MUMBAI (Reuters) - Long before “green” cars became trendy in other parts of the world, a boxy electric two-seater began rolling out of a small factory in the Indian city of Bangalore, which was then emerging as a software services hub.
Today, scores of Reva electric cars can be seen tootling down Bangalore’s crowded streets, their bright colors and minimalist design drawing curious looks, even smiles, from commuters.
“It is simply beautiful,” said T. Shivaram, a small business owner who bought a yellow-and-black Reva last year to cut his fuel bill. “It gives me driving pleasure and everyone stares at it and wants to know more about it.”
The Reva was among the world’s first electric vehicles sold commercially. It did not take off initially quite as its maker had hoped but it has blazed a trail for other electric cars — such as General Motors’ new Chevrolet Volt — which are coming into their own in an age of high oil prices.
Reva Electric Car Co was set up in 1994 by India’s Maini Group and AEV of the United States. The company was the first to successfully commercialize electric vehicles, according to consultancy Frost & Sullivan.
By 2001, it had built its first all electric car, just four years after Toyota Motor began selling a car that would come to define the eco-friendly auto segment, the Prius hybrid.
The Reva was the brainchild of Chetan Maini, scion of the Maini Group, who championed the car at a time when skepticism was widespread about the viability of electric vehicles.
“He was clearly very much ahead of his time,” said Hormazd Sorabjee, editor of popular magazine AutoCar.
“But maybe he lacked the muscle power and the political backing to make a big noise, which is why Reva has remained so small.”
Developed entirely in-house, India’s first electric car was 95 percent indigenous from the start, built of lightweight steel and plastic and with fewer moving parts. It can be fully charged in seven hours by plugging into a regular 15 amp socket at home.
The fully-automatic models have a top speed of 65 km/hr and a range of 80 km, and a running cost of just 0.4 rupees/km.
But its high price, nearly 25 percent more than entry-level cars, found few takers in India where low-end cars hold sway. So Maini began exporting the Reva to the United Kingdom and Europe where they are sold as quadricycles.
Besides Britain where it is branded G-Wiz, Reva is now also sold in Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Norway, Spain and Sri Lanka. It is also being test marketed for applications such as mail trucks in Australia, Austria, Germany and the United States.
“We look for countries that offer incentives for electric vehicles, or those that are tightening regulations, or where consumer awareness is high,” said Maini, 38, who tinkers with remote control models of helicopters and planes in his off time.
With oil prices having hit record highs earlier this year and countries focusing on energy security, there is greater pressure on carmakers to develop engines powered by alternate fuels.
General Motors Corp on Tuesday unveiled the production version of the Chevrolet Volt, a curvy four-seater that is designed to run for 64 kilometers on a lithium-ion battery pack that can be recharged at a standard electric outlet.
General Motors, which expects to put the Volt in showrooms by November 2010, expects to make 60,000 Volts a year eventually. By comparison, Toyota sold around 120,000 of the hybrid Prius cars in the first eight months of this year alone.
The company has said the Volt will cost about 2 cents a mile to operate, compared with 12 cents a mile using gasoline at $3.60 a gallon. But with a price tag estimated at between $30,000 and $50,000, the vehicle will not come cheap.
Lithium-ion technology is seen as key to extend the electric-only range, where the battle is heating up. Existing hybrids, including the Prius, use nickel-metal hydride batteries. Toyota, which has long held the title of green innovator, has said it would speed up development of all-electric vehicles.
Nissan Motor aims to launch an all-electric car in Japan and the United States in 2010 and mass-market it in 2012, while Renault/Nissan will begin mass producing electric cars as part of an Israeli-led project in 2011. The cars will also be sold in Europe, Asia and the United States at a later stage.
Reva received $20 million in 2006 from Draper Fisher Juvertson and the Global Environment Fund, but little by way of incentives or subsidies in India.
The funding has helped add dealers in India and double output to 30,000 units, of which more than half is exported. If demand rises, Reva can easily be assembled in other low-cost centers such as Southeast Asia and eastern Europe, Maini said.
Maini, who studied mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan and at Stanford University, where he focused on solar-powered cars and hybrid electric cars respectively, employs just over 30 people in the factory in Bangalore.
In India, government institutions get a small subsidy on the Reva. The government also recently cut excise taxes on hybrid cars to 14 percent, although the tax is still higher than the 12 percent tax on small cars and minuscule compared to the tax subsidies and other exemptions granted in Britain, Japan, France and elsewhere.
“The potential is much, much more than what we are seeing now,” said Maini.
Passenger vehicle sales in India are likely to nearly double to more than 2 million units by 2010.
Electric vehicles are particularly suited for Indian cities, says Maini, because of shorter distances and lower average speeds. A top speed of 40-60 km/hr and a range of 50-80 km would meet “over 90 percent of the city mobility requirements in India”, he said.
Maini is building more powerful cars, with a range of 200 km and top speed of 120 km/hr. He also has prototypes of electric city buses and pick-up trucks, and is testing fuel cell technology.
The new model Revai, which went on sale this year, features a lithium-ion battery pack for a driving range of more than 140 km compared to the 60-80 km from the existing lead-acid battery.
“Technology-wise, we are ready, but we need a clear policy.”
Other, bigger Indian carmakers are not waiting, either.
Tata Motors, which is launching the ultra low-cost Nano this year, has developed electric variants of its Indica hatchback car and Ace mini truck, while the Hero Group is also building electric vehicles.
“Maini didn’t capitalize on the first-mover advantage, but he will be seen as a pioneer, now that everyone is getting into it,” said Mohit Arora, senior director at JD Power & Associates.
“History is on his side.”
Editing by Megan Goldin