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  Electric vehicle, Eco-Rick

All of a sudden, we are at reality time. Ignore the scare depicted in the recent film, “Day After Tomorrow”. Ignore even Prof. Lovelock, declaring his support for nuclear plants to stop global warming. Without all that, your own experienece will tell you that we have hotter days, longer summers, scantier rainfall and floods spreading wider.

It is time to modify purist, fundamentalist environmental positions and choose among lesser evils, even as we hope and wait for the magic bullet. That’s the merit of Prof. Lovelock’s stand. That’s also why electric vehicles are better than gasoline ones. Of course, electricity must still be produced --mostly using coal-- in power-stations, but being fewer they can be monitored and controlled. After all, they are now investigating technologies that can trap CO2 at power station chimneys and then stuff it deep into the earth where it will cause no harm,—and may if fact, do some good.

The biggest offender today, it is clear, is the automobile as we know it. Electric vehicles always capture our imagination for the obvious difference they can make. The state of California, USA took the lead in spurring electric vehicle research: it mandated that 10% of all vehicles sold in that state must be electric. Even that minor step was a major scare for accountants in big car companies; they have now succeeded in getting that law diluted. It may be a few decades before cars go green.

That is why an exciting electric vehicle initiative in India is good news for friends of this planet. Bajaj Auto is set to launch the Eco-Rick, an all electric auto-rickshaw, in September this year. It can travel 130 km between charges; each full charge takes 7 hours. A few demo pieces have been running around the Taj Mahal, Agra where gasoline vehicles are banned. During the 3 year trials, the vehicle design has acquitted itself. Bajaj will produce about 60 Eco-Ricks per month initially, each vehicle costing Rs.1.5 Lakhs.

The electric drive that powers the Eco-Rick, began life as a darling of solar car enthusiasts who race their concept cars over hundreds of kilometres in the USA and Australia. A novel design by Dean Patterson of Northern Territory University [NTU] of Australia is very popular among university teams that build solar cars. It is worth understanding it.

Electric motors generally have a configuration that can be imagined as a circle within a circle—the outer one fixed and the inner one rotating, with a fixed air-gap between the two. Speed and torque changes necessitate a gear box. The NTU motor, on the other hand can be imagined as a rotating disc facing a fixed disc with the gap between them being variable. This variability enables speed and torque changes without the need for a mechanical gearbox. Consequently this motor—christened,"Axial Flux Motor"—can be directly mounted on the axle of a vehicle.

Under a license from Patterson and NTU, the motor was further developed in Virginia, USA. A team in George Washington University, under the leadership of Prof. Nabih Bedewi, have taken the Patterson concept to a nearly unbeatable efficiency of 95%. Bedewi’s team consists of Eric Takamura, a hands-on solar car builder, Joel Jermakian, an ex-NASA scientist and Anubhav Sethi, an MBA. They were successfully selling the pancake shaped motor to the small solar car market. Their company New generation Motors [NGM] had been having funding problems.

That was when Rahul Bajaj committed his company, Bajaj Motors, to the Eco-Rick project. Bajaj has acquired exclusive licence to manufacture and market NGM drives. They have invested $5 million into a production facility in Waluj near Pune;that is something NGM was not in a position to do. Auto-rickshaws are at the low end of the auto-chain and will permit slow improvements as the market grows. They also, give NGM and Bajaj big market volumes. Beneath it all, is also a jobs transfer story; NGM manufacturing will be entirely in India. Batteries will be developed by Exide in Ahmedabad. It’s obvious the strategy benefits everyone.

Most of all the environment. If the Bajaj Eco-Rick is successful we will have cleaner, quieter public spaces. Commuters will have affordable transportation. In good time, Bajaj hopes to use NGM motors in scooters and bikes. Just, imagine that scene!

Suggested by V Lakshmi Narayanan