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Ahead of the ZS EV launch, we visit the MG parent SAIC’s massive battery plant in China that is the largest in the world.
I sip coffee and marvel at the much-lauded Chinese infrastructure as I’m driven down a never-ending expressway connecting Shanghai to the small town of Liyang, home to SAIC’s the parent company of MG Motors India who have a massive 1.5 billion US dollar battery plant. When fully operational, this will have a capacity of 36GWh and 300,000 packs, which is nearly twice that of the much-hyped Tesla Gigafactory. A joint venture between SAIC and CATL, respectively China’s largest car and battery manufacturers — both state owned — this facility is the largest automotive battery plant in the world, feeding the largest EV market in the world. Sure, electric car sales have recently dipped in China with the switching of incentives to EVs with a minimum of 300km range, but overall sales of NEV (New Energy Vehicles that includes plug-in hybrids) rose to 1.3 million in 2018, a jump of over 60 per cent, and is projected to hit 1.6 million in 2019.
Battery Tech for EV’s
That’s a lot of EVs! We are the first journalists to be given lab coats, shoe mitts, opaque bags to seal our phones into, and led into what that seems more like a nuclear reactor than a traditional car plant. From the cells at the core of the battery backs all the way up to the full module ready to be dropped in the floor of the car, everything is made at this 300 acre facility. Right now two lines churn out 200,000 battery packs, feeding a whole range of SAIC cars including the 44.5 kWh liquid-cooled battery pack of the MG ZS EV that will have been launched in India by the time you read this. United Auto Battery Services assembles the battery modules, in which SAIC has a majority 51 per cent stake. Basically they’re assembling the engines of electric cars, except unlike traditional automotive plants there’s no noise. There’s no whirring of torque wrenches, the smell of coolant used in CNC milling machines, the hubbub of activity. Robotic trolleys whizz by taking components from one station to the other, to be assembled mostly by more robots, and at a few stations by operators who look like doctors, not the burly men and women who have traditionally staffed production lines. While suitably impressive, assembling battery packs doesn’t seem like anything we cannot start doing in India if our government really does get serious about electric cars.
Rajeev Chaba, MD of MG Motor India, confirms that they are doing feasibility studies for battery assembly and module repairs. “Under the ‘Make in India’ programme it’s imperative to do assembly here,” he confirms. “That will happen in a year or so”. In fact he has brought along a representative from Exicom Telesystems to check out the feasibility of that, a key part of MG Motor India’s push to get an EV eco-system up and running in India. 100 paces away from UABS is the second joint venture, United Auto Battery Corporation, a much, much more serious operation judging by the fact that they now take our plastic-bagged phones and lock it away. CATL has the majority 51 per cent stake in this facility that makes the battery cells which then go into the modules assembled at UABS. The various stages in the cell manufacturing process is pointed out to us through viewing windows; the actual line is a sterile, space-age facility that is manned by minimal human hands. This is where the real strength of not just this facility but China as a whole lies. They think ahead. Ten years ago they put in place incentives to encourage the manufacturing and purchase of EVs. Much before that they snapped up mines in Africa and South America, to secure the raw materials required to make batteries for the projected demand, and then they invested billions into factories to make these batteries.
UABC and UABS will not only supply battery packs to SAIC and its direct subsidiaries MG, Roewe and Maxus but also to Wuling and the two big SAIC joint ventures, Shanghai-GM that churns out Chevys and Buicks, and which competes with Shanghai-VW for number one status in China. They will even make the modules for VW’s MEB electric-platform cars very soon, all feeding Chinese government goals of switching 60 per cent of all cars to electric by 2035. And so, when players in the nascent India EV space and even government officials put out statements saying India missed out on the IC engine race and the same should not happen with EVs, I’m not sure whether to laugh at their naivety or sue them for dangerously misleading statements. We can assemble battery packs, and all the signs are that it will happen very soon, but it’s the cells that comprise 90, even 95 per cent of the value of the battery packs. And nobody has any plans whatsoever to make cells in India. There is no clear projection of demand — a direct factor of no clear incentive policy to electrify EV sales. There isn’t a clear enough or lucrative enough government incentive to start battery manufacturing. And — the biggest problem — India doesn’t have the raw materials! With most of the mines snapped up, where are we going to get the Lithium and Cobalt? Rajeev Chaba is being politically correct when he says, “Cell manufacturing in India is not going to be very easy in the near future.” Fact is, it isn’t even on the horizon. That’s not to say there’s no meat in the Indian EV story. Over the course of two days in China I learn that MG is serious about electric cars for India, the ZS EV isn’t mere tokenism, and plans are afoot for more affordable EVs. Having their own battery plant is key to being price competitive. “Below `10 lakh, it’s going to democratise EVs in the country,” says Chaba. “We have our eyes on that in the mid to long term.''
First, of course, we will have the ZS EV that will undercut the Kona on price and might even come it at around Rs 20 lakh. That’s great value for a well finished, attractively styled SUV — this, after all, is an MG that has been designed as an MG and is sold the world over as an MG. The fit-finish is of a standard you’d appreciate even in Europe. There are no gaping wheel arch gaps or ungainly angles. The interiors have nice, expensive feeling materials. The range is 262km on the WLTP cycle. And it moves, with the equivalent of 140bhp and 353Nm of torque peaking at just above idle, delivering an especially strong initial acceleration. It’s an SUV, electric or otherwise, that is hard to find
Stay tuned to evo India for more details about the MG Motors ZS EV .