The BMW i3 is a different type of hybrid car available in some developed markets. It is available as a pure electric car and also with a small optional 650 cc 2-cylinder petrol engine (generator) which is used as a backup when the batteries run out of charge. Like other premium electric cars, the new BMW i3 (with the upgraded 33 kW batteries) has an all electric range of around 300km. With the optional range extender backup, the total range is nearly 400km. It is important to note here that the range of electric cars varies greatly due to temperature and how you drive. The real world numbers can be as low as half of that in cold winters and if you drive it like a sports car.
So How Is It Different From A Hybrid?
In traditional hybrids such as the immensely popular Toyota Prius, the petrol engine plays the dominant role and the electric motor and batteries aid for shorter distances. Petrol engines are efficient at higher speeds while electric motors are very efficient at lower speeds and stop-start traffic conditions, and brake energy is also recovered into the batteries. Hence hybrids offer the best of both worlds. But petrol is polluting and the path to a zero tailpipe emission is an electric car, and pure electric cars with their limited range and longer recharging times suffer from range anxiety. So in the range extending i3, BMW has provided an optional petrol engine that acts as a generator and drives the electric motor at a slightly lower speed. The intention is to use petrol only in emergencies and to keep range anxiety at bay. The Chevrolet Volt also has a similar generator setup but the pure electric range is around 50 km.
So Will It Sell Well In India?
BMW has not yet launched the i3 in India but they are selling the i8 which is a INR 2.2 crore hybrid supercar. If they do bring the i3 to India, it is going to cost around INR 40 lakhs. The price could be lower if they assemble it here. At this price range, it is going to be a direct competitor from the God of electric cars – the Tesla Model 3 which has gathered a whopping more than 4,00,000 bookings worldwide (for a car that will be delivered end of 2017). Tesla is famous for its super premium Model S, a car that can do more than 500 kilometres on a charge, is quicker than a Ferrari, seats 5 adults plus 2 kids, has futuristic autopilot capability (driverless driving), handles better than most cars, looks stunning, has a supercharging network on most highways that can rapidly charge the batteries to 80 percent in 30 minutes and has a founder (Elon Musk) who is referred to as real life Iron-Man by some.
On the other hand, the i3 with the iconic BMW 50-50 weight distribution has a range extender that might please to the range-anxious Indians. The Model 3 will have a range of at least 346 kilometres which is slightly higher than the pure electric range of the i3. The hatchback i3’s design with unconventional rear doors can also be a hit or miss. The Model 3 being a sedan with sharper lines will have a wider appeal in India.
We will fall in love with electric cars also because we love lower per km running cost (around one INR per km in electrics as compared to around five for petrol), which is why diesels are a favourite in the country despite their overall cost of the ownership not being actually cheaper for most people.
Isn’t There Any Affordable Electric Car?
The only electric cars available in India are the home-grown Mahindra e2o and Mahindra Verito EV. Both cost around 7-10 lakhs INR. They have a very small range of 120 km under ideal conditions.
Traditional hybrids have also not worked in India, while Toyota has sold more than 10 million of them globally. There is a good chance that India might skip the traditional hybrids for pure electrics or range extending ones. What India needs is a designed-for-India cheaper low powered range-extending hybrid from Maruti, Mahindra and the likes. The i3 produces 170 bhp while average hatchbacks in India produce less than 100 bhp. A sedan (because sedans=premium in India) with a pure electric range of 150 to 200 kilometres at least and a small petrol backup; or a less fancy Renault Zoe which has a range of more than 300km but is cheaper than the Tesla and the BMW. It should be priced more reasonably, around 15 lakhs INR. Maybe a better looking Verito with more range.
And no, this is not wishful thinking. The prices of lithium batteries have fallen rapidly in the last decade, charging is getting faster (yes, your new phone with quick charging tech is similar to electric car batteries) and energy densities are growing. BMW replaced the 22 kW battery with a 33 kW one in the new i3 and it took the exact same space. Renault and others too have upgraded their battery packs in just 2-3 years.
Can Our Grid Handle Electric Cars?
Electric cars will first be available in urban areas and where there are lesser power cuts. The grid in India is rapidly expanding, and with the advent of renewable power such as solar and wind, it can be hoped that it will accommodate electric cars when they grow in number. It is safe to say that innovative roadside jugaads for charging electric cars will come up at most chai-paan-dhabas in the country.