India’s electric vehicle boom is built on mopeds and rickshaws, not Teslas

NEW DELHI – In the United States, luxury car buyers are snapping up Teslas and other electric cars that cost more than US$60,000 (S$84,000), and even relatively cheap models cost more than US$25,000.

In India, those are all out of reach of the vast majority of families, whose median income is just US$2,400.

But an electric vehicle movement is taking place nonetheless – not on four wheels, but on two and three.

Electric mopeds and three-wheeled rickshaw taxis that sell for as little as US$1,000 are zipping along India’s congested urban thoroughfares, cheered on by environmentalists and the government as a way to clear some of the oppressive smog.

India’s success with the low-cost vehicles is also providing a template for how developing countries could ditch combustion engines and combat climate change without pricey electric cars.

Consider Kuldeep Singh. Twice a day, he replaces the depleted lithium-ion batteries in his sky-blue Piaggio electric rickshaw with fully charged ones at swapping stations around New Delhi.

“The best thing is, there’s no pollution,” said Singh, who pays about half as much for fresh batteries as he would to fill the tank of a conventional rickshaw. “I feel proud and that India will become stronger.”

Indian automakers sold 430,000 electric vehicles in the 12 months that ended in March, more than three times as many as a year earlier. Most were two- and three-wheeled vehicles, with cars accounting for just 18,000, according to industry data.

Americans bought about 487,000 new electric cars in 2021, a 90 per cent increase from 2020, according to Kelley Blue Book.

Almost 15 years ago, Indian tinkerers and small businesses began importing electric motors and lead-acid batteries from China to assemble cheap vehicles. With little regulation, the vehicles became popular, causing safety and other problems. But they also created a space for startups and established automakers looking to build something sturdier.

Now the Indian government and auto industry are betting heavily on affordable electric vehicles. Competition and subsidies have made electric mopeds and rickshaws as cheap as or cheaper than internal-combustion-engine models.

For a couple of hundred dollars, some startups are converting combustion-engine vehicles to battery power. At the same time, the recent surge in oil and natural gas prices has made it much more expensive to operate combustion-engine vehicles.

“There are many regions in the world which don’t buy a US$60,000 car,” said Bhavish Aggarwal, the 37-year-old founder and chair of Ola Electric, which makes electric mopeds at a factory in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.