Global warming, high petrol prices, Tesla valuation hitting $1 trillion, post pandemic freedom… some reasons to consider buying an electric vehicle. But once you make up your mind to buy one, how do you choose? This piece is an attempt to simplify the decision making process.
There are over 50 electric two wheeler brands in India today. There is severe competition and brands compete across customer segments. The talk of the town is Ola S1 from Ola Electric, a newbie that claims to have notched up over 4 lakh bookings even before the factory was inaugurated. It's a record of sorts that shows the pent up demand for an electric two wheeler in India. Several brands are targeting ride sharing operators, delivery agents, in addition to retail customers.
I started researching these vehicles some years ago for short commutes. My office was 5 km away from home and most meetings were usually in a 10 km radius of the office. Regular school drops for the kid and running small errands for home made a quick getaway vehicle necessary. Although I had a nice bicycle, oftentimes I just wanted to make a quick dash.
I ruled out a motorcycle as not practical because most lack storage space (for helmet, bags, etc) and ease of use such as stepping into the seat. So, a scooter appeared the best choice. Electric models had started making an appearance then and a few weeks later, I zeroed in on the Ather 450. It was delivered in mid 2019 and since then I have put in about 5,000 km on it. I have enjoyed most of the features it offers but have been put off by some—but that experience has gone a long way in telling me what matters and what doesn’t in an electric scooter.
So, here are the questions to ask before making such a purchase.
1. Battery riding range: How long does the battery last? Although I did not intend to use it for long distances, I did want to be sure the scooter had enough energy stored for a decent range. I was willing to settle for between 50 km and 75 km on a single charge. That meant that I needed to charge the scooter only about once a week. For those riding distances greater than 25-30 km one way, access to a public charging station would be necessary along the way.
2. Charging time: I did not have any benchmarks in mind but expected a scooter to take a bit longer to charge than my mobile phone. I accepted that 3 to 5 hours for a full charge is reasonable.
3. Charging stations: I was keen to charge the vehicle overnight when parked at home. I evaluated if it made sense for me to instal a charger at home, and if I could negotiate with the apartment authorities to allow me to do that. I also factored in if visits to a charging station would be warranted, and if they would be there at locations I frequented. Most charging stations offer quick charging technology that can get a full charge in less than half the time of a regular home charger. Not having this can be a deal breaker. I was lucky that my society allowed me to instal the charger in the parking basement. It involved drawing a power source from about 50 metres away and assigning me a permanent parking space where the charger was placed. The wiring was connected to my personal electricity meter, not the common society meter. So, I pay for the charging as part of my regular electricity bill with a domestic tariff. The peak domestic rate is Rs 7.5/unit. For a full charge I will pay about Rs 25.
Someone in Bangalore was not so lucky. He had a hard time negotiating installing a charger in his society and had to charge his scooter at his home on the fifth floor! The rule in Karnataka favours installing personal chargers and any society raising unnecessary objections can be reported.
4. Power: Electric motors can be difficult to gauge compared to an Internal Combustion (IC) engine. A 125 cc or 150 cc can give you an idea of the power, but ratings like a 3.5 kW motor are not easy to understand. I used the top speed and acceleration as an indication. Although I was only planning routine short rides, the lure of a quick burst of energy at the turn of a throttle was always an unstated need. I looked for a top speed of at least 80 kmph and a decent acceleration of 2-3 seconds out of a signal.
5. Power - range trade off: I didn’t know much about this until I learnt about what settings are available. A top-end scooter offers two or three choices of power - range trade offs. So, I could choose an Eco mode (for a reduced top speed) to save the battery for longer rides and a Sport mode for a zippier performance but reduced range. This was a feature unique to electric vehicles (EVs) and I wanted one that offered this choice.
6. Customisation: Does the vehicle have features that serve my use case? I was looking at a quick startup, ample storage space and comfortable seating for two. The vehicle needed to be ergonomic and look presentable.
7. Warranty: Batteries are notorious for being unreliable. I wanted a three - five year warranty on the battery to cover for eventualities.
8. Pricing: I was looking at a price range of Rs 80,000 to Rs 1 lakh. IC scooters cost between Rs 60,000 and Rs 75,000. I was willing to fork out a premium of 25%.
9. Financing: Fifty percent of the cost of an electric vehicle is the battery. If a battery fails after the warranty period, it will take some deep pockets to replace it. I actively wanted to cover for product and battery obsolescence. Hence, any leasing arrangement that can buy back the vehicle after a period of time, got my vote.
10 Features: Although not a deal breaker, I did fancy a modern dashboard, GPS tracking, over-the-air (OTA) updates and remote monitoring.
11. Manufacturer’s reputation: EVs are not ICs. So I did not assign a high weightage to it. However, the credibility of the offering was weighed through surrogates such as investments they have made into the project. To my mind, it indicated how serious they are about it. Then I looked at the collaborations they have gotten into and their technical pedigree, among other things.
12 After sales: I knew EVs are relatively maintenance free. But in case of any breakdowns, I did expect quick and efficient service.
13. Ownership economics: While important, it was not the most critical. I considered total cost of ownership based on initial outflow, monthly outflow (if leasing), cost of fuel, electricity charges, and monthly distance travelled.
When I made the decision, only one vehicle made the cut. The Ather. There were no other credible offerings in 2019.
I chose to lease it by making a down payment of Rs 75,000 and paying a monthly instalment for three years. I got a nice subsidy from the government (FAME) that brought the cost down by about Rs 14,000. My lease will end in mid 2022 and I will evaluate my choices again.
By the end of this year, I can see that a few brands make it to the list. This includes TVS Cube, Ola S1, Ather 450x, Bajaj Chetak, to name some.
However, what I have listed is biased towards performance and the needle may point to more expensive scooters. If I am willing to compromise on the top speed, power requirements and be a little less stringent on the battery range, a few more can make the list—Ampere (now owned by Greaves), Okinawa, Hero, Pure EV.
But 2022 promises to be a big year and will see new models from Vespa, TVS, Hero and Suzuki, among others. A word of caution: not all brands are available in towns across India.
There was a time when I assumed that the economics of an EV scooter won’t quite work out. But when I did the math comparing an IC engine with fuel at Rs 100/liter and deployed some standard assumptions, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the total cost of ownership (TCO) of an EV scooter is quite favourable.
So, I guess the trigger of doing something for the planet actually worked out economically as well for me. Having said that, oftentimes I still feel conflicted because most electricity in India is generated by burning coal. I guess we will have to wait for solar and other renewable sources to increase their share in total power generated to address this issue.
Overall though, I think I made the right decision to invest in an electric scooter. I have created a basic worksheet to compare EVs and ICs here. You can change the assumptions I have worked off to see if it works for your needs.
And did I mention it? I fell for the hype and booked an Ola S1 Pro. Now, I am waiting for a chance to test ride it before I decide if I will keep the booking. I am also waiting for the leasing option to come up.