By : RACHNA TYAGI
Two Mechanical Engineers from IIT-Madras (Batch of 2012) dreamt of building an energy company together and they did. “We’ve been calling ourselves Ather Energy since 2009,” says Tarun Mehta, Co-Founder, Ather Energy, about himself and his Co-Founder Swapnil Jain.
Around the time Mehta graduated, he had an idea about a battery pack for which he filed a patent. “That was a time when we were filing patents left, right and center. Each of us filed around six patents. It was just a good time,” recalls Mehta. That was also the time when Tesla’s Model S had become an “astounding success” and a time when China was selling around 25-30 million electric two-wheelers, while India was selling around 60-70,000 units annually, so it did look like there was a big opportunity with the battery idea.
Considering the fact that the duo always wanted to build an energy company, they thought of taking this battery idea and building battery packs and charging infrastructure for the industry, and becoming a supplier. “So, thinking this, we quit our jobs,” says Mehta, who as a young engineer had already landed a job with Ashok Leyland.
With neither Mehta nor Jain having any background in electronics, they were lucky enough to bag day jobs with two IIT professors in Madras which enabled them access to the department. So, for most of 2013, they hung around on the campus and learnt electronics, a little bit of coding, and a lot about building batteries. By the end 2013 they felt they knew enough to start a company.
In the meantime, having interacted with several EV (Car and scooter) owners, they realized that battery was ‘a’ problem but not ‘the’ problem. Two things were apparent: A) Everybody believed in the idea of Electric and they thought that was indeed the future. B) Everyone who had bought an EV hated the product that they had bought. So, clearly, there were customers who were willing to pay, and the technology was present too, but the only thing lacking was a good product. “My co-founder said, we should not just build a battery pack, we should actually build the final product,” says Mehta. And so, in October 2013, when they incorporated Ather, they were reasonably clear that they should not just build a battery, but that they should actually build a complete scooter around it.
But why a scooter and not a motorcycle? “We thought scooter was a faster ‘go to’ market and we believe that the scooter market is going to bigger than the bike market. With that in mind, we called it Ather,” says Mehta.
About their product thesis, Mehta says, “The product thesis was to build something that is better than the [Honda] Activa. The Activa is the benchmark of good scooter performance and we had enough clarity after meeting all these guys that all of them are happy to pay a 30-40% premium but the scooter should be bragworthy. Most customers want to buy Tesla. Maine environment ko save kiya (I did my bit for saving the environment) but it’s a goddamn sexy product. They’re very proud to show it. And the other logical thing was, technology moves up. Like we never think of how cool landline phones were. No, this (cell phone) is better in every parameter. It can’t happen. It doesn’t make logical sense. So, we thought we should build a vehicle that is better than the Activa. Better performance, better handling, better storage space, better servicing, everything has to be better. And just like mobile phones, if the range comes down, like the battery comes down, people will live with that because they can charge every day at home. As long as you give them enough range for two-three days, nobody should really panic. So, compromise on things that customers don’t really care about, they think they care about, but they don’t really care about it, but offer them improvements in everything else. So, that was the product vision.”
“The company opportunity was… nobody is building technology or platforms in India, let us build a strong R&D team so that we can own and build this in India. Over four-five years we got multiple rounds of funding, we have a large enough R&D team, 350+ members.
TOS: What is your R&D (Research & Development) team focusing on now?
TM: Our R&D is focused on doing technology platforms and just one product as an outcome. As time goes by, you will start seeing more products like 450 +, 450 X, I don’t know, maybe something like the 340, but they’re all essentially variants of the same platform. So, our platforms will be few but we will have more products. But today 95% of our engineering effort is going into technology platform development. We believe that if we get the platform right, the cost structure will rationalize, improve, the quality will improve, and that will, in turn, improve customer satisfaction. So that is what R&D is focused on. You won’t see many products from us in the short term, but you will see continually improving product quality.
TOS: After acquiring an Ather, how soon can one expect to upgrade?
TM: This is a philosophical conversation within the company and we’re trying to find the answer. I don’t want to do what mobile phones and tablets have forced you to do… upgrade every year. The challenge we have is that a lot of technology that we’re dealing with is changing very fast. The battery tech is changing every year, the connectivity tech is changing every year, the charging tech is improving every year. We are trying to figure out how can we not force the customer to not upgrade every year, while still improving with it, and I don’t have the answer… I think this is an interesting problem of this industry so we’ll have to find the answers. I don’t know that yet.
TOS: Are all your batteries made in India?
TM: 100 per cent. Not just made in India but even the equipment to make it…the last part of it is our own proprietorial design. Batteries were where we were starting the company from… Battery tech, battery management system tech, and the charging tech are fairly underlying pieces for entire R&D.
TOS: How does Ather set itself apart vis-à-vis other competitors in the market?
TM: At a product level we’re differentiating with our focus on experience. We believe in tight integration and our products are going to bring out that kind of an integrated experience. So, you’re not going to see disparate pieces somehow stuck together. And now extrapolate the same thing to your software. To connect the dashboard to the vehicle you would need a lot of different modules in the middle, extending the cost of the vehicle. We would not be able to push software upgrades because that would need three different vendors. [But] we push software upgrades practically every other month, every quarter. [That is the] integrated experience that comes out when you build a product like this. On the technology and spec side, our big differentiators are the performance of the vehicle, the ‘Warp’ mode acceleration that you get… 0-40 in 3.3 seconds, making this the quickest scooter in India ever! Not just electric but there has been no petrol scooter also in India ever that has hit this acceleration. And I’m not looking at just 110 cc or 125 cc, 150cc or even beyond! I don’t know of any production variant in India that has a better acceleration.
The other spec difference comes from the fact that we have Google Maps navigation. We’re the only touchscreen Android-based scooter globally. So, our touchscreen and the connectivity modules are the most advanced modules in the entire world right now, and not just India. So, from a spec perspective, I think those are things where we have a massive differentiator. And on the product side, our differentiator comes from the experience.
TOS: Tell us about how Ather Energy has married engineering with design?
TM: We approached the entire product design from outside in. The sketches that you see at the entrance, on the right side, those sketches are done in 2013, so before we formally registered the company, we had already sketched out what the vehicle looks like and those sketches will show you a remarkable similarity between this, which is now, and 2013, which is remarkably similar. The idea was that the customer cares about how the vehicle looks and how the vehicle feels. The customer doesn’t care about how you’ve built the battery. [The idea was] let’s define the exteriors first and then, I think, we have good enough engineers who will figure out how to package everything within that, so that’s how we approached this design. Design itself is meant to be slick, it is meant to be sporty looking. You will see the seat angle… everything has a little aggressive stance, even the handlebar has a hawk kind of a feel to it. So, ‘toned,’ ‘sporty’ and ‘aggressive’ was the design language for the product.
TOS: How big is your design team?
TM: The industrial team is about 13-14 members. That includes everything. They’re not just about looks, they’re also responsible for experience. For example, when you look at the charging experience how will the handle connect, what kind of a tone will you get when your charging starts, what kind of a UI will you get on the app, on the dashboard, the storage layout, what kind of a storage experience do you want, so they define all that. It’s not a team that is putting a wrapper around an engineering architecture, they’re defining what a customer would want and the engineering is putting it there.
TOS: You had said earlier that Ather Energy had deliberately decided not to take the dealer route…
TM: That we have changed. We are working with dealers. In Ahmedabad it is Kataria, in Pune it is B.U. Bhandari, we just want the largest dealerships in the country. We are working with them because Ather in 2016-17 thought… we will never sell in more than six-eight cities, now we have already announced 27 cities, and I’m looking at 100 cities, and I’m realizing that operationally, we will be majorly bottlenecked if we try to do everything ourselves, so we have partnered with dealers, but the model is a little different. If we look at the Experience Center here and the Experience Center in Bangalore or Chennai, this is actually a little better than Bangalore or Chennai and not just aesthetically, but how the staff is trained, how the layout is, what the incentives for the partner are. I won’t say we have made massive progress, but I think we’re on a slightly different direction than the typical automotive industry, and we think that works better for us. So, we stand by the Experience Center model. We are not appointing dealers and saying kahin bhi bechna chalu kardo (Start selling anywhere), we’re not going to do that. We stand by the Experience Center model, we stand by the Eco System experience, we still roll out charging points even before we put out the first vehicle, we’re a little stretched so we’re not putting as many charging points as you’d like but that’s just [for] a few months. In six-nine months we should have a healthy number in every city. As far as the end customer is concerned, they’re talking to Ather, not an X dealer, [where] the company is separate. Very clear. You’re the same entity and you will interact with us in the same channel.
TOS: You also spoke about getting any Ather scooter fixed without the hassle of bringing it to the dealership/workshop….
TM: We have subscriptions for that. You can take a service subscription. A base subscription costs INR 200 a month for servicing in which all scheduled servicing is included, labour and material costs, and even on your own damage. Let’s say you went and had an accident, even for that, labour cost is waived off, it is all on us. So, that’s INR 200/month package, if you pay us 300/month, all of that, plus pick up and drop off. So, you will not have to worry about mujhe dealership mein kab jana hai, kab uthana hai, kab lana hai, (Getting to the dealership and picking up your scooter and riding it back). If I’m stranded on the road, if I run out of charge, everything is included. It is a hassle-free experience. So, that’s INR 300/month. Though internally our aspiration is to get to a place where nobody needs a servicing subscription because I do think that eventually electric servicing should be so low that we can recommend that you don’t need this.
TOS: Are you focusing on motorcycles? What are the other models that we can look forward to?
TM: Not immediately. Nothing this year. Maybe a few more variants of the same platform like how 450X and + were different variants but a similarish platform… actually the same platform. Maybe a couple of more variants but we’re still trying to figure out if the variant makes natural sense. It has to sensibly fit in for it to make sense to the customer. We’re not sure about that yet. It may make sense. Now that we’re expanding everywhere, we’re also trying to get feedback from different segments and different parts of the country. So, I have a hunch that maybe a variant or two more on this same platform.
TOS: But not this year?
TM: Unlikely this year, unless it is a software limited variant.
TOS: The 7.0 inch dashboard unit on your scooter is a really robust one that can withstand anything… rain, shine or snow….tell us about it.
TM: Actually, that’s the reason why we built it in-house. In 2014, we tried looking at dashboards that we could just buy and plonk. Outside, things were like $450-500 at mass scale and even then, wouldn’t work in the sun, would yellow out, wouldn’t work in water and couldn’t take road vibrations. We believe that you can build a dashboard at a far lower cost structure and people are thinking wrong about how to make it automotive grade, they try to make the components automotive grade [and] that is making dashboards really expensive. We figured…lots of other good companies have actually done that in other categories, but we figured that instead of making components automotive grade… which is very expensive, take the full package and make the package automotive grade. So, solve the problem at a packaging level as opposed to [at] a component level [and that] can yield really interesting solutions which led us to building the dashboard in-house. I’m actually quite happy with how it has stood over the last two years. Fingers crossed.
TOS: One can even upload personal documents such as one’s DL (Driving License) on the Ather’s dashboard…how does that work?
TM: We have a data pipeline. Data goes from the vehicle to the cloud and there we add the next layer and from there it comes to your mobile app and that entire layer is built by us which the Net team does which enables that kind of a seamless transition. There’s a 4G SIM card on the vehicle that allows for connectivity. The entire middleware, the entire data pipeline is built by us, the cloud layer is maintained by us and then the app is built by us. Because we control all these pieces, we are able to deliver a reasonable experience. I think it still has a long way to go before it is seamless and beautiful, but I think it is an interesting experience.
TOS: Is Ather Energy the only one giving OTA updates (Over the Air Updates)?
TM: As far as I know in the two-wheeler segment. I don’t know of anybody and nobody as frequent as us. We actually have a community on which people keep asking for features and vote for it and we keep picking them up as time goes by. I don’t think anybody does that in the country. Even very few companies do that globally.
TOS: Tell us about the motor that you're using…
TM: It is a brushless DC motor. It’s a peak torque of 26 Nm and a peak power of I think 6kw. It is an off the shelf motor, though there’s a reasonable amount of integration that we do but it is from a vendor, it is a vendor design, it is not our own.
TOS: You have offered only three colours, are more colours expected?
TM: I don’t know. It’s too early to say, we’ll have to see what the market tells us. We had only one colour till October last year. Two reasons…operational complexity, managing more colours is operationally more complex and as a first product, I wanted us to have only one variant in the field, so when people think Ather, they think of that white scooter with that green highlight. When you’re thinking of an iPod you’re thinking of that white or the creamish white ipod or the silver ipod, you’re not thinking of a pink ipod, you’re not thinking of a black ipod. All the first products, if you want to make them iconic, I think it is a good idea to keep colour options low, so the same image is burnt in the heads of the customer. Actually, I would prefer keeping only one colour option even now, but marketing…
TOS: Where are you going next with your Experience Center?
TM: In the next five weeks you should hear Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Pune going live. So, we’ll have Experience Centers opening every other week for the next few months.