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Sunday, 25 October 2015

Startups electrifying India's automobile dreams

A clutch of startups have emerged to create robust electric and robotic automobiles. They are innovating on core elements of these vehicles, including the battery. These are big bets, and so most are starting small. But the ride is beginning to accelerate, and could change the way India commutes.
A clutch of startups have emerged to create robust electric and robotic automobiles. They are innovating on core elements of these vehicles, including the battery. These are big bets, and so most are starting small. But the ride is beginning to accelerate, and could change the way India commutes. Less

In early 2013, two IIT-Madras batchmates, Tarun Mehta and Swapnil Jain, quit their jobs and went back to their alma mater.

Their intention was not further studies. They wanted to make a battery -- one that could be used in electric two wheelers, and which would be far superior in performance than the available ones.

The IIT-Madras startup incubator welcomed them and even provided Rs 5 lakh in funds. That was the start of Ather Energy, which expects to commercialize a high-performance electric scooter in the coming months at a little less than Rs 1 lakh, a price which they say is no more than for an equivalent petrol scooter.
For the two friends, the objective was simple. They wanted to make an electric scooter that feels like a petrol one -- much like what Tesla Motors in the US did with cars. The idea has attracted many, and Ather's funders now include the Central government, Tiger Global, Flipkart founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal, and Silicon Valley-based big data firm Aerospike's co-founder V Srinivasan.

The scooters will have a top-speed of 72 km per hour and a remarkable 90% battery charge in an hour. The vehicle produces 7 bhp power, only marginally less than the current petrol-based scooters. It will come with a smart dashboard that will enable users to create personalized profiles and choose riding modes, and it will have onboard diagnostics capabilities.

"We expect to start taking bookings by the end of this year. The manufacturing facility is currently being set up in Bengaluru," Mehta says.

Global warming, growing urban pollution and the Tesla inspiration has encouraged several entrepreneurs in India to look at creating new-age vehicles. This might have been unthinkable in India some time ago. But with copious amounts of funding in the startup ecosystem, and a new-found confidence in innovation capabilities, entrepreneurs are treading brave new paths.

Hemlata Annamalai's Coimbatore based Ampere Vehicles, which has received funding from Ratan Tata, sells electric vehicles including cycles, scooters, trolleys and special purpose vehicles for the differently-abled. Most of these are targeted at customers in rural areas.

Annamalai's focus on electric technology goes back to a conference in Tokyo where an auto executive observed that the era of the internal combustion engine would end before long. That convinced her that it was possible to make cost-effective electric two-wheelers and three-wheelers in India. "China was already the leader in e-vehicles, so for us, R&D became a conscious effort in the development of our vision," she says.

Annamalai had done an engineering degree from Bharathiar University in Coimbatore and had then worked at a couple of software firms including Wipro. She had a long stint in Singapore, and it was from here that she decided to return home with her family to establish Ampere. She calls that move the risk of a lifetime. "But we were clear - we wanted to make a difference and solve the problem of rural transportation with affordable electric mobility." She has so far sold 18,000 vehicles.

The crux of any electric vehicle is the battery. And most electric two-wheelers in the country today are powered by batteries imported from China and are usually lead acid battery packs, whose capacity degrades progressively. A typical electric scooter in the market today gives a top speed of 25-40kmph and mileage of 50 kms per charge.

It takes eight hours to charge once. But within a couple of years, their capacity goes down to 15 kms after a full charge.

Battery cost in most cases is roughly one third of the vehicle. For these reasons, Indian companies that distributed these vehicles imported from China, have shut down.

So much of the focus of ventures like Ather and Ampere have been on building better lithium-ion batteries. Ampere has been doing its own R&D to crack the battery problem and even produce them locally , though some components may still be imported from China. Ather too has built a significantly better lithium-ion battery, and Mehta says they are continuing to improve it.

IIT-Kharagpur incubated Auro Robotics is an equally adventurous venture. It's the brainchild of three twenty-something friends working on robotics - Nalin Gupta, Jit Ray Chowdhury and Srinivas Reddy. "At the time of graduation we were clear we wanted to continue in this field," Gupta says.

The venture, which was part of the Summer 2015 batch of Y Combinator, one of the most prestigious startup accelerators in the US, is building driverless vehicles, mostly to provide shuttle services for in-campus travel.

The team has developed a three-dimensional mapping system that helps the shuttle navigate roads safely and smoothly. The lithium-ion battery powered vehicle is also equipped with a GPS system, multi-layered scanners, radar, and a long-range camera.

Currently, they are doing a pilot programme at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley and will soon start another pilot in a retirement community in the Bay area. The focus on in campus initiatives have allowed the venture to bypass government regulations that would be applicable on public roads, and test their vehicles quickly .


Bengaluru-based Lithium, founded by urban development expert and former Nasa scientist Ashwin Mahesh and former Honeywell senior director Sanjay Krishnan, is reworking the Mahindra Reva electric car with technology to make it usable as public transport. Public vehicles carry heavier load, there is more wear and tear, there is more usage of the car, and the car needs to be charged more often.

"All public vehicles were originally created for the retail market. If you want to customize it for public transport, it's millions of dollars of investment. But an electric vehicle is like a Lego box; you can provide different bodies to it," says Krishnan. "Lithium customizes each car engine to improve longevity and the operating metrics of the car, and tune it for public service. It's all about product engineering," he adds.

Mohan Kumar, partner in venture capital firm Norwest Venture Partners, is cautiously optimistic about these ventures. "Fast forward a few years from now, you will need innovation. Startups have come up because the large companies are happy with the status quo. They might not deliver a VC kind of return, but it is a bet I would take if innovations are happening in core technology like battery longevity and capacity, faster charging and software optimization for better output," he says.

However, he notes that lack of government encouragement and infrastructure facilities like ample charging spots could adversely impact these startups.

Source : TOI, 23rd Oct 2015

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