Setting the Standard

I support India’s new draft battery-swapping policy for electric vehicles, particularly since it promotes battery-as-a-service and emphasizes openness without being overly prescriptive. However, we should aspire to lead in developing standards that align with its market, leveraging its position as the world’s largest two-wheeler market, and its expertise in the EV sector, to assume global leadership in battery swapping standards.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

As regular readers of this column can attest, I have, for a long time, been in favour of using battery swapping technology for electric vehicles. This, I believe, is especially important in the local transport and delivery segment (largely comprising taxis and 2- and 3-wheelers), given how badly these segments are impacted by the down-time that is unavoidable with even the fastest charging solutions. For these vehicles, swapping offers the best alternative, allowing drivers to top up their charge in roughly the same time it takes to fill a tank with petrol.

Which is why it was heartening to see that the government of India has released a new draft battery-swapping policy specifically designed to catalyse the large-scale adoption of battery swapping technology by promoting the battery-as-a-service business model.

Battery Swapping Policy

Generally speaking, this is a sensible and progressive policy document, offering a clear sense of the general direction of government’s intent without being too prescriptive about solutions. For instance, it emphasizes openness and interoperability as necessary characteristics of the battery swapping industry without actually setting out the specific details that battery-as-a-service business models will have to follow.

While we are on this point, it might be worthwhile mentioning that even though I have, in principle, been a votary of open standards and interoperable solutions, in the context of batteries, it may be prudent to strike a more cautious tone. Unlike software protocols, where open interoperable standards never harmed anyone, given that batteries have different chemistries and often also a variety of configurations, making interoperability an end in itself can have dangerous outcomes. And while manufacturers can today be held accountable for the consequences of not properly integrating their charging and battery management systems with the requirements of their batteries, once we mandate interoperability, it will not be as easy to attribute liability when things go wrong.

That said, even in this respect, the policy appears to have struck the right note by recognizing that instead of mandating a rigid set of technical requirements, we need, at the current nascent stage of this industry, to let interoperable solutions bubble up organically from within the market.

In a similar vein, I was pleased to note that the policy also stopped short of prescribing specific standards for battery swapping at this stage. Standards are important and essential to ensure widespread adoption, but it is not until after the market has had enough of an opportunity to innovate and experiment with different configurations that any sort of standardization should be attempted. In that regard, I am glad the policy makes room for standards to be discovered rather than dictated.

Let’s Lead not Follow

That said, it is extraordinarily important to ensure that the standards we eventually come up with are closely aligned with the specific requirements of the Indian market, and not be blindly adopted from those being used elsewhere in the world. While global uniformity is necessary, particularly in the context of battery swapping in the 2- and 3-wheeler segments, India should be dictating the direction rather than following the lead taken by others. Let me explain why.

In the first place, India is the largest two-wheeler market in the world, making it an ideal test-bed for 2- and 3-wheeler battery-swapping standards. This is where battery-as-a-service business models will be most rigorously tested and, as a result, where the widest range of innovation is likely to take place. It therefore stands to reason that standards emerging from India will be most widely representative of the demands of customers than those from anywhere else.

Secondly, India has a long track record of expertise in both the EV as well as the automotive space that speaks to its ability to develop the technologies upon which standards can be based. We already build our EV platforms to take into account the full range of climatic conditions under which these vehicles have to operate in the country and have deployed them across a range of use-cases to meet the requirements of our domestic consumers. This is the level of expertise we could bring to bear while developing battery swapping standards for our market and the rest of the world.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is a geopolitical significance to being able to control EV standards that cannot be overstated, particularly in these troubled times. During the pandemic, we have been reminded, time and again, of the importance of self-reliance. Being able to use standards developed in India would allow us to better control its evolution, which in turn could ring-fence us from future events beyond our control. We have seen how this has played out in the telecom context—first in the tussle between the GSM and CDMA standards and now with 5G. Having a firm grip on battery swapping standards will allow us to rightfully assume the leadership that our domestic market’s size and track record of expertise in the EV sector should grant.

Other countries and regions have begun to mobilize resources for the development of these EV battery standards. Japan’s four biggest 2-wheeler manufacturers, for example, have agreed to work together to this end, and similar moves are afoot in Europe. While we might in the past have meekly adopted these standards as our own, it’s time to step up and behave like the market leaders that we are.