India’s Mahindra launches Hydrogen powered 3-wheeler

When it comes to popularizing alternate fuel powered cars, global majors have taken a simple approach: build a sexy sports car, get a lot of attention, sell a few, validate the idea and then mass produce for us mortals. That is the approach taken by Tesla and Ronn Motor Co. However, India’s Mahindra & Mahindra is taking the opposite approach.

Mahindra has designed a hydrogen powered vehicle which is not sexy, not expensive and has one wheel less.

Mahindra has launched a hydrogen powered 3-wheeler called HyAlfa at the Auto Expo 2012 held in New Delhi. HyAlfa is the end-product of three years of toil by IIT Delhi, United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)’s International Centre for Hydrogen Energy Technologies (UNIDO-ICHET) and Mahindra & Mahindra. The whole project called DelHy 3W is backed by India’s  Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) and costed US$ 1 million. 15 vehicles are piloted at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi. A hydrogen refilling station has been set-up by US based Air Products Inc.

HyAlfa vehicle runs for 80 kilometers on 1 kg of Hydrogen.

3-wheelers are a common mode of urban transportation in India. They are called as Autos, Auto rickshaws, Tuk Tuk or Ricks by posh Indians. Most of the cities have made it mandatory for the 3-wheelers to be run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). Given this background, Mahindra’s move seems to be a logical move. CNG, though much better than its fossil fuel counterparts when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, is no match to Hydrogen’s no-pollutants capabilities. Hydrogen powered vehicles product just water as a by-product.

Let’s talk costs

There are two costs associated with a motor vehicle – the initial buying cost and the maintenance cost.

Mahindra says that the vehicle won’t be commercially available until 2020 and when it does it will cost Rs. 20,000 more than the existing 3-wheelers, which retail for approximately Rs. 200,000.

More than the vehicle cost, it is the running or maintenance cost which could hamper HyAlfa’s prospects. 1 kg of Hydrogen costs Rs. 250. That makes it prohibitively expensive for the 3-wheeler community, which is already running on a government-subsidized, cost-effective CNG. 1 kg of CNG costs around Rs. 40 and will run for 35 kms.

Once we get past the costs, there is the challenge of filling stations. Even for CNG there are few filling stations available in Indian cities, and the CNG vehicle drivers have to make a beeline to get a refill.

Would it remain a concept?

On the first look Mahindra’s approach looks contrarian. It’s anything but that. Since the HyAlfa’s wont be ready until 2020, we are not sure if the 3-wheelers as we know would still exist. Bajaj has just made a splash with its RE60, which it insists on calling a four-wheeler and not a car. Bajaj is positioning the RE60 as a cab. This means it will chip away the top-end 3-wheeler users and the low-end cab users. We have already discussed costs.

Unless efforts are made to reduce the costs, and plant as many filling stations, I don’t see HyAlfa going any further. It could end up as a research project with a big fat lessons learned spiral bound book.

[Via TheHindu]