Home / Opinion / Views /  Ola should admit safety risks and go for a recall

Till recently, marketing myopia was not a charge easily laid at the door of Ola. It began as a cab-hailing business, but saw itself in the field of transport rather than cabs, which led the brand’s leap into electric mobility for a mass-market play with two-wheelers. Name recognition in India gave Ola Electric an early sales boost, cheered along by those keen for battery-run EVs to shake up a fossil-fuelled market. A brand, however, isn’t just a shiny badge. It must not just offer but assure customers a clutch of attributes they value—such as reliable quality. And on this front, Ola has let down users, admirers and itself with its myopic waffle over a frail part designed to hold in place the fore-wheel of its S1 Pro scooter first rolled out over a year ago. As a Long Story in Mint on Thursday showed, denial was the company’s initial response to signs of this model’s ‘front fork arm’ weakness. Once evidence piled up of wheels snapping off under forces no greater than the jerks of uneven roads, that stance gave way to the evasion of a fix offered in the wrapper of an optional “upgrade" for a problem it still wouldn’t admit. This has left thousands of S1 Pro riders exposed to the risk of a mishap. And led Ola into a situation it must salvage swiftly for the sake of brand reliability.

The model in question is an adapted version of Appscooter, designed for smooth European roads by a Dutch EV-maker called Etergo that Ola acquired in 2020. In its dash for Indian streets, it may have overlooked the need for a more robust wheel-holder. The result was a series of accidents involving dislodged wheels. Word of it surfaced on social media not long after the EV’s launch, but Ola portrayed them as isolated cases, even going to the extent of implying that misuse by riders was to blame. Industry veterans, though, were aware of this design’s weakness under rough road conditions, a reason they insisted on sturdier stuff. In the S1 Pro’s case, even a sudden application of brakes could knock its front wheel off, with enough cases of injuries caused by this to raise an alarm. This should have led Ola to recall all units sold for a proper safety rejig, as other auto-makers often do. Instead, the company appears to have treated it like a kind of software upgrade. This year’s deliveries of the model sport a reinforced fork arm. In mid-March, Ola Electric issued a statement that called safety concerns “unfounded", but also offered users of the earlier version the “option" of a free fork-arm replacement. These mixed signals, aimed perhaps at keeping the problem’s profile low, spelt dissonance among owners. After all, unlike a software platform, a motor vehicle cannot afford weak links at all, and a ‘bug’ that could cause a two-wheeler to lose a wheel is not something that can be taken so lightly, given the physical harm it can do.

For a cautionary tale, Ola needs look no further than Tata’s Nano car, which was dealt a terminal blow by a rash of fires. In a market that is not short of choice, quality is the least we expect of what’s on sale. Foresight ought to have made Ola Electric come clean at the first intimation of danger, which would have given it the reputation of being a responsible player. The company may still have space for effective rear-guard action. To shore up customer confidence, it needs to undertake a full recall of all vehicles with that weak link. Ola must also reset its public interface for transparency. Nobody likes to be taken for a ride.

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