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Chetan Maini, co-founder and vice-chairman of SUN Mobility, a maker of smart batteries (Photo: Bhaskar Varma/Mint)
Chetan Maini, co-founder and vice-chairman of SUN Mobility, a maker of smart batteries (Photo: Bhaskar Varma/Mint)

Once consumers have driven electric, they’ll never go back: Chetan Maini

When the next revolution comes, it’s important that policies stay one step ahead, says SUN Mobility's co-founder and vice-chairman

Chetan Maini, co-founder and vice-chairman of SUN Mobility, an electric mobility solutions firm, is a pioneer of the electric vehicle (EV) industry in India. Maini’s Reva was the country’s first electric car and, experts say, it was far ahead of its time. Despite its modest success—it was later bought by Mahindra and Mahindra, and rebranded as Mahindra Electric—the Reva provided a feasible and workable EV solution at a time when there was practically no ecosystem or robust conversation around EVs (and certainly no Tesla)—not just in India, but globally. With the Centre announcing incentives for the manufacture and purchase of EVs in the budget, and signs of activity in the mass-market EV category, Mint caught up with Maini to chat about SUN Mobility, the ecosystem for such vehicles in India, and his expectations from the government and industry in this sector.

It finally looks like EVs are going to get a boost in India through announcements in the budget and forthcoming policy changes. We are also seeing new EVs come into the market, some from mainstream car makers. What does this mean for Sun Mobility as a company, and for you personally?

After being a part of the EV industry for 20 years, I was questioning why hasn’t it been really mass deployed if the technology was so good? Everything seemed right about it—electric machines are four times more efficient than fossil fuel vehicles, we can get energy from renewables, the operating costs are much lower... So, I did a deep dive into this and saw that unless three core challenges are solved, it can’t take off.

The first one is price. While battery costs have come down and technology has become much better, the cost of EVs is still significantly higher than conventional vehicles, because 30-50% is because of batteries. This continues to be a challenge in India because the product portfolio we have does not have high-end products, like a Tesla, but affordable ones. If you’re buying a rickshaw for 1.5 lakh and it suddenly costs you 3 lakh, or, if a 60,000 scooter costs 1.2 lakh for the electric variety, you will hesitate. The second challenge is around range anxiety. One way to address this is to give a lot of range, but then the cost goes up so much more.

The third thing is refuelling time. People are accustomed to refuelling in five minutes. Conventional charging, however, takes 5-8 hours and fast charging could take one hour (with great infrastructure). But no one’s going to a gas station and waiting for an hour, especially if you’re driving for a living.

SUN Mobility is recognizing these three things. We said, if you separate the batteries from EVs and the auxiliary systems with it, you can get EVs to be cost-neutral to internal combustion engine vehicles. Second, if you can swap your batteries in a couple of minutes, that’s faster than filling petrol. And because I can refuel so fast, I don’t care about long refuelling time or range anxiety. So we felt this was the right business to get into.

Does creating a battery-swapping solution make sense now, when companies are talking of setting up a charging infrastructure?

Yes it does, because the other trend we were seeing is that the shared economy is growing tremendously in India. It uses the most energy and creates the maximum amount of pollution. So shared mobility is the area that will have the largest impact. By providing a quick charging solution, you encourage the adoption of electric in the shared economy.

We have created smart batteries, which have a very long life of up to 3,000-5,000 cycles, and are IoT-based, so we can monitor them in real-time. We wanted the infrastructure to be like Android—open for everyone—so that any original equipment manufacturer (OEM) can use for any product of up to 1 tonne, which means any two-wheeler, three-wheeler, or small goods carrying four-wheelers.

The other piece of the puzzle was to create these kiosk-like stations that allow us to deploy infrastructure very quickly. We have deployed 10 of these in NCR, and are opening 50 stations in the next four months. NCR has over 100,000 e-rickshaws that use lead-acid batteries, which take 6-8 hours to charge, only go 70km a day, and weigh over 30kg. Our swappable batteries weigh 13kg, can be swapped in the middle of the day, and ride up to 140km per day, doubling the income. The stations are fully automatic, computer-controlled, and air-conditioned (this increases battery life), and the user gets a prepaid card, which you just click on the kiosk and take your battery. They are designed to be unmanned, but you know in India even an ATM is manned.

The next challenge is to create a smart network of kiosks, and for that we have tied up with OEMs—we can currently talk about Ashok Leyland for buses and Piaggio for three-wheelers.

Why did you shift focus from cars to commercial EVs?

Simply because we see a huge opportunity in shared mobility, for instance, food and goods delivery. It’s becoming very big in India, and companies like Flipkart, Zomato and Swiggy want to move a large chunk of their deliveries to EVs. Now, a delivery person can’t wait for four hours in the middle of the day to charge his vehicle. The company also benefits with lower fuel costs and lower maintenance costs, besides better comfort for the driver.

Take autorickshaws—swap makes perfect sense. Bangalore has 200,000 of them and 83 LPG stations for refuelling—this infrastructure took 12 years to set up. For us to put up similar infrastructure would take less than a year. It’s a completely plug-and-play solution.

Do you think targets set by the FAME scheme or the NITI Aayog directive to only sell electric two-wheelers after 2025 will be met?

If you look at FAME (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid & Electric Vehicles in India), with 10,000 crore allocated for its implementation, there is a huge emphasis on the electrification of public transport. The government is giving a message that it wants to focus on the shared economy. I think the NITI Aayog’s stance is very good.

India lost the solar manufacturing side of it, we import cells. We lost out when chip fabrication happened. So, when the next revolution comes, it’s important that policies stay one step ahead.

Policies were one step ahead in China when it comes to EVs, which enabled it to produce 30 million electric two-wheelers every year and over a 100,000 electric buses and almost 1.5 million electric cars every year. If today India is the hub for two-wheeler manufacturing, the hub for small car manufacturing, imagine the capability five years from today when we can become the hub for EV manufacturing.

We can become a leader globally—the solutions that go to Africa, South East Asia, or South America will come from India. From that perspective, the policy is right. I will say that the industry is not ready, and therefore, the full target may not be met, but if 50-70% of the target is met, it would be a huge change for India. The good thing about electrics is that this industry is not 100 years old. If you look at new firms, say Tesla or BYD, they are 5 or 7 years old.

The push for EVs has always been somewhat conservative and incremental. Do we now need to make a serious push and take a big leap? Do you think the government is serious about this and equipped to make it happen?

It seems to me there are very positive signs. Several other things have to come into play—for example, the government says EVs need no permits, but try and implement it today in any city. There is a gap between the policy and its implementation. There are OEMs who can’t even register their EVs because there is no clarity on policy and permits. In Bengaluru if you want to register an electric three-wheeler, you will face problems.

When countries like China, US or Norway made a push for EVs, they had holistic policies. Charging and swapping infrastructure is critical, right? Today the GST on charging and swapping is 18%—you’re using an environment-friendly product and paying 18% GST on services, but for other transportation services it’s at 5%. A three-wheeler guy who drives for a living has to pay 18% tax per km to use a green product. This doesn’t make sense.

We have to build an ecosystem. Huge investments have to be made—you’re talking about changing from a hydrocarbon economy to an electric economy. People will create the infrastructure, but more the clarity on policy, the more investments the country will see. I am convinced that this is the right time when all the factors are coming together. At some point, the technology wasn’t ready, or governments were not positive, or oil prices were $20 a barrel, or consumers were not ready—but the triggers are all aligned now. Once consumers have driven electric, they will never go back.

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