Modernizing Mobility in India

A recent charrette jump-starts the move toward a 100 percent electric mobility future

By Rocky Mountain Institute managing director James Newcomb and principal Clay Stranger

Our senses were overloaded as we wound through the labyrinthine streets of Old Delhi. Tangled webs of jury-rigged electric wires hung overhead, while thick smoke billowed from the cooking fires of street vendors. Along the streets, businesses selling recycled mechanical parts and brightly colored fruit; places of worship; and people’s homes were woven together in a vibrant tapestry of humanity.

We visited Old Delhi in January 2017 in advance of a charrette that Rocky Mountain Institute would be facilitating about the future of mobility in India to get a firsthand view of the country’s diverse mobility system. As we made our way through the city in an auto-rickshaw, the experience was both nerve-racking and intriguing. We shared the road with seemingly every mode of transport under the sun. In an unusual balance of order and chaos, water buffalo pulled carts loaded with bricks, bicycle rickshaws hauled goods to market, and scooters and motorbikes slid through gaps in the traffic ranks, all while three-wheeled auto-rickshaws pulled over to pick up families. And yet, cars were conspicuously absent from the streets of Old Delhi.


India has an opportunity to “leapfrog” the personal vehicle ownership model of developed countries and move directly to a shared, connected, and electric passenger mobility system — the mobility system of the future. Three especially promising enabling conditions exist: the high share of nonmotorized transport, the low level of private vehicle ownership, and the prevalence of mobility services.

  1. Currently, nonmotorized transportation (i.e., walking and biking) and public transportation meet nearly 70 percent of the mobility demand in India. This stands in stark contrast to the proportion in the United States, less than 10 percent. Preserving this share of transportation modes while improving urban design can make walking, biking, and public transport safer and more desirable in India.
  2. Despite having expanded 472-fold since 1950, auto ownership in India remains low, with only 18 cars per 1,000 citizens (whereas the U.S. has nearly 800 cars per 1,000 people!). The paucity of privately owned four-wheeled vehicles creates an opportunity for India to deploy emerging technologies and business models to make mobility services more convenient and cost-effective than personally owned cars.
  3. Shared mobility is already familiar and highly utilized in India. Bicycle and auto-rickshaws flexibly carry commuters along routes not served by other modes of transportation, and ride hailing services are experiencing enormous growth. Using interoperable transportation data and user interfaces that aggregate modes, options, and payments to enhance the current mobility services system, while connecting it to emerging offerings, could establish India as a global leader in shared mobility. Despite these supportive conditions, India faces challenges that signal the gravitational pull of privately owned vehicles and reinforce the importance of pursuing a different mobility future. Every day, 50,000 new motor vehicles (two-, three-, and four-wheelers) hit the roads; India has seen a 10 percent annual increase in vehicle registration for the past decade. Despite the country’s very small per capita automobile fleet, traffic congestion and pollution are already serious issues. According to a 2016 World Health Organization study, 10 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India. India imported more than 80 percent of its oil in 2015, at a cost of US$112 billion. Traffic fatalities cause around 150,000 deaths annually on India’s roads, and it is estimated that losses related to traffic congestion cost the city of Bangalore nearly US$1 billion per year. Given the country’s population of more than 1.3 billion, representing approximately 17 percent of the world’s population, India’s pursuit of different pathways to clean growth and prosperity — in mobility and beyond — not only would benefit its citizens but could also serve as a model for other developing nations.
Two- and three- wheeled vehicles are a large part of India’s traffic. Courtesy of Y’amal


Minister Goyal also made it explicit that the transition to EVs should not rely heavily on subsidies or other public funds, and that the majority of the technology should not be imported. Achieving such a momentous goal necessitates coordinated action by government and the private sector, and it became clear to Lovins that a systemic approach to the challenge would be required.

The India Leaps Ahead report launch, held in New Delhi on May 12, 2017, was widely covered in India. Photo: © Rocky Mountain Institute


More than 75 individuals gathered at the event, including government officials from the joint secretary level to the cabinet minister level, private- sector participants from the chief of strategy level to the CEO level, and leading academic and subject matter experts. During the charrette, Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala, who leads the Government of India’s Electric Vehicle Task Force, relayed the strength of India’s commitment, saying, “The government is determined to make EVs happen. Challenges are always there. But there are huge compulsions, too.”

NITI Aayog’s CEO, Amitabh Kant, and its transportation sector advisor, Dr. Manoj Singh, ensured that the charrette was a high-profile
call to action at the ministerial level. Five cabinet ministers, who govern much of India’s mobility system, keynoted the inaugural dinner. Many participants, including the ministers themselves, remarked that the occasion to discuss the opportunity with stakeholders representing the entire passenger mobility system was critical and had not happened previously.

Speaking at the charrette’s inaugural dinner, India’s minister of heavy industries and public enterprises, Shri Anant Gangaram Geete, described the importance of the event: “In the last many years we have seen that coordination that was required among the various ministers of the government was not to be seen. But now, for the first time, it is seen that we have all got together and are working towards a collective responsibility to face the challenges and come out of it with a solution.”

In an effort to represent the entire mobility system, we structured the charrette around three foundations: the systems by which people move, the vehicles and technologies they use to move, and the mobility environments that they move through. A balance of Indian leadership and international experts ensured that practical solutions were developed and that stakeholders with influence over policy and business decisions were present to create implementation strategies.

Chetan Maini, an entrepreneur, investor, and leader in EV technology, and president of the Maini Group, described the whole-systems approach: “The workshop looked at a range of issues from energy security to a thrust on renewable energy and brought together multiple stakeholders. This hasn’t happened before. I see everything coming together.” Maini launched India’s first electric car in 2001, the Reva, which is now driven in more than 25 countries.

“The workshop looked at a range of issues from energy security to a thrust on renewable energy and brought together multiple stakeholders. This hasn’t happened before. I see everything coming together.”

Sohinder Gil, CEO of Hero Electric and director of the Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles, describedtheimportanceofthemulti-stakeholder approach this way: “All these years, it would be mostly us manufacturers who would lock ourselves in a room to discuss issues, with nothing concrete emerging. This workshop was refreshingly different.”


At the behest of the Indian Government, the charrette focused on creating actionable and specific solutions. One exciting solution explored at the charrette was a business model that would standardize batteries for electric two- and three- wheeled vehicles so that they could be swapped at a network of charging stations (see “The Standardized Swappable Battery Solution,”)


In the days and weeks following the NITI Aayog and RMI event, stakeholders made encouraging progress. Several days after the charrette, Nitin Gadkari, India’s minister of roads, highways, and transportation, announced that he was devising a scheme to remove the permitting requirements and fees for commercial electric vehicles. This promising announcement aligns with a conclusion from charrette participants that bolstering currently economic segments of the electric vehicle market can develop economies of scale and lay the foundation for market-wide transformation. The reduced operating costs of high-mileage electric vehicles outweigh their higher capital costs, making them cost competitive with other internal combustion engine alternatives today.

Commitments from the private sector are also targeting the commercial electric vehicle opportunity. One month after the charrette, Bhavish Aggarwal, CEO of Ola (India’s largest ridehailing service) announced that the company would deploy electric cabs. “There is a lot of focus on electric vehicles. We shall be rolling out electric cabs in top cities in three months,” said Aggarwal.

The compelling economics of commercial electric vehicles are taking hold, and supportive and coordinated policy interventions can rapidly scale electric mobility. Many challenges remain, including the need to provide reliable fast-charging infrastructure to service commercial fleets, but market forces are already favoring electric vehicles in selected segments. Strategies such as aggregated procurement that have proven effective in India for other technologies can further reduce costs and expand the market for electric vehicles.

India has proven itself highly proficient in driving down costs and deploying clean technology at scale in other sectors. India’s nationwide mission to rapidly deploy LEDs has been a huge success, and in 2014 aggregated demand and procurement of LED lights lowered costs by 76 percent. It is estimated that the program will have saved 85 metric tons of CO2 per year by 2019. India’s reverse solar auctions have driven down costs by 73 percent since 2010, and India has already realized solar tariffs that are among the cheapest in the world.

NITI Aayog’s Dr. Manoj Singh and Amitabh Kant and RMI’s James Newcomb and Jeruld Weiland (l-r) present the report. Photo: © Rocky Mountain Institute


These ambitious targets and India’s electric mobility mission can create more value and be more readily achieved when pursued together rather than separately. For example, smart charging of electric vehicles can help smooth electricity loads and provide valuable flexibility to the grid, and enhanced payment and data systems can improve customer experiences while also supporting better system planning and greater efficiency.

India is poised for success. Shared vision among India’s top leadership, a dynamic and thriving entrepreneurial culture, and the opportunity to avoid the private vehicle ownership model can mitigate worsening traffic congestion and air quality and can reduce dependence on imported oil. Such a transformation could position India as the global leader in clean, shared, and connected passenger mobility, while establishing a model of low-carbon solutions for other developing nations to follow.

By James Newcomb and Clay Stranger

Solutions Journal Summer 2017

Vol. 10 №1 Published by Rocky Mountain Institute

Rocky Mountain Institute

Written by

Founded in 1982, Rocky Mountain Institute is a nonprofit that transforms global energy use to create a clean, prosperous, and secure future.

Solutions Journal Summer 2017

Vol. 10 №1 Published by Rocky Mountain Institute

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