How many rickshaws are there in India

Rickshaws with batteries : How India is leading the way in electromobility

Fold up the lever, remove the battery, put in a new battery, fold the lever down. Four movements, then Vijay Kumar swings back into the driver's seat, turns the ignition key, the rickshaw drives off. With a quiet whirring sound, she rolls off the courtyard and onto the main street. Kumar steers her through the jumble of rickshaws, mopeds, buses, cars, loud continuous honking, dark clouds of exhaust fumes.

Late on Tuesday afternoon in Hyderabad, South India, Kumar is on his way to see customers, he works as a driver for the online grocery chain Bigbasket. Kumar's rickshaw looks like most goods rickshaws on India's streets. One wheel in front, two wheels in the back, square loading area, plastic tarpaulin on the sides.

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But Kumar's rickshaw is different from the others. He drives an electric rickshaw that runs on a modern lithium-ion battery. For Kumar, the vehicle is a revolution. “I used to have to charge the battery for several hours,” he says. "If I swap the empty battery for a charged one today, it won't even take a minute."

The three-wheeled auto rickshaws shape the cities of Asia, especially in India they are the main means of transport in urban areas. India is the world's largest producer and exporter of rickshaws. In metropolises such as the capital New Delhi, nothing works without three-wheeled vehicles; they are the best and often the only option for closing the gaps in the public transport network.

Rickshaws used to run on gasoline or diesel and there are still many old models on the road in India, they are among the country's biggest air polluters.

E-rickshaws already have a market share of 80 percent

A good ten years ago, however, a new type came along: electrically operated rickshaws. While the share of e-cars in India has so far only made up one percent of the electric vehicle market, the share of e-rickshaws is more than 80 percent. The number of electric rickshaws in India's cities is now estimated to be more than two million, transporting around 60 million people a day.

While e-mobility is only progressing slowly in Germany, e-mobility has already developed strongly in India. And that almost out of nowhere. When the first battery-powered e-rickshaws hit the market, there wasn't a single charging station. Nevertheless, many rickshaw drivers switched to an electric model because they were cheaper than the previous ones with the classic combustion engine. The drivers were forced to solve the charging problem themselves: Many people charge their rickshaws illegally by tapping public power lines at night.

In the beginning there were only lead batteries

But the first generation of e-rickshaws is not very user-friendly. The problem: You drive with a lead battery. The battery is the deciding factor in an electric vehicle: what driving distance is there, what speed is possible, how long does it take to charge? A lead battery needs eight to nine hours of charging time, the maximum speed is 25 kilometers per hour, plus a short service life, a lead battery has to be replaced after six months.

Raja and Rahul Gayam saw these problems as an opportunity. The two brothers, 30 and 34, are the founders and owners of Gayam Motor Works, or GMW for short, a start-up from Hyderabad. In 2010 they revived their father's disused factory, who used to build trucks and buses. Initially, GMW made conventional diesel and gasoline rickshaws that they sold across Asia. At the same time, however, the brothers were working on an e-rickshaw. Rahul, a physicist, developed a lithium-ion battery like the one used by the electric car manufacturer Tesla.

In 2015, GMW launched India's first lithium battery e-rickshaw. It is smaller and lighter than the lead models, enables speeds of 55 kilometers per hour and lasts for several years. Clear advantages over everything that was previously on the market. But it costs significantly more than a lead battery. However, this is not a problem for customers. They only buy their rickshaws from GMW - the Gayam brothers remain the owners of the batteries. GMW acts like a battery rental company. "Separating the batteries from the vehicles is initially cost-neutral for the buyer and even cheaper in the long term," says Rahul Gayam.

Drivers swap empty for charged batteries at special stations

The system works like this: GMW installs a charging station for each customer. If a driver needs fresh energy for his rickshaw, he comes to one of the GMW stations, leaves his empty battery there to recharge and uses a charged battery. “With our system, a rickshaw is completely reloaded in less than a minute,” says Raya Gayam. The system also runs digitally: the batteries are connected to a data cloud, and the driver can find out the current battery status and the route to the next charging station via an app. Supplier Kumar sounds enthusiastic: "I don't lose any time loading, but can go straight to the next customer or back to the warehouse."

The exchange system solves the charging time problem - something that even e-car pioneer Tesla has not yet solved. The Gayam brothers have won various innovation prizes for their concept, and the business magazine “Forbes Asia” selected Rahul Gayam in 2018 among the top 30 “entrepreneurs under 30” in Asia. Buyers at GMW are mainly companies that supply their end customers with the vehicles, including industry giants such as Ikea, Walmart and Amazon. At Ikea in Hyderabad, the rickshaw batteries are powered by solar cells that the furniture store has installed on its building. “Solar is our next step,” says Rahul Gayam. "In the future we will equip our charging stations with solar cells."

The main source of energy in India remains coal

This would mean that his company would be a giant step ahead of national energy policy. Although the Indian government is planning large investments in solar energy, it intends to continue using coal as the main source of energy. India has twice as much sun as Europe - but it also has the fifth largest coal reserves in the world. The government also has many plans for e-mobility; in 2020, seven million electric vehicles will be on the road in the 1.3 billion-inhabitant country. Because the number of people in the cities, the number of large cities and the environmental problems are growing, 14 of the most polluted cities in the world are in India.

But even though the country needs an energy transition: The state is still favoring domestic manufacturers of diesel and gasoline vehicles with tax advantages, electric vehicles with lithium batteries are still very expensive, and there are still hardly any public charging stations.

Instead of waiting for politics to come, Indian companies are taking change into their own hands. Automobile manufacturer Mahindra has announced the production of private rickshaws with lithium batteries. Driving service provider Ola has opened a battery exchange station near the capital and plans to invest 250 million US dollars in the development of new e-technologies. The start-up SmartE in New Delhi is building a network of charging stations and rents e-rickshaws to drivers who cannot afford a modern e-vehicle themselves. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the poorest regions of India, the social enterprise SMV Green Solutions helps rickshaw drivers finance an e-vehicle because low-income banks do not give them credit.

For the start-up GMW in Hyderabad, the early focus on e-mobility has long paid off. The Gayam brothers are already planning to build a second factory. They are now also selling their battery swap rickshaws to neighboring countries Bangladesh and Nepal. They have also recently started producing e-bikes. And founder Rahul is working on a completely new type of vehicle power storage as an alternative to batteries. He also wants to install them in rickshaws. “Cars are of no interest to us,” says Rahul. “People in the cities of India, all over Asia, drive rickshaws. And this market is big enough to keep growing. "

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