Even as the PM announced on Friday the new vehicle scrappage policy, underlining the need for India to move towards clean and convenient mobility via ethanol, hydrogen fuel or electric vehicles (EVs), the advent of EVs has already turned the automobile world order upside down.
Tesla is the world’s most valued carmaker. But the EV race is a crowded affair. The usual suspects — Volkswagen, Toyota, Daimler, BMW, Ford, General Motors, etc — are trying to catch up. And then there is an intriguing suspect — Apple. After being at it for years, it may just come out with something on the lines of an iCar in 2025. Even if Apple has never built a car, it’s in the race since EVs have allowed cars to be reimagined in a way to make them computers on wheels, with an enormous amount of data coursing through them.
It is this aspect of EVs that gives India a definite foot in the door. While the big boys fight it out over the lucrative car market, there is an enormous opportunity in the two- and three-wheeler segment. The core technology of motor controllers, energy use optimisation and battery management are the same for four-, three- and two-wheelers. Here, India can be a technology leader.
EVs need motors for power, as traditional vehicles need engines. These motors use magnets enriched with the rare earth element, neodymium. Rare earths are, well, rare, and command a high price, their current market pegged at more than $9 billion a year and expected to grow to $15 billion by 2025. Extracting rare earths consumes enormous energy and harms the environment with toxic waste. That undermines the biggest appeal of EVs: eco-friendliness. So, if a highly efficient motor that does not use rare earths can be made at a viable cost, it will cater to a global need.
India needs to take the startup cycle — from providing innovative solutions to proof of concept to testing it in real-world conditions — and apply it to a predefined problem. The parameters of success would be set beforehand by the industry that will mass-manufacture it. The innovation team will create the technology, the design team will design it for mass-manufacture, and the manufacturer will take it global. But how does one find the innovative solution?
Better Motor, Stator, Rotor
There are two blocks of innovation that need to come together. The first is the motor, which must run without rare earths. This can be done by employing:
Switched reluctance motor, in which the power is delivered only to the stator, and the rotor is made of laminated steel.
Electromagnetic synchronous motor, in which the power is delivered to both the stator and the rotor. It can be simpler and last longer by doing away with the brushes.
Permanent magnet motor, which uses shaped soft magnetic composites. The shape of the magnet focuses the magnetic lines of force, removing the need for rare earths.
The second block to address is the motor controller, which influences the efficiency of the powertrain. Good electric motors run at 90% efficiency. This means only 10% of the input energy dissipates, compared to 35% for an internal combustion engine. But the moment you start to control the speed, inefficiency starts to creep in. So, mastery of controllers is like mastery of the engine control mechanism in a normal car.
Several companies are aware of this opportunity. Renault has a model, Zoe, which uses a wound rotor configuration to replace magnets with copper windings. BMW has tried a drivetrain without rare earths. Audi has experimented with an aluminium rotor inductor motor, and Bentley with a switched reluctance motor. But the scales have tipped of late towards magnet-based motors. They are more efficient, outperforming other technologies in an area that matters most to EV owners: driving on a single charge.
Which is where India stands to score. It is intense computation that keeps the motor working at peak efficiency as it accelerates or decelerates, and the battery voltage changes. The controller algorithm runs on sophisticated processors. There are sensors sending in signals that need to be acted upon. So, the key is to develop application-specific chips that optimise the operation of the control software. This calls for very large-scale integration (VLSI) designers working closely with systems designers to develop a proprietary chip that will power this controller.
The world of EVs is waiting for a chip that will make motors without rare earths just as efficient as, if not more than, magnet-driven ones. Work is underway to deliver this super chip, and we have reason to believe that India should be able to pull this project off from start to finish in 36 months.
The chip will likely increase existing EV efficiency by 25-30% and create 3-4 large centres of manufacturing. India can own the intellectual property for a technology that will power a highly efficient, low-cost, neodymium-free powertrain that can be supplied to global markets.
A lot remains to be done. We will need a central place where the world’s best minds can come and collaborate. We need not reinvent the wheel. But we can certainly recreate history.