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Business News/ Auto News / How Ola wilfully endangered its riders
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How Ola wilfully endangered its riders

The electric scooter maker has to find a permanent solution to the S1 model’s critical safety issues.
  • Numerous instances have been reported from across the country of the front fork arm of Ola’s S1 e-scooter collapsing when riders braked sharply or encountered a sudden bump
  • Images of the broken fork arm casting part from Ola’s S1 Pro e-scooter model. Customers have shared these images on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram groups. Mint received some images from customers directly.Premium
    Images of the broken fork arm casting part from Ola’s S1 Pro e-scooter model. Customers have shared these images on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram groups. Mint received some images from customers directly.

    Last April, images began to circulate of a blue Ola S1 Pro lying on its belly with its front wheel out, reportedly after a head-on collision in a Maharashtra city. The incident set off alarm bells among Ola’s suppliers, a Mint investigation found, and they asked the company for an explanation. It appeared that the S1 Pro, Ola Electric’s flagship scooter, had a front fork arm that did not hold up in tough Indian conditions.

    In a two-wheeler, the suspension unit determines how effectively it navigates rough terrain. It is what decides how smooth and balanced your ride is going to be. In the Ola S1, the suspension, however, is connected to the wheel by a large piece of high-pressure aluminium die-casting, called the front fork arm. The suspension does not buckle unless the fork arm casting breaks. Ola’s fork unit uses a cantilevered design, where the weight of the structure is supported only on one-side. It is the only scooter in India’s 20-million-strong two-wheeler market that uses this fork-arm as a joint between the suspension and the wheel.

    In some cases, with the S1, this arm simply snapped when a rider applied the brakes suddenly. As more such incidents emerged, it was becoming clear that the scooter, a Dutch design suitable for the smooth roads in Europe, posed critical safety risks for riders on Indian roads.

    Graphic: Mint
    View Full Image
    Graphic: Mint

    When the first incident surfaced on social media, Ola had fewer than 50,000 scooters on the road. It had the opportunity to get ahead of the problem. The company, however, put off redesigning the part, which would have involved big changes. Instead, it continued to ramp up production, people familiar with Ola’s supply chain and procurement operations told Mint.

    “This would have been an opportunity (after early incidents) to slow down, review processes, take stock, fix problems and then gradually pick up production — that’s what a responsible original equipment manufacturer (OEM) would have done," said one of the sources cited above.

    A few months after concerns were raised, Ola did attempt to re-design the part and switch to a forged aluminium fork arm instead of the cast aluminium arm it was using. But the company decided against the move due to viability issues involving weight and costs, as well as timelines, the people cited above, who were privy to the decision, told Mint on condition of anonymity.

    Meanwhile, cases of the fork arm breaking continued to surface from different corners of the country. Ola, however, has portrayed them as isolated incidents. As of today, many such incidents have been documented on social media, but the ones online are likely only the tip of the iceberg. Mint was able to discover many more such incidents involving breakage of the front fork arm, with customers falling off the scooter after being forced to brake suddenly, encountering a sudden bump, or in a collision with another vehicle.

    These are incidents customers have documented on Telegram and WhatsApp groups of Ola scooter owners, many of which were formed back in 2021-22 as buyers sought information after waiting for months to get possession of their vehicles. Many of these incidents do not make it to the public domain.

    But gradually, some customers began to speak up. A change.org petition urging Ola to “come clean" if there was a design flaw in the scooter gathered nearly 6,000 signatures. The accidents have left many users petrified and they are looking to sell the scooter barely a few months after becoming owners.

    Forced to respond

    Mint sent Ola Electric a detailed list of questions on 6 March about the front fork arm issue and sought to get the company’s side of this story. The company declined to formally make a comment. Informally, a company official said the accidents were isolated affairs. Where a case had blown up on social media, it was portrayed as an “attempt by the customer to strong-arm the company".

    On 14 March, Ola Electric released a statement offering its customers the “option" to “upgrade" to its new front fork arm design. Ola said it was offering this “upgrade" to customers “free of cost". In an ideal world, this would have been termed a recall — an exercise automakers undertake when they believe there is a risk associated with a certain part in their vehicle.

    Except, according to Ola’s statement, any concerns about the safety of the part are “unfounded". What then is motivating Ola to undertake this expensive exercise, which will cost 1,000-1,200 per scooter, and take many months to complete?

    Ola’s supplier, AlphaCraft, is also unlikely to have such a large spare capacity to be able to service this replacement demand alongside regular production. Mint could not reach AlphaCraft at the time of going to print.

    Automakers have recalled hundreds of thousands of vehicles for far more improbable cases or at least issued voluntary call-backs and fixes where any component could potentially lead to a safety or performance risk. Globally, Tesla issued 20 recalls last year, impacting nearly four million vehicles, although the vast majority of them were effected through software patches.

    Despite being aware of the fork arm issue, Ola, however, continued to produce scooters with this design at break-neck speed, without ever issuing a recall. To this day, it has not publicly acknowledged any need to re-examine the design or material used for this specific part.

    Applying a band-aid?

    Ola slowly started shipping out a new iteration of the front fork arm in models it made in 2023 — the difference being it was reinforced at the top, where the design was at its weakest (see photo), adding some screws to hold it down. It never notified customers such a change was made, or why.

    Insiders, however, say that while such a change wouldn’t have taken much time to execute, it is more of an interim measure and the company may likely switch to a conventional twin-telescopic front suspension design (which it uses in its low-cost scooter variant) in the next few months, across its entire range.

    The new fork-arm design, which will be implemented in old vehicles opting for Ola’s upgrade, has, however, spooked some owners in the absence of any clarification from the company in its statement on why it was being upgraded.

    While Ola declined to give Mint an official reason for the change, the company official cited above informally said that the design change is part of its philosophy of “continuous engineering" and improvement, something it subsequently mentioned in its public statement.

    “Ola is indeed testing the scooters — but with actual customers on the roads. And it is quietly making changes, but not all of them can be retrospective. So, the over 100,000 scooters on the road, if they are being driven on uneven terrain, are still very much at risk," one of the sources cited earlier said.

    Made for Europe

    No other scooter maker uses Ola’s front fork design, because it simply isn’t suited to Indian conditions. The Ola S1 Pro is essentially a European scooter brought to India, apparently without much indigenisation in terms of design. It is based on Dutch-EV maker Etergo’s Appscooter (Ola had acquired the company in 2020). The S1 certainly hums on a smooth road, as it was designed to, but the vast majority of Indian roads are not smooth.

    “The choice of design for a part is dictated by how manufacturable it is and therefore has to be thought of from a manufacturing point of view. The choice of material and the process used to make or assemble it has to be made based on the load it is going to encounter," an engineering design expert in the EV industry said on condition of anonymity. “High-pressure die casting, which is what was used to make the front-fork arm, leaves room for a lot of variability by way of blowholes entering it, which can seriously compromise its strength. At the same time, such a large part isn’t easy to forge," he added.

    To be sure, Ola Electric works with world-class tier-1 suppliers to obtain various components for the scooter. AlphaCraft, like we mentioned earlier, is one of the suppliers. Ola gets the front fork-arm from this Tamil Nadu-based pressure die-cast manufacturer.

    One of the reasons for the fork unit issue could be the company’s headlong go-to-market rush. Some component suppliers say they refused to work with Ola as it was not willing to wait a few months to a year while they fully tested the parts they were to make. These suppliers say they lost business, but did not have to bear the risk of future culpability by supplying components that weren’t thoroughly tested. Ola, meanwhile, found other suppliers willing to adhere to its timelines, or chose to go its own way. The company has stated that it wants to make most of the parts, critical and non-critical, by itself.

    Because Ola’s front fork arm design is such a novelty in India, riders and even suppliers were initially perplexed as to what exactly causes the accidents. Even those eager to get on the EV train had their apprehensions about working with Ola, and some who do work with it now say they find themselves at constant odds with the way the company does business.

    “With Ola, you never know what’s going on. We were assured the problem has been fixed," one vendor said. And yet, new incidents continued to come to light.

    Victim blaming?

    As each incident involving the S1 emerged, Ola would have a templated response—implying that the customer was responsible for an “isolated" and “high impact" accident, even though riding on bad roads in India is often not an option for motorists.

    With other two-wheelers, even in high-impact head-on collisions where the front fork does suffer a partial bend, it is the internals of the suspension, such as valves or springs, that might break, not the structure itself. As a result, riders are often able to recover their balance and escape with relatively fewer injuries.

    In an incident in January, which brought the spotlight back on the issue, a user named Samkit Parmar took to Twitter to share images of his grievously injured wife as a result of the Ola S1 Pro’s wheel coming off. Several other users responded with their own experiences involving the same part. The criticism prompted Ola to issue a statement in which it suggested the incident was the rider’s fault, hinting that she did not have a valid driver’s licence and was riding without a helmet. Parmar soon deleted all his tweets. When this incident took place, the company already had over 150,000 scooters on the road.

    Customers have reported such incidents after having the scooter for just a few days. Hanuman Chaudhary, a resident of Barmer, Rajasthan, is one of them. “I was riding at a speed of 45-50 km per hour on a road without any bumps. The scooter’s fork arm broke down on a plain road," Chaudhary told Mint. “But when Ola came to investigate the incident, they said they found spikes on the road. How can that be the cause for the fork arm breaking? All I did was press the brakes suddenly because my cell phone was ringing and I needed to pick up the call."

    New incidents continue to emerge every other day. There were two fresh cases of the fork arm breaking in Thrissur district in Kerala just last week.

    Ola Electric’s lack of transparency in addressing safety concerns is certain to deter customers unless it changes tack. How it manages to retain the faith of its existing customers will dictate how its future electric motorcycle, and perhaps, its electric car, will be received in future.

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    ABOUT THE AUTHOR
    Alisha Sachdev
    Alisha Sachdev reports on the auto and mobility sector, with a special focus on emerging clean mobility technologies.
    Catch all the Auto News and Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates & Live Business News.
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    Published: 15 Mar 2023, 08:54 PM IST
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