the same safety standards as conventional cars. These electric vehicles usually have a top speed of 25 mph and are barred from roads where speed limits exceed 35 mph. By comparison, the Reva currently has a top speed of 65 mph.

These much smaller vehicles “don´t have to meet the same safety standards, but the problem is there’s no category between those and the conventional vehicles,” said Daniel Sperling, a professor of transportation engineering and environmental policy at the University of California at Davis.

“That category doesn’t exist in the United States but does exist in Europe,” said Marc Geller, co-founder of Plug In America, a nonprofit electric vehicle advocacy organization. “The market is so small.”

But Mr. Geller insists that despite the market’s small size, even “if someone comes out with a fairly expensive electric car, there is going to be greater demand than supply.”

That kind of demand is what Reva is banking on, outside the United States for the meantime. Company officials won’t reveal when they expect to sell in the United States, but indicate it might be in the near future, as they introduce one new model every year.

Despite the current global economic slowdown, Reva is near completion of a state-of-the-art plant in Bangalore, India, with a capacity to produce 30,000 cars a year. Currently there are more than 3,000 Reva cars in production. In contrast, Tata plans to churn out nearly 250,000 Nanos in its first year of production.

But the Reva is unlikely to be an instant panacea for the world’s global warming woes.

As in India, the car is marketed in Europe to a mostly affluent, environmentally conscious, urban demographic, one that commutes to work and owns a home. The current Reva-i model must be plugged in at the end of each day, making it a logistical hurdle for anyone without a house and a garage.

“You need to have off-street parking,” said Kevin Johnston, Reva’s president of European operations. “It’s been a real limitation until now.”

In May, the company will launch its third generation model, the Reva L-ion with a range of about 75 miles and faster charging times, so that drivers can get a 90 percent charge in one hour.

Meanwhile, the Reva is catching on around the world, especially in London, which provides numerous incentives for electric car owners, ranging from reduced parking fees and exempt road taxes, to waved congestion charges of $11 to drive in downtown London. A company called GoinGreen arranges test drives at 16 locations where consumers can order the car online and wait for home delivery. A mechanic armed with little more than a laptop visits regularly to diagnose the energy management systems.

To date, 1,000 commuters, including a clutch of British celebrities such as Jade Jagger and Kristin Scott Thomas, have bought Reva vehicles (marketed there as the G-Wiz). “In a G-Wiz you can drive, for the cost of a price of petrol, for a month,” Mr. Johnston said.

The rest of Europe is following Britain’s lead.

In Norway there is no import duty, no value-added tax and the vehicle can drive in bus lanes. France provides a $3,000 euro purchase subsidy. Many European cities are planning to increase the number of public outlets where electric vehicle owners can plug in and charge up. The company has so far tied up with separate distributors in each of 10 countries in the European Union and plans to sign up 10 more by the end of the year. It is also building up distribution networks in Southeast Asia and South America.

In India, Reva recently signed an agreement with the country´s most ambitious big box-style electronics retails chain, Reliance Digital, which plans to open 150 stores by 2012. The stores, many at least 20,000 square feet, will display the Reva along with home theaters, audio systems, microwaves, laptops and software.

“This is a plug-and-pay product,” says Ajay Baijal, the president of the electronics division of Reliance Retail. “It’s being sold as an electrical product, as a nonpolluting vehicle.”

Meanwhile, customer enthusiasm is hardly waning.

In the western Ireland town of Galway, Sean McGuire has driven his Reva some 6,600 miles since he bought it a year ago. A soccer fan, he regularly drives to a nearby stadium where he plugs it in to any available outlets. He plans to order a windmill soon to power it with zero emissions.

“They go from village to village in India on terrible roads, so I presumed it would be just what I would need in rural Ireland,” Mr. McGuire said. “It’s brilliant.”

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