Maruti eyeing lithium suppliers as it speeds up EV plans

India's leading carmaker Maruti Suzuki, 34 years after rolling out the country's first 'people's car' and revolutionising the Indian automobile industry, is going back to the drawing board as the global focus shifts to electric vehicles (EVs).

The company is looking for lithium suppliers for a lithium ion battery plant in Gujarat, planning to build a brand new electric car for India, and working with its dealers to set up charging networks, managing director and chief executive officer Kenichi Ayukawa said in an interview with Business Today.

Ayukawa says it's time to bring a change, which is not possible without the support of people and government of India. He said Maruti's first EV may roll out by 2020.

''In a sense, we are trying to challenge ourselves as the time has come to change the game. Hence, we have to review (our strategy) and start again from zero,'' Ayukawa said. ''We need to decide if we want to buy (lithium) from a (Latin) American country or some other country. We need to find a source for that.''

Ayukawa said the company would gradually proceed towards hybrid and micro-hybrid cars in India. "Things don't change in one day, it's not possible. But we need to continuously keep on improving efficiency by bringing in technology that's environment friendly. One idea we are focusing on is hybrid."

EVs account for less than 1 per cent of global auto sales, but their potential is forcing the world's biggest automakers including Maruti to focus on such cars.

The company is also running a nation-wide survey to understand the needs and expectations of customers in the EV segment.

Seeking government support, Ayukawa said that if the supply of lithium is constrained, it will hinder the country's EV programme. ''If we cannot get lithium, we cannot make such kind of a product.''

Getting lithium is one thing, safe handling is another. ''Lithium ion batteries can be very dangerous - they can lead to fire,'' Ayukawa said. While the lithium supply falls in place, Maruti will focus on developing the EV.

The company will also need to figure out how the batteries can be used. Such systems need to be in place before introducing EVs, he added.

It is also critical to keep costs under control. ''It will be impossible for people to buy a Rs5 lakh car if that becomes a Rs20 lakh car. Nobody could buy that,'' Ayukawa said.

''Dealers will have to handle a new kind of technology. So we will have to educate the people at the service centres. That will take some time,'' he said.

Ayukawa claims the Suzuki battery plant coming up in Gujarat will give it the first-mover advantage. however, local rivals Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd and Tata Motors Ltd are already ahead in the EV game.

''The point is that they (the government) are also looking for a good solution and so are we. So, we have to collaborate and find out a good solution. But I think that is not an easy work and it takes time,'' Ayukawa said.