By : MAMTA BHARDWAJ
“The point of doing this is to just give a hardcore smackdown to gasoline,” said Elon Musk, when he unveiled Tesla Roadster 2. And coming from him, the line may as well be perceived as the direction that beckons the entire industry. However, the overarching goals of green technology – to conserve energy and protect the environment – remain work-in-progress. With a limited playing field, the industry has little empirical insights to assess their innovation. On one hand, lithium emerged as the replacement for fossil fuels, and on the other hand, some researchers have sounded an alarm on lithium reserves. TURN OF SPEED delves into this on-going journey of discovery and re-discovery among startups in India, to understand their prospects and objectives.
While the last decade remained dedicated to the development and evolution of electric vehicles as a viable automotive segment, startups today are eyeing the next decade as an opportunity to drive these vehicles into as many households as possible, by filling basic gaps of consumer-education, accessibility and user-friendliness.
Driven by innovation in artificial intelligence, Internet-of-Things and the government's pronounced interest in the industry, the automated vehicles and electric vehicles market has opened the country to the opportunity of becoming the fourth largest EV market in the next 20 years. A country like ours, has always responded to ingenious solutions over complex remedies, and today's startups are looking to simplify complex propositions to ensure it reaches as many consumers as possible.
Before getting into solutions, here’s a quick look at the challenges that already exist in the Indian electric vehicles market:
• Affordability - In the current market scenario, electric vehicles are priced at a premium as compared to fuel-driven vehicles, especially when analysed on the basis of power. And the Indian consumer, being a bargain hunter, is further deterred by persistent gaps such as non-availability of spare parts and poor after-sales services.
• Charging infrastructure - One of the biggest pain-points, discouraging consumers in the EV segment, is the fear that the vehicle battery may run out of charge abruptly. This problem is easily handled by a well-designed network of fuel stations, when it comes to fuel vehicles, making it a "safer" option.
• Insufficient power and speed - The automobile market today, is driven by speed and power. While powerful machines are all the rage, EVs have, for long, been the slower counterparts., owing to limited power batteries.
• Reliance on imports for batteries - Heavy reliance on imports for batteries, resulting in higher prices and poor after-sales service have discouraged nascent buyers in the market.
• Overall market scepticism - The industry is still finding it's foothold. Despite some breakthroughs, it is yet to make an impact on the average consumer, who constitutes the major market share. This challenge is purely in terms of misinformation or lack of information thereof.
So, at the turn of this decade, several startups have set up exciting plans to change the landscape of the industry by building a self-sufficient ecosystem for electric vehicles in India. And with the country expected to emerge as the third largest passenger vehicle market by next year, coupled with e-vehicles witnessing a 20% growth this year, the opportunity is promising.
As revealed by a study, conducted by Castrol (Accelerating The Evolution: The tipping points to mainstream electric vehicle adoption," released in August, 2020) - India is a step ahead of the rest of the world, in that consumers, on an average, showed willingness to make a shift towards electric vehicles by 2022. This is a good two years earlier than the estimated global average of 2024. So, despite the inherent challenges in the market, given the large population and disruptive startup ecosystem it houses, India is well on its way to building a sustainable EV market.
BLive is one such startup that is making a case for electric vehicles in India, through its efforts in tourism. The startup offers guided tours on electric bikes across 14 tourist destinations, including Goa, Coorg, Pondicherry, Jaipur, Udaipur etc. It has completed tours covering a total 70,000 kilometres, which roughly converts to savings of about 7 tonnes in carbon emission.
Talking to TURN OF SPEED, Sandeep Mukherjee, BLive Co-founder, says “India is predominantly a two-wheeler market. So, with the right value proposition, the adoption of electric vehicles will also happen through two-wheelers. However, as consumers remain hesitant towards making a large investment at such an early stage, we want to bridge that gap by offering an experiential service.”
Coining the term, ‘EV tourism,’ BLive, has offered its services to nearly 9000 customers till date, and is driving adoption through experience. During the lockdown, the company started its online portal for EV bikes, where it saw 5-10% of its tourists returning to purchase bikes.
“The lockdown has been a major shifter in our journey, as people started moving away from the shared mobility solutions such as Ola and Uber, and towards sustainable private mobility solutions, and this has given a huge impetus to the electric vehicles segment,” says Mukherjee.
As a part of its commitment to 'Make in India,' BLive is building its fleet with bikes manufactured by Hero, Lightspeed and TronX, among other home-based automobile companies, which are making significant strides in the electric vehicles segment. “Considering that tourists come with an intention to explore places while they enjoy their ride, we want make it a comfortable and seamless experience. We have the bikes modified for better ergonomics, as not all tourists are bikers. From wider seats, disc-brakes for safety and a battery that lasts 50 kms – we ensure their initial experience builds their trust in electric bikes.”
Another homegrown brand, Odysse, is yearning to tackle the challenges of adoption in India, through two-wheelers that run at high-speeds. Nemin Vora, CEO, Odysse Electric Vehicles, says, “One of the game-changing factors with automobile enthusiasts is speed. Quite obviously, in a market like ours, no one wants to ride a slow bike. At Odysse, we are aimed at building powerful bikes that offer that same luxury appeal as fuel-driven sports bikes. This will help with customers' attitude towards the segment, and drive adoption of electric vehicles.”
Odysse launched three bikes in March this year, one of which is the country's first electric vehicle in the sports bike category. It boasts of a high-speed of 80 kms per hour. Further, Odysse's scooter is the only one to offer cruise control, a feature much-appreciated on Indian highways. It hits a speed of 50 kms per hour.
“In India, we are more likely to drive adoption by eliminating the challenge of low speed. And features like cruise control allow customers to consider the bike as an option that can be used for commute within the city and beyond,” says Vora. Needless to say, it is a long road to market acceptance for an industry that is still evolving, and innovation continues - Odysse is planning three more launches next year, and aims to focus on introducing daily-commute bikes.
In a bid to build confidence amongst existing customers and potential customers, the company is making sizeable investments in building a good team for its after-sales service solutions. “We are in the process of identifying suitable local service stations to tie up with, to strengthen our service network. We want electric vehicle owners to have access to service, like in the case of fuel-driven vehicles that have garages at every nook and corner. So, the plan is to equip existing garages with EV capabilities,” says Vora.
As per the report by Castrol, a whopping 64% of consumers found charging facilities to be a barrier for EV adoption in India, and a larger share tends to agree that electric vehicles will take over the roads once this problem is tackled. Right now, the world is averaging about 30 minutes, to fully charge a battery. Moreover, fuel-driven automobiles have the benefit of a large network of petrol/diesel stations and a host of private and government-owned suppliers.
Bengaluru-based startup, Kirana Charzer, has a rather indigenous solution to deal with battery charging problems. Sameer Ranjan Jaiswal, Co-founder, Kirana Charzer, told TURN OF SPEED, “Running out of charge is like a sword dangling above the EV industry. Despite better prices, and suitable power/speed options, consumers remain sceptical because of the lack of proper infrastructure to deal with unforeseen or emergency situations, and we think a well-penetrated network can change the game.”
Kirana Charzer, which was launched in February this year, leverages the existing network of kirana shops to provide charging stations across various locations in a city. It basically ties up with kirana shop owners to set up its charging stations. After an initial investment of INR 10,000 to set up the infrastructure, the shop earns 80% of the revenues from every charging session, which is priced at INR 25 per hour.
Jaiswal says, “Leveraging the existing network of stores to set up charging outlets will help us reach more locations without having to invest heavily in manpower and rents. Moreover, it provides shop owners with an opportunity to earn additional income,” adding, “We train shop owners on how to interact with customers and operate the charging equipment. It is user-friendly from the users' perspective, and they can even do it themselves in the absence of a shopkeeper.”
With a current network of 50 stations across Bengaluru and Thiruvananthapuram, Kirana Charzer, is set to expand to 10,000 stations in the next year, 40% of which is already confirmed. Another offering by the startup is in the form of its app, which lists and also helps discover charging outlets. Jaiswal explains, “The app, in a way, completes our solution by creating a well-rounded infrastructure for EV owners. We are not limiting it to listing our own charging stations. We want to list any such station, making it a one-stop-shop for all EV owners.”
“At this point, we've spent a substantial amount of time on getting the product right, in terms of hardware, power density, interruptions in power supply and making it a compact solution, compatible with electric vehicles across the board. It has been a task of matching public-government-OEM expectations, while ensuring that customer experience remains world-class,” says Jaiswal.
Beyond charging woes, batteries continue to be a source of concern for the EV industry due to insufficient manufacturing prowess in India, and heavy reliance on imports. Log9 Materials, a clean energy startup from Bengaluru, is putting their money behind aluminium fuel cells, which they assert will be more cost-effective in the long run.
Talking to TURN OF SPEED, Akshay Singhal, Founder, Log9 Materials, said, “We started off with a simple objective to go green, and our first set of projects were to do with air and water purification. Today, we are developing aluminium fuel cells that can change the electric vehicles game in India.”
Talking about lithium batteries in the current scenario, he says, “If you are looking at actual usage, with last-mile delivery, such as Swiggy or Zomato, running out of charge and long-periods of recharging are absolute downers. With long journeys, having to spend two hours on recharging, rendering the vehicle useless for so long, is inefficient. So, we can't be looking at a 'one-size-fits-all' kind of solution.”
He posits that aluminium fuel cells cost about 25-30% cheaper than diesel, and the refuelling process can be less than five minutes, while offering a range of over 1000 kilometres. Given the availability of aluminium in the country, it makes it a homespun, cost-effective solution. The startup is set to begin with its pilot operations next year, starting with telecom towers, where it will be launched as a power backup solution.
Excited about what the future of the industry beholds, Singhal says, “We are doing some interesting work in the super-capacitor space, and you will start hearing more about [it] in the coming days.”
The government's decision to increase import duty on lithium-ion cells from 5% to 10% from April next year, coupled with its plans to offer $4.6 billion in incentives to domestic battery manufacturers, opens the market up to a lot more innovation and breakthroughs in the country.
Lithium-Ion batteries, which have been powering electric vehicles for long, come with their own set of challenges. While they are expensive to manufacture, they also have a limited lifespan. Ziptrax Cleantech, a battery lifecycle management startup, is committed to giving a second life to lithium-ion batteries by way of recycling. Combining it with AI-based (Artificial Intelligence) technology and IoT-enabled (Internet of Things) hardware, Ziptrax is able to extend the life of a battery by up to 40%.
It currently has a 500-tonne recycling capacity across Delhi-NCR, Chandigarh, Jaipur, Lucknow and some surrounding areas. The company is planning to set up a 1500-tonne plant soon, and plans to make inroads in South India, starting with Bengaluru.
Ziptrax's ingenious solution seeks to power electric vehicle companies by reducing battery costs, while addressing the problem of huge volumes of battery waste in our landfills. Improper planning and the lack of a policy regarding disposal of batteries can cause more problems than solutions. “Aligning manufacturers and importers is key in this matter. We have heard the draft rules, and I think once the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) rules are out, it will help give us a lot more clarity on market potential,” says Rohan Singh Bais, Founder & Director, Ziptrax Clean Tech.
The startup is also looking at becoming a supplier of cathode and anode materials to lithium-ion manufacturers in India by 2022. “These efforts will go a long way in reducing costs for the final consumer, and drive adoption of electric vehicles, while ensuring that the technology that powers it is truly clean,” says Bais.
The Indian automotive market has been at the forefront of manufacturing, in the global scenario. Along with holding a significant position in the manufacturing and export of passenger vehicles and heavy vehicles, the electric vehicles segment is well-poised to open up an opportunity of INR 50,000 crore by 2025. This implies the opening up of job opportunities for at least 5 crore people in the next decade.
In the past few years, e-rickshaws have led the pack, and made a case for the adoption of electric vehicles in India. Given Indian consumer behaviour, the next wave is going to be dominated by two-wheelers, and innovators are ready to drive electric vehicles in the mass market arena.
Anoop Nishanth, Founder and CEO, TronX Motors, says, “The Indian market is keen on shifting towards electric mobility solutions, but there are large gaps in terms of information. They don't know what is right and what is wrong or whether a certain e-bike is cost-effective and dependable. These kind of issues need comprehensive solutions.”
TronX Motors was founded in 2015, with a vision to redefine commute experience in India, by combining Electric, Artificial Intelligence and Internet-of-Things innovations. “The first three years were dedicated to research and development, and we launched our first bike two years back. Our approach is purely B2B, because this market opens up an opportunity for electric vehicles to scale significantly.”
The company identifies opportunity in the micro-mobility segment, wherein it is focussing on first-mile and last-mile deliveries. “To deploy volumes on roads, it is important to solve the first-mile and last-mile delivery with ecommerce and various other delivery-based services. So, in our bikes, we are ensuring basic concerns of mileage, battery life and charging are customised for micro-markets.” All TronX vehicles are powered by its AIOT (Artificial Intelligence meets Internet-of-Things) platform.
“The AIOT platform enables several smart and intelligent features for e-fleet owners, riders, and lease companies, which allow them to gain real-time insights on usage patterns like power consumption, distance covered, wear and tear etc. on an app,” he says, adding, “It also enables remote lock and unlock facilities, which along with real-time data will help govern the right usage and of electric vehicles, by pre-emptively analysing and resolving issues.”
Integrating various connected and autonomous technologies, the company is working on a completely automated scooter. Delving a little further into its application, Nishanth says, “This EV-AV technology will enable vehicles to be parked and brought to the location of the user by the single press of a button. In the larger picture, this approach paves way for a scenario wherein ownership of vehicles makes way for combined mobility solutions. For instance, we won't be seeing hired bikes randomly parked on the side of the road.”
Elaborating on the potential of the market, Amitabh Kant, CEO, Niti Aayog talks about how there has been a lot of development on the battery front. He says,
Battery technology is evolving rapidly, where prices of battery have fallen more than 90% in last 10 years to $156/KWH, and are slated to go below $100/KWH by 2023. Indian industry must innovate to make batteries which are conducive to Indian conditions of temperature and humidity."
AMITABH KANT, CEO, NITI AAYOG
Along with this, technological evolution to look beyond Lithium and cobalt based chemistry is fast happening in the world. This will have huge impact on the prices and mass adoption of electric vehicles,” he says.
All this innovation, solutions and disruption is only possible with market confidence. With the government having announced plans to allocate $4.6 billion in incentives to battery manufacturers, a draft proposal by Niti Aayog estimates reduction in oil imports by an impressive $40 billion by 2030, if EVs come to be widely accepted and adopted. Along with this, incentives in terms of GST reduction to 5% and income tax deduction of ₹1.5 lakh on the interest paid on loans to purchase electric vehicles, has given a huge boost to EVs.
Advancements in technology, in the light of this announcement has further improved market sentiment, and several startups are in the process of raising funds from venture capitals and other private investors in the coming year.
In further boost to the industry, Kant divulges, “We are at a very advanced stage of launching the PLI scheme for ACC cell manufacturing in India. It will incentivize large domestic and international players in establishing a competitive ACC battery set-up in the country, and make India the global hub for battery manufacturing.”
In the private sector, 2019, saw some of the established electric vehicles companies announcing significant investments and fundraising rounds -- Backed by Tiger Global, InnoVen Capital, American Hedge Fund, Hero MotoCorp and Flipkart's Sachin Bansal, Ather Energy committed to setting up a manufacturing unit in Tamil Nadu; Revolt Intellicorp, founded by Micromax's Rahul Sharma, has planned an investment of INR 500 crore to disrupt the motorcycle space.
While the trend may witness some re-aligning this year, software and research-backed startups that are long-term oriented will continue to make a mark. Among EV batteries and technology companies, Ziptrax, which was incubated by Shell last year, is raising a seed round of INR 3.5 crores to invest its annual recycling capabilities. Log9 Materials, which had received its initial funding from Sequoia Capital, is on its way to raise its next round in 2021.
EV tourism startup, BLive, which has raised INR 1 crore on seed capital, is all set to close its pre-series A round soon. “We plan to direct our investments in expanding our market to 50 locations and entering the scooter segment in 2021,” says its co-founder Mukherjee.
As the future continues to be promising, the present brews with excitement. If the global pandemic COVID-19 had any role to play, consumers are going to make an accelerated shift towards green technology, and this means, startups will have a larger playing field to deploy and improve EV technologies. More players will enter the market, and the government will have to take cognisance to formulate a more structured framework of policies, thereby giving an impetus to the industry. So much-before the time arrives for profitability and break-even to be a concern, we could be looking at a world that is electric vehicles-positive.