Opinion | World of the new vehicle and the many hiccups on the way

Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

We might have a breakthrough in a battery solution for EVs long before we have perfect self-driving cars

Last week, Mint carried an article about Intel Corp.’s plans to use India as a test-bed for creating algorithms to promote automated driving. These algorithms, when refined over time with ever greater amounts of correctly labelled data, will supposedly take over the functions of controlling and driving a machine so that the functions are performed by electronics instead of humans.

Every “big tech" company, ride-hailing service, as well as every automobile company worth its salt, is trying to be the first when it comes to self-driven vehicles. The technologies that underlie this worthy effort are myriad. “Smart" cameras, sonar technology, the Internet of Things, machine learning, Artificial Intelligence—name the buzzword and it’s being bandied about. Billions of dollars of capital investment in these technologies are being burnt at the same time. Cities and local governments are exercising their legislative powers in different ways to ensure the safety of people on their roads.

One thing is for certain. If a technology provider can master the art of negotiating traffic in India, it can master traffic in any part of the world. Where else would one gather data about a black autorickshaw with a completely dead engine and no headlights going down the wrong way on a one-way street in complete darkness, pushed only by the foot of the driver of another black autorickshaw behind it? This data would then need to be accurately labelled—likely by an outsourcing company based in Sri Lanka—so that it can be fed to the mighty computer, which would create an “appendage powered autorickshaw algorithm" for a self-driven car to tap into when that automated automobile next encounters a ghost autorickshaw.

But I digress. I have no doubt that we will get to the point where we see autonomous vehicles in the foreseeable future—yes, even on Indian roads—but there will be many hiccups on the way. I would bet that we will see these advances before the gasoline-powered automobile gives way to its nemesis—the “clean" electric vehicle (EV).

Meanwhile, the world of the currently human-driven EVs is no stroll in the park. In a recent snafu in Beijing, where the driver of an EV made by Nio, a company with a stated vision of rivalling Elon Musk’s Tesla in Asia, inadvertently initiated a software update while the car was stopped in heavy traffic during a test drive. The software update then shut down the car, trapping its occupants inside for over an hour and causing more chaos in Beijing’s notorious traffic.

The software electronically controls everything in these cars, including the door locks. According to a post on China’s social media platform Weibo, the Nio representative in the car with the potential buyer wrote, “[S]o there we were, parked in Changan Avenue, motionless yet bold as brass. Police officers came, one group after another, yet we could not even wind the window down."

While Nio locked in its potential buyer, Tesla’s door handles are freezing shut and keeping their owners locked out in the current cold wave that is gripping much of the US. However, more importantly, EV batteries, which like the batteries in phones and laptops are made of lithium-ion, do not fare well in extreme temperatures. When temperatures drop, the electrolyte fluid inside the battery gets sluggish and is unable to provide sufficient power.

Many scientific researchers and startups are working on the next generation of battery, which they hope will be more effective than today’s standard lithium-ion batteries. Some are working on “solid-state" batteries which don’t have any liquid inside and, hence, will be less sensitive to fluctuations in temperature. Others are working on supercapacitor-based solutions. One such startup is India’s Gegadyne Energy. Today’s supercapacitors have low energy density when compared to lithium-ion and are expensive and bulky, and so their use is limited to being deployed alongside lithium-ion batteries in a hybrid solution to manage peak requirements.

However, supercapacitors hold out promise, as they have much shorter charge and discharge rates. I spoke recently with Jubin Varghese, the CEO of Gegadyne, who claims that supercapacitors also have enhanced life cycles and can be charged more than 1 million times. Gegadyne claims that some of its batteries can be charged in seconds, but used for hours. What is more, the startup company claims to have arrived at a solution that combines the best characteristics of a common battery with those of supercapacitors. According to Varghese, this is because of advances in material science. He and his collaborators have invented a new form of “carbon-slurry" as the main material in the company’s devices and have already applied for or received patent protection for their technology.

In a vindication of Gegadyne’s approach, Tesla last week agreed to buy US energy storage company Maxwell Technologies in a deal that valued the specialist battery and capacitor maker at $218 million. Maxwell describes itself as a global leader in the development and manufacturing of energy and power delivery solutions. The acquisition is being described by analysts as a perfect fit for Musk’s ambitious EV project, as a low-risk bet on lowering battery costs and boosting battery performance.

It appears that we might have a breakthrough in a battery solution for EVs long before we have perfect self-driving cars, electric or otherwise. Assuming, of course, that the EVs’ on-board software will allow occupants access and egress from the vehicle!

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India