For years, the electric vehicle project in Auroville has languished. Now all this is about to change with the newly formed LADS – the Laboratory of Auroville Designers.
In early January this year, a series of documentaries on environmental issues was screened at Auroville's Cinema Paradiso. Of these two created quite a stir – Al Gore's ‘An Inconvenient Truth', and Chris Paine's ‘Who Killed the Electric Car?' Amongst the audience were two young men, Akash and Sukrit, who decided to do something positive about it – bring electric 2-wheelers to Auroville. Thus the EV Future project was born.
Auroville's fascination with electric two-wheelers is not new. In the late eighties, SAIIER bought half a dozen ‘Electros' – mopeds powered by a rechargeable battery pack – for a few of its workers. However the harsh local driving conditions, along with the not-so-optimally designed batteries and controllers, caused all but one to break down or malfunction. The single specimen that survives from this period and is actually still running well, is Bhaga's ‘Vidyutine' (see box).
In contrast, electric bicycles or ‘power-assisted' bikes, have had a more steady presence in Auroville, patronised by a few staunch ecologically-conscious individuals. B was the first with a do-it-yourself model. He imported an electric motor and attached it to his bicycle. Carsten of Auroville Energy Products (AEP) was the earliest entrepreneur in the Auroville's electric bicycle venture. AEP attempted to bring solar-charged electric bicycle into AV, but the project did not take off. More recently Chandresh and his team at SaraCon have started an electric bicycle rental service. The team maintains a fleet of nine bicycles all assembled in Pondy using motors imported from China . Aptly, these bicycles have been named QT for ‘Quiet Transport'.
“But bicycles cannot meet the needs of most Aurovilians,” says Akash. “Most people need a more powerful vehicle that has the range to do the weekly trip to Pondy and back, be able to haul a decent load, and preferably carry a rider in the pillion. For this one needs a moped or a motorcycle.”
Over the last two years, a few Chinese models like Planet-7 have come onto the market and were picked up an enthusiast or two. But they have not proven successful. “Most of these are too flimsy for Auroville's outback conditions,” says Akash. “There were more than a few incidents when these vehicles just came apart, and the person had a miraculous escape.”
Now with the technology being more mature, what EV Future intends to do is to get the best components preferably made locally in India, and assemble 30 vehicles and offer them to Auroville at cost price. “One advantage for us doing the work in Auroville is that we have the conditions to test it. If it works here, it will really work anywhere,” says Akash.
The team's biggest challenge has been to find manufacturers in India for the various components – batteries, controllers and the brushless hub-motos that are fitted on the wheelbase. Explains Sukrit, “To import them from China is expensive. And we want is to be able to offer a vehicle that costs about Rs.25,000.”
For Akash and Sukrit, what started off as a hobby has now become a full-blown passion, albeit an expensive one. Any spare time they have is spent at the workshop in Reve, tinkering on refitted Electros, testing hub motors, updating the website, EVFuture.com, or researching the special regulations and certification required to drive an electric vehicle in India . “Of course, there are costs involved, and we're experimenting at our own expense,” clarifies Akash. “But money is not our motivation. We're happy to do this work. But at a certain point if people are willing to help, it is also nice.”
Their team has also grown in the past months. “In fact EV Future came about from an informal group called the LADS or the Laboratory of Auroville Designers,” says Sukrit. “Besides Akash and I, there's Hemant (AuroRE), Carsten, Chandresh, Monica, Francois, Nathalie, and Auroson.” The group meets once a month over dinner, brainstorming ideas and dreaming of the future. Dreams include LED headlights, charging stations along the Auroville's Crown road, solar-panels on the roofs of all parking lots, and silently-gliding vehicles. “And ultimately a pollution-free and fossil fuel-free Auroville,” says Akash.
“What strikes you is the silence and the way it glides; like you are on a magic carpet,” says Bhaga of her Vidyut. “It was a prototype from a crazy company in Bangalore . As you can see, it has no design to speak of, but I love it.” In 1985, when Bhaga received an electric moped from SAIIER, little did she imagine that she would still be using it after two decades. Even with the regular battery changes, and annual paint job, Bhaga realized that she was not spending more than she would have with petrol. “And all this without the inconvenience of petrol!” But what has struck Bhaga more is the curiosity and interest that onlookers have shown on her bike. “If these were available in the market, I am sure most people will take to them!”