In the electric mobility space, it is partnerships that are driving innovation. Startups and vehicle manufacturers are collaborating to tap into new technologies, markets, networks and ideas.
“The e-mobility ecosystem is quite tight-knit. There’s a lot of give-and-take,” says Amitabh Saran of Bengaluru-based Altigreen Propulsion Labs, which makes power trains to convert diesel or petrol vehicles to hybrid ones while improving fuel efficiency and cutting emissions. “There is innovation in the business model, technology platform and software. Startups as well as large automakers use our technology,” he says. Altigreen works with vehicle companies that make two-wheelers, three-wheelers, cars and tractors.
Electric vehicle sales in India are expected to witness double-digit growth till 2020, fuelled by government measures for the sector, says a report by global advisory services firm Ernst & Young. Currently, the electric vehicle industry in India is at nascent stage, comprising less than 1% of total vehicle sales. The government has set an ambitious target of 100% electric vehicles for public transport and 40% for personal mobility by 2030.
Sun Mobility, helmed by Chetan Maini who made electric vehicles decades before anyone else in India, is also the go-to company for a number of startups and automakers looking for tech platforms and solutions. Maini is in discussions with half a dozen e-players. Apart from a tie-up with Ashok Leyland for an electric bus, Sun Mobility works with half a dozen companies, he says. “We are creating a building block that can be used by both large, established automakers and startups,” says Maini. “It’s an open architecture that can reduce their time to market. I have mentored 10 to 15 startups in e-mobility and they all had challenges in battery management. We are working with them so they can use our platform and focus on their technology competence,” he explains.
Coimbatore-based Ampere, which makes low-cost electric two and three-wheelers, has just launched its indigenously-made lithium ion battery. Like others in the e-mobility ecosystem, Ampere is talking to both automakers and startups. “We have been approached by a battery-manufacturing company from China, which is looking to set up a battery-making facility in India. We are also talking to Sun Mobility as its swappable batteries will help us cater to B2B segments and can be great for smaller cities like Coimbatore,” says Ampere founder-CEO Hemalatha Annamalai.
The biggest challenge in the e-mobility space is battery technology and charging infrastructure. Some like Ampere are trying to bring down the battery cost by manufacturing locally. Others like Sun are offering an open architecture with swappable battery packs. “More platform players like us will come into the market,” says Maini. “There could also be standardisation of power train platforms so that every vehicle maker won’t have to invest in a power train, which will make e-vehicles plug-and-play devices like mobile phones.”
At the other end of the spectrum is electric vehicle cab service Lithium Urban Technologies. Sun’s Maini is on the board of this company as well. Lithium Urban uses Mahindra Reva’s e2o and e-Verito to cater to clients like Adobe and Accenture. “Electric mobility succeeds when you have predictable journeys within a charging environment. We work with Mahindra & Mahindra to source vehicles for our transport solutions,” says Subhabrata Ghosh, who is on the board of Lithium Urban Technologies.
Bengaluru-based Ather Energy is also collaborating to expand its network of charging stations in the city. Tarun Mehta, co-founder, Ather Energy said, “We are in advanced discussions with several companies that want to use our charging stations. We have also tied up with 14 hosts (cafes, restaurants, malls) and another 16 will come on board shortly. These partners will host the charging stations and pay for the electricity and upkeep.” Beyond the network itself, Ather is using the e-mobility ecosystem for its own tech needs. For example, it sources it’s electronics from global major Sanmina which has its India operation out of Chennai while local partner Meher Industry does the assembly for Ather.
The biggest challenge remains making the alternatives commercially viable. Innovation notwithstanding, e-mobility is still not a commercially viable alternative to petrol and diesel vehicles. The battery and engine are expensive, charging infrastructure is non-existent, power supply is erratic, and there’s anxiety about how far vehicles can run on a single charge. But auto experts say e-mobility is red hot despite the challenges because of the innovation give-and-take driving it.