SETTING THE PLAN INTO MOTION
As far as ambitions go, the plan to drive an electric vehicle from Delhi all the way to Leh is pretty much the biggest we’ve stumbled into! The grandeur of the plan however stemmed not from the driving an EV to Leh, the bigger task came much later, days after we had got into conversations with Audi India about undertaking this project. Audi has always been encouraging, and over the last 8 years they have supported us in every journey that seemed almost impossible at first, but always turned out successful. They’ve had more faith is our abilities to execute a project when sometimes even we thought we’d chewed off more than we could bite! So without breaking into sweat, they confirmed that we could do this activity with the e-tron 55!
At Audi’s suggestion we also brought the conversation to the ABB table. One of the largest electric charging infrastructure provider in the world, ABB already had an extensive EV charging network in place across India. However the highway to Leh was still untapped for EVs. There were no chargers installed anywhere along that route, and that became the pivot for the way ahead. ABB was quick to realise the potential of this undertaking and signed up faster than you could read this statement. They also brought on LionCharge who setups the infra and builds and supports the network. With all partners on board, the actual work for the drive began. And so the project took on a new dimension. We would not just drive all the way up to Leh, we would also setup a fast charging network along the route. Work on setting up the chargers began almost 2 months before the drive commenced. Saiveer who founded LionCharge set off by himself to recce the route and identify potential locations where the chargers could be setup. Finally, after 2 trips from Chandigarh to Leh and back, LionCharge setup charging points at the Patyal filling station near Mandi, the Himalayan Spa and Resort in Manali, Padma Lodge at Jispa, Sonam dhaba in Pang and finally at the Fortune resort in Spituk (Farka) on the outskirts of Leh.
The intent right from the word go was clear with clearly defined objectives. We had to avoid carrying a diesel generator to power the car, the journey had to be made within a stipulated number of days and the car had to, it just had to get to Leh and get back to Delhi! Damn, this was going to be hard. Then there was the larger challenge, of setting up a charging infrastructure all along the way to enable future EV owners to make this journey as well.
CALCULATING THE DETAILS
The initial days were hard. While the e-tron was confirmed, the route more or less tied down as well, it was the distances between locations where we would set up that was getting to be a challenge. You see, we had no time for a recce, and everything would have to be executed based purely on calculated assumptions. The e-tron 55 has the largest battery pack as compared to any EV available in India. 95kWh, that’s how much charge the e-tron holds, and as pr WLTP cycles it could provide a range anywhere in between 350-485 kilometres. However on various EVs we have tested, real world figures see at the very least a 15-20 percent dip in range. That means we would have around 300420km available to us, if we were driving in urban and extra-urban conditions. Still seems like a good number to work around with.
Then we looked back at the kind of efficiency figures the ICE vehicles have provided us in the past. On most drives we got efficiency between 5-8kmpl climbing up to Leh, and this increased marginally until we were back in Manali where the air-fuel mixtures came back to normal. We would not have the air-fuel ratio to contend with, however, we had gradients to manage. The highway to Leh from Manali is constantly winding uphill. Chandigarh where the real journey would begin is located at an altitude of, at maximum, 360 metres (1200 feet) above sea level. Leh is at an altitude of around 3500 metres (11428 feet) above sea level. We would be climbing to an altitude ten times higher. In between there were the high mountain passes, four of them specifically. Starting with Baralacha La at 4850 metres (16040 feet), followed by Nakee La at 4769 metres (15647 feet), Lachalung La at 5059 metres (16598 feet) and finally the highest mountain pass on this route, the Tanglang La at 5328 metres (17480 feet).
In between these there are the long stretches that ride across the Sarchu and More plains, open flatlands where the road stretches in a straight line for kilometres on end. The road length across the Sarchu plains extends for nearly 50 kilometres, while the flatlands of More plains sees the road extend similarly for around 51 kilometres. Both these are flat sections of road, marred by a few blind dips and a complete lack of habitation. This section of the highway is busy, and by that I mean you’d see a constant stream of road trippers and construction trucks heading either way between Manali and Leh, but with well-spaced intervals. So you’re still on a pretty desolate stretch of road that does not choke your flow.
You can easily hold an average speed of around 60kph on these stretches. That is fantastic for ICE vehicles, but for an electric that is a challenge, because you’re constantly on the throttle, and even a 10 percent input on the pedal drops your range rapidly. SO, we stood to juice climbing up the passes, or even down the straights.
Another theory we had to account for was the lack of air at that altitude. You see as you climb higher, the air gets thinner, which technically means less drag and therefore better efficiency. However on the flip side, due to the drive taking place so close to the winter months, meant the wind would have picked up and that would increase resistance. Two sides to a coin, and there was no accounting for what would affect us more.
Then there was the human element, we also needed locations where we could park up for the night, get a hot meal and beds to catch a few winks in between the driving. Having based ourselves on historic data we had accumulated, we decided to make Mandi, Manali, Jispa, Pang and finally Leh the points where we would set up our charging stations so we could charge our car.
As I mentioned earlier thanks to a long standing partnership with Audi India for these adventures and the fact that they had the only electric vehicle in India with the largest battery pack and range, made our work simple for us.
The e-tron 55 has a 95kWh battery pack, powering two electric motors, one over each axle. Maximum output is rated at 402 horsepower with 600Nm of torque. The battery management system offers a choice of multiple drive modes spread between efficiency to dynamic. Each drive mode will bring into play either or both motors, however there is also one more drive mode the e-tron offers called the range mode. Ideally to be used when you feel youre car is low on range, this mode switches off certain convenience features like the airconditioning, seat ventilation and even limits your speed to 90kph. So you have to opt for both efficiency mode, which also reduces ground clearance to reduce drag as well as keep the e-tron in range mode to avoid the heater sapping an enormous amount of charge. Switching on the heater sucked out almost 7080km of range from the battery, nobrainer then, heating was not an option on this drive, and that is how we drove the e-tron at all times.
The e-tron also comes equipped with massive 255/50 R20 tyres, which place a very large contact patch on the road. Resisting that friction causes a further depletion of charge, so the idea was also to keep the momentum consistent with fewer stops. The one advantage with stop-go conditions is that every time you know you have to stop, you simply press the ‘P’ parking button which immediately disengages the motors and restricts it from drawing any charge from the battery.
The Audi e-tron also gives you two regenerative modes, engaged or disengaged by using the paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. These come in very handy while driving as they begin charging the battery the instant you lift your foot off the throttle pedal completely. They also provide adequate braking power without making the e-tron feel too jerky. This comes in pretty handy on the downhill sections and when you’re entering a corner, though applying enough braking action will further boost charging using the brake energy recuperation system.
The e-tron also gets two charging ports placed on either side of the car. Over the left fender you have a J1772 connector to plug into AC chargers, while over the right fender you have a DC charger compatible CCS connector. That meant we could use either port depending on the availability of charging systems. We also carried the home charging unit that Audi provides with every car as a complementary gesture. It has a three point connector that can be plugged into any home socket and allows the car to be charged at a steady 11kWh. However you need a larger 15 Amp American type flat pin socket to insert the connector. Audi also provides a failsafe in the e-tron, as in, it wont charge if the power outlet is not ground.
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