When Marty McFly scooted off on a hoverboard in the second instalment of the now iconic Back to the Future series, who would have thought that technology would indeed charge the auto industry in the future? Though we may still be a few years short of seeing skateboards levitating flawlessly in the skies, electricity-driven cars have traversed miles down the road of innovation with most big companies launching their own versions over the last few years. It is in this scenario that domestic hardware startup Ather Energy is motoring on to build India's first 'smart' two-wheeler, taking the fervour around e-vehicles in the country a notch up.
Convinced that this is the direction the world will eventually head to, Chief Business Officer at Ather and former Flipkart VP Ravneet Singh Phokela says, "We firmly believe that every vehicle is going to be electric in the future - not because we are investing in it - but because as a technology, it is faster than anything else out there today. Optimizing cost structures takes time in any new industry and more people are certain to ride this wave once its financial viability is established," he adds.
While mainstream brands are simply rolling out battery-operated two-wheelers, Ather is channelling its energy into building a whole ecosystem around e-vehicles. Says Chief Product Officer at Ather, Arun Vinayak, "Auto designs, up until now, have largely been optimized for petrol/diesel vehicles and hence these cannot be used as reference models for electric vehicles of the future. We did not study existing e-vehicles either since most are designed to simply be urban mobility solutions - their maximum speeds may go up in the range of 25-30 km/hr and they are also missing basic safety requirements," he says. "We on the other hand, are aiming to build a product that will be faster than even petrol vehicles," he adds. Ather claims at the moment the scooter can achieve a top speed in excess of 70 kmph.
Consequently to make their product more inclusive, the startup strongly felt that it cannot take existing auto systems and simply strap a motor and battery pack on to create the e-vehicle.
"To achieve what we set out to do, we realized early on the importance of building the vehicle from scratch," says Vinayak. "And when we took ownership of every minute detail, it gave us the liberty to question everything that had existed around building a vehicle," he adds.
For these reasons, the startup is careful about differentiating itself in the market as a product firm rather than just a vehicle company. "A product company builds everything from the ground up and this is where our company stands out in the mix out there. We are exploring something called 'clean design' which seeks to give an all round personality to the vehicle including from an environment perspective as well as using design considerations," he says.
Weight reduction automatically follows this concept - the construction utilises aluminium so it stands light at just 90 kg. The S340 is significantly lighter when compared to petrol vehicles that ply on roads today. The other component is low lubrication for a clean, hassle-free ride. "Extra mass is not desirable on rides so we wanted to clean that out. It also enhances the overall performance of the vehicle because lesser metal means lesser energy is required to propel the vehicle forward," says Vinayak. "Our transmission system also does not require oil and the brakes also do not need regular maintenance unlike most vehicles today," he adds.
Production in progress
Slated for production later this year, Phokela identifies three factors that are driving the company's timelines. "The first is the vehicle itself, followed by its production and lastly the creation of the charging infrastructure. Even if the first is totally under our control, the actual go-to market depends on the latter two," he says. "These are heavily dependent on vendors in the ecosystem, who are not easy to bring on board because such a product has not been explored before and so they do not have any reference point to fall back on. We also expect our vendors to work with us going forward as well, so we want to be absolutely sure that these relationships will stand the test of time. So all these factors will ultimately decide on when we can see the first vehicle on the road," he says.
It is Telsa-ish in another way. While it will set up a charging point at your home on purchase of the S340, it is additionally setting up charging infrastructure across the cities it plans to launch in.
"We never set out to build something like this when we first started off three years ago," says Vinayak. "The specifications started evolving organically and it took us nearly a year just to come out with the blueprint," he adds.
Probed on how much the S340s could be priced at, Phokela adds," It is difficult to arrive at a number today since that would be a function of many variables. However we see it, we are not expecting to make money out of the first unit we roll out". "This is simply because there is no way you can make money with the volumes that we capped it at, which is 10,000 units for three markets - Bengaluru, Chennai and Pune. So, we are seeing this more as a test run than anything else," he adds.
And as with any business that is starting a trend rather than following one, there are hardships aplenty. "The challenges have been evolving over time," says Vinayak. "Initially design by itself was a hard nut to crack. Today, ensuring reliability and product quality is the main challenge," he adds.
Another crucial issue is creating a product for an ecosystem that is yet to be built in India. Expounds Vinayak, "Overall, you will see a technology difference of at least 5-6 years when compared to the international market. Since we are the only players designing a smart electric vehicle here, we need to take initiative to develop the ecosystem and that is not easy," he says.
Another potential problem could be patchy networks that could come in the way of fully experiencing the smart vehicle for what it was designed for. The scooter will have a connected touchscreen dashboard that will integrate the vehicle firmware and sync it with the startups cloud database and layer with predictive analytics.
But the makers of S340 seem to have worked out this hurdle too. "Connectivity is just one layer in the entire value proposition of this smart scooter," says Phokela. "It is a USP for sure, but not something that will interfere with the overall performance of the vehicle. If you have to evaluate it on the parameters of a traditional scooter, it will still be the best out there." "Unfortunately there are some things we have no control over. But having said that, patchy network is a problem that is not unique to us - it is universal. It will certainly become more efficient with time. Airtel has been setting up new towers and with the entry of Reliance Jio, there is going to be a clear impact in the industry," he adds.
Driving tomorrow's technology
However, the main issue may still be around product adoption. But the startup is under no delusions when it comes to that. "This is a high tech product and consumers will most likely have to pay a premium - perhaps somewhere between a Honda Activa and a Vespa. But it is important to note here that it is a premium product not because it has a diamond-encrusted exterior but because it is a tech-driven product and that will excite only a certain kind of consumer. That typically would be early adopters in any tech-driven curve, which is what we are going after," says Phokela..
"To give you some perspective, it is like smartphones 7-8 years back. Only certain kind of people wanted it back then, but with consumer acceptability and with prices coming down, it became mainstream. We are looking at two fundamentally large trends - one is within the auto industry itself by going electric, and the larger trend is that of being connected. So there is no question that it is only going to grow from here on," he adds.
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