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India’s electric vehicles face practical, technical hurdles

NEW DELHI — HS Panino, an independent contractor living in a spacious two-story penthouse in New Delhi, had his doubts when he bought his first electric car in September.

So far, he’s pleased with his savings on gas and maintenance, which are down by more than half but disappointed with the practical limitations of driving his Nexon XZ+. For starters, he says he’s only getting 200 kilometers (125 miles) per charge, not the promised range of 315 kilometers (195 miles). And he can’t drive the car outside the city because of a lack of charging stations.

EVs are a rarity in India, where more than 300 million vehicles, most scooters, and three-wheel motorized rickshaws jam the highways. The country is now making an ambitious push for “electric mobility” to reduce smog. But the effort is plagued with technological and logistical hurdles, even for those relatively simple vehicles.

The EV passenger car segment may be potentially huge, but for now, it is a niche within a niche: In March, 25,640 electric vehicles were sold across the country, of which 90% were two and three-wheelers. The total 400,000 EVs registered in India in 2019 accounted for less than 0.2% of all vehicles.

Panino got a $1,770 rebate as a government incentive for buying his Nexon XZ+, Indian automaker Tata’s mid-range electric vehicle model. It cost $22,740, about twice the price of the company’s most popular gas-fueled models. “It’s a good car and a pleasure to drive, but I’m still scared of breaking down midway from a lack of charge,” Panno said.

Officials see EVs as a solution to the deadly smog choking city streets, even though, for the most part, heavily polluting coal power plants generate the electricity needed to charge them.

India’s capital New Delhi provides a slew of subsidies to first-time EV buyers. EVs are also exempt from road tax and registration fees, and there are other incentives to encourage the swapping of old gas and diesel vehicles for new electric ones. About half of India’s 31 states have drafted similar EV policies with varying degrees of progress.

The New Delhi government recently dropped the Nexon XZ+ and Nexon XM from its list of a dozen four-wheel vehicles eligible for subsidies. The reason? Their low range.

Tata said the Nexon XZ+’s 315-kilometer range was verified by the official Automotive Research Association of India. But the actual content depends on factors such as air conditioning, “individual driving style and the conditions in which the vehicle is driven,” the company said in a statement.

The EV market has been growing at an annual rate of 20%. It is dominated by five major players: Tata, Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., MG Motor India, Electra Greentech Ltd., and JBM Auto Ltd. Startups also are joining the fray.

Local automakers have been slow to make EVs and their parts, mainly because of demand. Those that have jumped in mostly rely on cheap imports that have added to complaints about poor quality.

Last year, India raised tariffs on EVs and their parts imports, including all-important and expensive lithium-ion batteries. That and other policies aim to encourage domestic production, increase quality, and bring prices down to the level of conventional autos.

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