Vehicular Pollution and Carbon Footprint

by October 29, 2018 0 comments

Vehicular Pollution and Carbon Footprint

Pollution from vehicles is a major contributing factor to a fast deteriorating air quality. Effective solutions that address the issue are expected from the automotive industry.

Early in October this year, there was a conference held at the exposition ground on the outskirts of Chennai. It was called FISITA and it was for the first time that such a conference was taking place in India. It was a biennial talk-shop for automotive engineers from across the global automotive industry and was quite revealing with talks on suspensions, gearboxes, materials and what not, but the main issue of discussion was invariably the shifting sands of motive technology itself. Besides, several sessions and talks addressed some fundamental issues, one of them on whether the internal combustion engine itself was on its last leg, given the rush for electric vehicles today.

The answer to that was a resounding no. The internal combustion engine is not going to go away anytime soon. Because as Takashi Uehara, Chief Engineer, Powertrain Product Planning division of Toyota Motor Corporation explained, we will need some of the basic technologies to move to an electric future that has not yet matured.

Crucially among them, the energy density of fuels is very high and storage costs are very low. The costs of making a small, affordable petrol-driven car are very low, and for better or for worse, for countries that need affordable mobility, they are possibly the only near-term solution. In an electric car, for example, just the battery pack and the power control unit comprise 60 per cent of the cost of the car, and those costs are fixed, no matter which car you buy. Which is why Uehara believes that hybrids are the best short-term solution, particularly in a cost-conscious market.

The other simple thing that Uehara explained was that solutions can be wildly different in different countries. There is a lifetime ‘carbon’ cost to a car; something the industry calls ‘well to wheel’ carbon cost. So, the same cars, driving a similar distance everyday in different countries, could have massively different carbon costs. Why? Basically, the source of energy determines how much carbon an electric or hybrid generates.

So, in India, where an overwhelming majority of our electricity is thermal, the lifetime carbon cost of a battery-electric vehicle is higher than that of a hybrid car that uses an internal combustion engine. Whereas in a country like Canada, where much of the primary energy sources are from hydroelectric plants, the lifetime carbon costs of a fully-electric car are much, much lower.

India suffers from a problem that few other countries face. And it is not regarding mobility for our population, which is a challenge every country and city faces, but of getting electricity to all its citizens. And while steps are being made to enhance solar and wind energy facilities in our country, indeed on solar we have moved dramatically, taking advantage of our geography and weather.

The fact is that if we are to get power to all Indian households quickly, the only solution is even more thermal plants, and that is a problem given that India’s coal is high in sulphur and most of the older thermal power plants do not have effective ways to deal with the exhaust. But India has signed up to the Paris Agreement and wants to become a world leader in solar technology in the long-term.  In the short-term, India has little or no choice but to pollute a bit more.

That is not to say that Uehara did not feel that there was still a market for electric vehicles in India. Particularly where battery costs could be capped, such as in small electric two-wheelers, particularly delivery motorcycles operating in a defined radius and buses in urban areas. But in a country like India, where costs are a concern, as is pollution, hybrids may be the best way forward for now when it comes to cars and commercial vehicles.

Hybrids have a major benefit because they do not need to have huge battery packs, so costs can be kept in check. The average price of one kilowatt hour of battery storage is around $200 today, and while technical innovations happen in energy density, much of the major drops in cost have already occurred.

In China recently, this columnist saw the Roewe Marvel X, China’s latest and greatest electric car, featuring a 54 kilowatt-hour battery pack that provides it with a range of 500-plus kilometres, as much as a tankful of fuel would on most cars. Its battery pack alone costs around $10,000 (Rs 7.5 lakh). The power control unit, the computer system that drives the entire machine, well that was not cheap either.

You can keep the costs down by installing smaller battery packs but nobody wants to buy cars which have a range of 100-200 kilometres even though those distances are more than enough to cover daily usage. “Range anxiety” is a thing and while it might be more of a psychological problem, it does not make electric cars, particularly of the sort that the Government of India has acquired, attractive to users. A massive fleet of electric cars might be the dream of some in this Government but the fact is that India has miles to go, both in terms of affordability and charging infrastructure.

Hybrids offer an advantage of acquisition costs, and if you develop ‘plug-in’ hybrids, which are more expensive vehicles, you can further reduce emissions. They also offer the huge added benefit of much increased fuel economy. As car electrical systems move towards a 48-volt system from the current 12-volt system, more and more cars will have battery packs.

Hybridisation is occurring because that is where the industry has to head. And as one can clearly see sitting in Delhi right now, air pollution is a massive problem. And while the automotive industry does not like being singled out for the blame, they realise that it is contingent on them to do something about emissions. But one thing is certain, the internal combustion engine, that has moved us around for almost 150 years, is not ready to retire just yet.

Writer: Kushan Mitra

Courtesy: The Pioneer

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