Hybrid car makeover to hit the road

Any model can be turned into a fuel-efficient greener machine, says a new Indian joint-venture company that will roll out its home-grown Revolo aftermarket kit in the increasingly car-crazy country.

Imagine, for a moment, a passenger car that is environmentally friendly, cheap, fuel-efficient and at the same time offers good performance. Hard to envisage in India. But now two companies there say they have designed the hybrid technology to produce such a car.

Earlier this month, Bharat Forge, a leading machine-parts supplier, and KPIT Cummins, an engineering and information technology consulting firm for car companies, announced a joint venture to develop and market their breakthrough technology to convert conventional models into relatively low-cost hybrids. The technology, called Revolo, was developed in India after two years of research. The conversion kit includes an electric motor that is mounted on the crankshaft of a car. Revolo can be fitted on a car in four hours and promises to augment fuel efficiency by as much as 60 per cent and reduce greenhouse gases by 35 per cent.

"Electric cars are the future, but not until 2050," says Girish Wardadkar, the executive director and president of KPIT Cummins. "But the vacuum between now and until we perfect electric technology will be filled by hybrid technology." Revolo kits, priced at between 65,000 rupees (Dh5,200) and 150,000 rupees, will be commercially available in India this year. The announcement is significant, experts say, as Revolo could offer a technological boost to several car companies. They are currently minting profits from the scorching demand for vehicles in India, but are looking ahead and exploring new technologies to build "green" carsthat guzzle less fuel and spew less carbon.

At the car expo in New Delhi in January, several manufacturers unveiled or announced plans to produce green-themed cars. Maruti Suzuki, India's largest car maker, showcased its Eeco Charge, an electric car that it hopes to release in India by 2015. Toyota said it would start selling its Prius petrol-electric hybrid model, which is a hit in the West, in the country this year. And General Motors(GM) of the US, France's Renault, South Korea's Hyundai and India's Tata Motors also announced plans to launch electric or petrol-electric hybrid vehicles.

According to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, based in New Delhi, vehicle sales in the country grew 30 per cent last month, compared with May last year, to nearly 1.2 million vehicles, buoyed by increased consumer spending and low finance rates. But the rising car sales have fuelled concerns about rising greenhouse gas emissions. India ranks 123rd in this year's Environmental Performance Index, which was produced by environmental experts from Yale and Columbia universities in the US. India's transport sector released 219 million tonnes of greenhouse gases last year, according to India's Pollution Control Board, and the figure is expected to rise to 1.47 billion tonnes by 2035.

Experts say the sales of cars in the future will heavily depend on the ability of manufacturers to innovate. "Across markets [worldwide], fuel savings (89 per cent), environmental impact (67 per cent) and government incentives (58 per cent) were the three most cited factors that would favourably influence drivers to purchase a vehicle with new technology," said a survey released this month by the consultancy firm Ernst and Young.

Baba Kalyani, the chairman of Bharat Forge, says: "We believe this indigenous solution [Revolo] would offer vehicle owners the best of both worlds - the ability to go green while achieving great performance. "It gives car owners the option of upgrading their vehicles to a higher level of fuel efficiency and performance without the expense of having to buy a new car." A car expert from the Automotive Research Institute of India, an engineering research centre, who tested Revolo for fuel efficiency says he considers the product "very promising", but refuses to comment on its ability to cut emissions.

But regardless of Revolo's performance, is the Indian market ready to embrace hybrid technology? Hybrid vehicles have so far had limited appeal in India's price-sensitive market because of their cost. Honda introduced its Civic Hybrid in India in June 2008, priced at 2.2 million rupees. When the expected sales did not occur, it dropped its sticker price to 1.3m rupees and all the cars in stock were quickly sold.

Only when the price is right will customers in India embrace environmentally friendly cars, experts say. Hybrid technology is also a hard sell in the country because of factors such as "[poor] infrastructure, cost of acquisition, government support in terms of taxes and levies to promote green technology", says P Balendran, the vice president of GM in India. India lacks the infrastructure for recharging or refuelling low-emission models. And high duties are imposed on imported cars, including low-emission vehicles, which raises their prices.

"We are aware of their [Bharat Forge-KPIT] hybrid product," Mr Balendran says, but adds that GM is developing its own hybrid model. "But it is in a very early stage. It will pick up going forward as the infrastructure gets developed. But there's still a long way to go." But Mr Wardadkar says Revolo is up to 80 per cent cheaper than other after-market hybrid car kits in the US, which can cost as much as US$20,000 (Dh73,400).

Revolo's motor is designed in India and costs far less than an off-the-shelf motor, he says. It runs on lead acid batteries instead of the more common lithium-ion batteries that have to be imported and cost five times more. The device is fitted with a programmable timer that will shut down when the engine is idling, thus increasing the efficiency of the petrol engine. "Today, 65 per cent of all sales are hatchbacks," he says. "It's not because hatchbacks are liked, but because sedans are more expensive. Hybrid technology can make sedans an affordable option."