Call it prescience or plain luck. Even before oil prices touched a record $100 (around Rs4,000) a barrel, and it became both “geek chic” and economical to own a green auto, Chetan Kumaar Maini was in the business of manufacturing eco-friendly cars. Maini’s baby, called the Reva in India and the G-Whiz in the UK, can be spotted on the roads of Bangalore and outside hip homes in Chelsea.
We are sitting in the clubhouse of the Karnataka Golf Association, which overlooks a spread of manicured green. An evening breeze blows across the fairways as we sip hot cups of tea. The noise, dust and grime of Bangalore roads are mercifully out of seeing and hearing range.
Maini, 6ft, is nattily dressed in a colourful striped shirt and sports a neatly trimmed French beard. He leans back languidly and starts talking about his lifelong fascination with automobiles. “Like most kids, I loved cars and started tinkering with models when I was very young. I have been told that one of the first things I identified as a child was my father’s Ford Taunus 1966 model.
Maini drives a Reva
“I used to build remote-controlled cars and aeroplanes, even if it took me six months to build a working model,” says Maini with a grin. He recalls that his “workshop” had a milling machine and was several times the size of his bedroom. Of course it helped that his father was in the business of supplying auto components and precision engineering products to Motor Industries Co. Ltd, a part of Bosch.
This fascination with cars led him to pursue a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Michigan. There, he headed a team which built a solar car that won the top prize in a 2,500km race sponsored by GM. Thereafter, vacations meant working at GM plants, trying to understand how the auto industry works.
It was as a postgraduate student in mechanical engineering at Stanford that Maini’s fascination for hybrid vehicles took a more practical turn. “I decided that I would work in this space,” says Maini. After some research, he discovered that Amerigon Inc. was doing good work in the area of electric vehicles (EVs). He was hooked, and began working with Amerigon, which today is a partner of his Reva Electric Car Co. Ltd (RECC).
In the early 1990s, with a barrel of oil selling at $10, there weren’t too many investors in EV technology. Moreover, development of new EVs meant overhauling internal combustion engine technology that had been developed and refined over decades. Maini recalls the sneers with which conventional auto players met his desire to manufacture cars that ran on electricity. After a five-year stint in the US working with GM and Amerigon, Maini returned to India in 1999. Thankfully, the Maini Group was doing well, and he could afford to pursue his dream of mass-produced EVs.
After two more years of research, the Reva EV was unveiled in June 2001. Named after his mother, it got mostly positive press. But the cars didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. Till date, RECC has sold around 1,800 cars, half of them in the international market. Two factors have played a role in limiting the acceptability of the car. One is initial cost. At Rs3.22 lakh on road, Reva is definitely not cheap. Maini points out that, unlike in the international market, not too many tax breaks are provided to EVs in India. Secondly, the car currently does around 70km before it has to be recharged for two and a half hours. “What people don’t look at is the total cost of ownership. Also, Reva in its current form is a city car.”
Maini says some of the issues are being addressed. Later this year, the company plans to introduce a dramatically revamped Reva. Maini did tinker under the hood when he launched the REVAi recently, but this will be the first major change in the car since its launch seven years ago.
For one, the new Reva will run for at least 150-200km before it requires recharging. The secret could be in new lithium-ion batteries that will offer better performance than the existing lead-acid ones. While understandably reluctant to give away complete details, he points out that technology is not the issue. “The cost to range ratio is the key challenge and we are working on it continously”(we hear a convertible version may also be in the works).
Maini is unfazed about Bengal Enamel’s recently announced Rs1 lakh EV. “For years, Chinese companies have been talking of exporting electric cars. I am yet to see many on the road. And it’s a challenge to factor in safety, reliability and performance at that price. But I cannot comment without having seen the car.”
When asked about the Tata Nano, Maini reacts cautiously. “It is a significant achievement for the Indian automotive industry, but it still burns conventional fuel.”
After a motor show in London two years ago, a member of the press called the Reva the “ugliest car at the show.” Maini grins when I remind him. “It is a subjective opinion. That is the least of our challenges. We have been taking feedback from current and prospective customers. Newer models might incorporate some of the suggestions.”
In December 2006, the company received $20 million in investment from Global Environment Fund and venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurveston. With GM promising to have a mass-produced EV on road by 2010, there is renewed interest in EVs. A couple of automotive companies have been sniffing around Reva. And with good reason. RECC has more than 20 patents in electrical and battery related technology. Maini himself has a patent in energy management system for electric vehicles.
When I ask him if Reva is a potential acquisition target for big foreign auto companies, Maini plays it cool. “Yes, we are talking to several players for all kinds of relationships. We have had a learning curve. We have an IP portfolio. For the moment, though, we continue to focus on upping our capacity from 6,000 to 30,000 vehicles a year.”
All that activity has meant very little time to spend on his favourite outdoor activities: mountain biking, off-road motorcycling and microlight flying. While asserting that his golf handicap is respectable, he refuses to disclose it. What he does flaunt publicly, however, is the Reva. Maini drives one around Bangalore himself.