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Towards sustainable green automobile beyond 2018

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 13 December 2017 00:00

In the National Budget proposals for the year 2018, the Government has taken positive steps to promote the electric car segment, discouraging IC engines (Internal Combustion Engines) which are running on fossil fuels. This definitely is a positive initiative to direct the country towards the ‘Green concept’ and a commendable initiative taken by the policymakers despite the expected high friction from local auto importers who are largely dependent on IC engine automobiles. 

It is of high importance to drive this initiative towards sustainable technology establishment, ensuring long term goals of shifting the entire county’s transportation to green automobiles by the year 2040. The Government has already given the signal that all Government-owned vehicle fleets will be shifting to full electric or hybrid systems by the year 2025.

Being an entirely new concept and a challenging drive, it is important to expose this proposal for national level discussions in terms of feasibility, infrastructure, costing, after sales management, impact on environment etc. to ensure a sustainable technology transfer on electric vehicles, simply known as EV. 

As I have 16 years of related industry experience in automobile and related technology transfer, I wish to share the experience on change of phase of technology to electric cars, in terms of prevailing issues, anticipated future problems therein, and strategies to overcome such. The content and arguments developed below are of an industrial nature and a result of the experiences gathered by me through my association with a leading electric car manufacturer on diffusing electric drivetrain technology in Sri Lanka. 

EV technology transformation

In the EV technology transformation, Sri Lanka is more familiar with Japanese car manufacturers, hence studying and sharing of Japanese EV manufacturers’ experience of technology diffusion in tropical and Asian countries will be of more relevance.

The global automobile industry is considered the most rapidly-developing industrial sector next to information technology. In early 2010, extension of ‘Mechatronics in Automotive’ has been shifted to hybrid systems then to plug-in hybrid, now to full electric vehicles, where the drivetrain of the vehicle is fully run by synchronised motor through friction belts or gear coupling. In EV vehicles, IC engines have been replaced by synchronised motor, powered by lithium-iron batteries.

EV technology is led by Nissan and Tesla while Nissan is leading in volume-based markets and sells more than 300,000 EV across the world. Tesla is creating more exiting models in sport and high-end markets. As per latest industry information, Indian car manufacturers are progressively entering the EV market following the Indian State policy vision of converting India to being a fully electric automobile user by year 2030. 

It was witnessed that the Indian Modi Government has recently announced the world’s largest electric car tender, calling for the supply of 10,000 electric cars to the Indian Government by July 2018. Technology shifting of neighbouring auto manufacturers will influence the Sri Lankan auto industry to positively shift to being fully electric by 2040.

In EV manufacturers’ or EV patent right holders’ point of view, current EV technology in the world is at a developing stage, where extensive research work is carried out focusing on improvement of battery bandwidth, (millage per full charge), life time of the battery, reducing the production cost of the battery and recycling process of used batteries, etc., which are considered as the hindering factors of technology diffusion on EV. 

Due to these sustainability issues on EV technology, even leading car manufacturers are slow in entering markets like Sri Lanka, in offering “brand new EV cars” though there is high market potential. 

Macro technical environment

The most prominent factor to come across with respect to electric car usage is the unavailability of adequate charging points. This will open up an attractive business opportunity which requires only a moderate technology with a nominal investment, with guaranteed returns.

Therefore, this can be considered as a short-term issue. Sufficient charging points will be immerged countrywide with the familiarisation of EV cars, pushed with customer demand.

Due to the change of climatic patterns in the country, more often power is generated through burning fossil fuel or coal. This in turn makes using domestic power for charging EV not very viable. (As per energy transformation principles, direct burning of fossil fuel in IC engine and produce power to run a car is more economical than generating electricity by burning fossil fuel and then charging a battery to run a car.)

Wiring systems of domestic households and commercial buildings in Sri Lanka lack basic safety standards and there is no system of certifying the safety before connecting to the National Grid (CEB power). After connections have been taken, modifications/alterations to the existing wiring systems are not adequately monitored by authorities. 

It is evident that the reason for most fire hazards in buildings are due to faulty electrification. This is one of the key issues that policymakers should pay attention to. More weight should be given to the fact that EV battery charging in primitive wiring systems are highly dangerous, as overcharging or short-circuiting can cause the battery to explode releasing high energy and radiation elements to the environment. Also irregularity in power factor, voltage fluctuations and mostly batteries being charged during peak hours (6 p.m. to 11 p.m.), etc. will affect the quality of charging, hindering the expected benefits to the user. 

In the long run, this has to be addressed formulating energy policy framework for the country, introducing low cost renewable energy sources, ensuring quality of national grid power, and introducing tariff structures considering the demand and supply.

But in the short term, introduction of solar power for EV charges have been identified as the best solution to Sri Lanka, as an equatorial country. Enhanced solar energy through an inverter is the most economical methodology to ascertain the EV technology diffusion. 

In line with Government green energy policy, “Sooriyabala Sangramaya”, there are ample opportunities to familiarise solar energy through various subsidies and soft-loan schemes. In this scenario, policy makers should take initiatives to synchronise the introduction of green automobiles with green energy policy, “Sooriyabala Sangramaya” towards achieving the common goals, without working in isolation. 

Hence in conclusion, Sri Lanka is on favourable grounds vis-à-vis macro-economic and technical infrastructure to introduce electrical driven automobiles by introducing solar power.

 Micro technical environent

 Micro technical capability is the sustainability measure of EV technology, where manufactures have proven their high concern before launching brand new EV cars into new markets. 

The EV battery pack contains air-cooled, stacked laminated lithium iron manganese oxide. The battery and control module together weigh an average 230 kg, the heaviest part of EV. Performance of the battery is highly influenced by the ambient (atmosphere) temperature, to get rated millage all the time and expected full life time. In general, these cars are manufactured targeting Europe, and USA markets, where ambient temperature is maintained at 18 C to 26 C maximum. 

In countries like Sri Lanka, ambient temperature varies at 26 C to 35 C, which has resulted in reducing the life time of EV battery by 40%. These cars are mostly used for short distance running and during day time are mostly parked in open yards facing direct sunlight/or in sheds. There is a high possibility of batteries heating up during the daytime, and charging takes place mostly at night, leaving no time for the battery to cool down (less chemical settlement time).

As this is an unavoidable scenario, reputed EV manufacturers have concerns in offering warranty for the lifetime of the battery (10 years).They recommend to add a cost of an additional battery at the initial vehicle costing, if the local agent expects to offer the same standard of international warranty. Eventually this increases the buying price of a brand new EV. 

Secondly, the most important factor is disposing of used batteries. EV use lithium-iron batteries which consist of highly hazardable radiation elements. These are not just “electronic waste”, but are “radiation active electronic waste”. In the disposing process, battery deactivation, removing cells and re-cycling without harming the environment is essential. 

In the tracer study, it was revealed that there is no technology for disposing used lithium-iron batteries available in Sri Lanka, and disposing technology is highly expensive to acquire, and capable technicians are essential for handling them. Hence for disposal, these batteries have to be re-exported to a destination where the disposal technology is available. For Sri Lanka, the most economical place is Belgium. Hence in brand new EV costing, manufacturers demand the factoring of an additional $400 to the costing and to ensure the re-export of used batteries to Belgium.

Accordingly, with the expansion of the local market for EV cars, national policies and regulatory measures should be introduced and implemented on importing and handling of lithium-iron batteries with vehicles and as a spare part. A proper national inventory should be maintained (probably at Central Environmental Authority (CEA) or an Atomic Energy Board (AEB) to ensure 100% disposal as per international safety and environment standards. Strong environment policies should ensure that EV batteries will not be exposed to the environment at any instance.

Aftersales management safety measures

In aftersales management, as a safety measure, if there is any abnormality or malfunction of the EV battery, Engine Management System (EMS) (a mechatronic competent in the vehicle) triggers out and indicates on the dash board as “Safe mode drive,”, where vehicles can be driven at a maximum millage of 40 KMPH for a limited period with limited features. 

In order to rectify the vehicle back to the normal running condition, proper diagnostic and re-programing of the battery circuit unit is required. This is highly confidential literature that is available only with specific EV car manufacturers. There are many customers who are facing software programming issues of EV vehicles which were imported through indirect (second hand) importers due to inadequacy of technical support on high-end diagnostics. 

Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, technological policymakers and financial policymakers work in isolation without proper coordination. A recent example is the import tax benefits given two years back to the EV segment to encourage EV, which resulted in dropping out the competent authorised vehicle agents out of the market and irresponsible second hand importers entering the market. 

These importers have no responsibility towards the above factors, thus greatly affecting sustainability, whereas local agents who represent EV manufacturers are bound to comply with International regulations. As a result, the cost of a second hand imported EV is 30% less than a brand new status EV which is imported through local agents, which obviously means there is no market for brand new importers as tax benefits given at the point of import are common. 

In Sri Lanka, there are an average 6,000 EV cars which were imported through indirect channels, with no manufacturer or a local agent attending to product updates, responsible for warranty, after sales services, battery disposal after usage, etc. Further a number of technological issues are rising in these vehicles as these cars are not manufactured targeting tropical usage.

According to the 2018 National Budget proposals, initial benefits on EV car imports were proposed for authorised agents who represent EV manufacturers, which is a good sign towards sustainable technology enhancement. But later, the media reported that the policy was changed, allowing the import of used old EV cars through indirect channels. Change of the original policy decision and allowing non agents to import EVs will lead towards irresponsible technology management, exposing the country to risk from all aspects! 

Take the correct 

decisions today

EV technology is at a developing stage where a number of product updates can happen from time to time, with a high degree of environmental hazard if badly managed. Therefore strict regulatory measures on battery disposal, and active involvement of local agents on after sales management is required for sustainable EV technology diffusion. Officials who are involved policymaking and alter them without being prudent should be responsible on the consequences therein. 

In conclusion, as a country we have had bad experiences during the 1960s vis-à-vis technology shifting from self-sustained agriculture to commercial agriculture by introducing fertilisers and insecticides. After 50 years of bad management, today we witness that a larger segment of the valuable farming community is suffering with chronic kidney diseases. Hence, steps taken towards green automobiles should not end up with similar experiences, allowing future generations to suffer. Today, if we do not take the correct decisions, we will all be responsible for the future consequences!

[The writer is Mechanical Engineer (BSc Eng. University of Peradeniya, MBA – Management of Technology, University of Moratuwa), trainer in automobile mechatronics with 16 years’ experience on automobile after sales management and technology transfer.]

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