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Interview: Chetan Maini on the future of electric vehicles in India

Chetan Maini, is the co-founder and vice-chairman of Sun Mobility, a company looking to revolutionise the way we look at electric vehicles in India. Their latest solution involves an entire environment with modular swappable batteries that can be hooked on to a variety of two-wheeler and three-wheeler applications. You can read more about it here. Chetan has always been involved with e-mobility – he is the man behind Reva, which was later aquired by Mahindra and has spend two decades working on electric vehicles. We spoke to him about the future of electric mobility in India, and specifically about the interoperable solution he just devised.

TG: What sort of legislation do you want to see from the government with respect to electric vehicles to get them on track?
CM: I think there are a few things. I think there is a larger vision which the government is getting across, which is good because it is just enabling the industry to make investment. I think that is the larger play. In that, there just needs to be a broad framework so that there is consistency of things. I think the industry is just looking for consistency. Also, anything that comes across should be technology agnostic. When the country is going electric, let people decide, let companies decide, let markets dynamics decide whether you want to use A, B or C technology. But set a structure that allows multiple technologies to co-exist for the best application, and they can be multiple ones that can happen. So I think these thought processes and consistency in this is what is critical. If someone says this or that won't work, those are not the right areas to be looking at. What I have seen in the last six months is a lot of positive movements in this area. Karnataka has laid out its EV policy, you’ve got the 10,000 orders for EVs, bus orders have come through. Anil Srivastava talked about the energy clarification happening in this area. When people brought up a month an a half ago that energy is an issue, it is great that an order comes out within a month and a half saying that energy is not an issue. I think this is much better than saying let’s wait six months for a policy.

From those perspectives, I think these are the right steps and I understand that FAME has been an open issue but they are looking at expanding it. I think there are all in the right direction. Probably a little more coordination is required and I think NITI is going to go for it and we need to give them time to execute this. But our business, as long is it is open architecture and open to all technologies, we are actually a business that allows you to have electric mobility without really having large subsidies. Maybe with buses, you still need it, because the volumes are too low, but with the two- and three-wheelers you can do fine without subsidies. I feel that it accelerates the process. Instead of saying we need subsidies for 3-4 years till volumes pick up and costs come down, I think, well you can have that today. Subsidies will obviously further accelerate it – so I'm not saying no to subsidies – I'm just saying that we felt that if the business model can be sustainable from today, might as well do it. But for consumer adoption, it is always good to have some subsidies.

TG: There is a push for swappable batteries in the commercial space versus a lot of OEMs are investing in permanent fixed batteries for their passenger cars. Is this split approach necessary?
: So I think it is coming back to this. Are you as a consumer willing to spend 40 per cent more for a product? I think it is less likely in a shared market and more likely in a personal market. That would be one thought process. The second is if the technology is continuously changing, do you want to buy in to one that eventually changes? The third is, you still have issues with range anxiety and long charging times. If you are an Ola driver, you have a 40km range and you get a buzz on your phone with an airport trip that is 60km, you will have to decline it. You do it twice, and that is 3000 bucks you've lost – and that's the end of my product.
But if on the way to the airport, in two minutes you could swap, neither would the driver or the customer mind. And if you get a cost advantage in going electric, then you're saying I'm making more money in doing it. I'm agnostic to all of it. Most of our sister companies produce the chargers for most of the OEMs, as we are in the charging business, we're in the component business.

I think that different things are for different applications. If I took a school bus that did 30km and then sat for 7 hours, why would you swap? Why would you even fast charge? But if I look at a majority of transportation which is now shared, where you want flexibility, and you want the cost, I find swap forms a very good solution if you drive a number of kilometres. So that’s where we are. I think the same product can coexist in both form factors. You have a scooter with a guy who says I only do 40km a day, and I have a nice spot in my garage where I can plug it in. I never use it more than this, why would I need more? Perfect. He uses it so little that the life of his battery is okay. His neighbour delivers for Swiggy in the morning, then goes to work – he does 50km one day, 100km one day and 120km one day. He can't do more miles on a scooter with less range. Or if he buys 120km range, it becomes so expensive that it doesn’t make business sense. Here, swapping works best. This is the same identical product, just the solution could be different.

TG: The grid in India is still largely powered by non-sustainable energy sources. How long do you see the shift to more sustainable energy taking, and when that shift happens, where do you think the most energy will come from?
: I think solar and wind would be large portions of renewable energy. The cost of solar has been 2.44 a unit at large contract levels, and wind has been sub 3. So you have already beaten coal in this area. The challenge is existing infrastructure. And renewables are not consistent, you need a base load. So you will always have some base load from other forms, but renewables could form a large portion of the other area. To put this in context, by 2022, 25 million or 30 million vehicles a year by then, India is looking at 100GW of solar. If every vehicle sold in 2022 was electric, you would only need 25 percent of that renewable energy. This is just to put it in to perspective. We added 5 million ACs to our grid last year, which is equivalent to adding 4 million electric cars. By 2030, India is looking at 300GW of renewable energy. And if every vehicle, all 350 million vehicles by then were electric, you'd need around 260GW to power them. So you can actually have all surface transportation, in a theoretical manner, be powered by renewable energy. So even if we are 20 per cent, 30 per cent by that year, not 100 per cent, it is very easy that renewable at a larger level can be.

Now at our level, there are two-three things we can look at. One is, in the case of buses that need almost a megawatt each, we can do power purchase agreements with renewable energy directly. So we can have the entire station powered by renewable, which is very possible. At smaller stations, with open access power, renewable is still not available but we signed MOUs with the cities of Andhra Pradesh, Vishakhapatnam and one of the parts of the MOU is that we would be allowed to use renewable energy for all our stations. The same thing we've seen in Gujarat as well. So cities and states are also saying that they would like to bring renewable in to this. And what it does, is it is a natural balancer for you. The batteries in our station, only 70 per cent are being used at any time. 30 per cent is surplus because people could need them. It means we have 30 per cent surplus capacity which can be used for grid balancing. Also, if a vehicle has to be charged at 6 pm, that is the worst time for the grid. But if that battery could have been ready by 3 or 4 pm, when there is still solar energy, and you swap it at 6. This allows you to play around with this. The swapping part gives you a natural advantage, as it allows balancing of the load. Therefore it gives you the natural advantage of normal integration with renewable. Whereas other vehicles, would have a very difficult time integrating with renewables. It's just for the better, and that is what our long-term vision is.

TG: The lack of a conventional powertrain allows a lot more freedom in terms of vehicle design. Where do you see this heading?
: I see design moving in two different areas. Because of the advantage of electrics where you can place things differently, the shapes and the ways you can do things can be really unique. That is one advantage. The second is that I see a large shift in to shared mobility. Right now, we're using personal mobility vehicles for shared mobility. There isn't a product designed truly for shared mobility. So I see another large space for shared mobility, and in the shared mobility space, you also have it being electric. And the combination of the two will be a huge advantage.

TG: In terms of charging infrastructure, who does the onus of building it lie with? Is it the government or the industry?
: It should be the industry. Governments can never do stuff like this. Governments should lay out roads, and provide an electrical connection to that area, and enable policies that enable the industries to build businesses. That's the job of the government. But in building an infrastructure like that, the industry should do it. You have a cellphone today – while government companies exist in that space, private ones do too. And I think there will be coexisting where you will have government players and private. Lot of the people in the government say that the role of the government is not to be in business, they should be enablers.

TG: These Quick Interchange Stations, what cities are you'll targeting right now – is it just the NCR and Bangalore? Are they separate for buses and smaller vehicles?
: We have got pilot plans in many cities. The bus stations will generally be in depots, because you just need a few of them. One of those do 300 swaps a day. If you had charging infrastructure, you would need a 1:2 ratio. If you had 300 buses, you would need 150 charging stations. You replace the real estate of 150 buses with 1, its gas station time. In fact, the one minute swap is faster than a gas station because a gas station takes 3-5 minutes.

So what we're starting off with buses is going to be at depots. We have got a few contracts through Leyland in cities, we will bring that together, and there you know the routes. It is a very planned activity. As for the smaller ones, a lot of the first mile last mile is very region specific. So we are able to put a high density in a smaller area for this project. The pilots will be focussed on areas that meet this criteria to enable easy access. And then of course, when you scale up, we'll put it all over. The first six months, will be areas like this that will allow us a larger reach with fewer stations.

TG: What happens to batteries after they have completed their life on a vehicle?
: When they go to 80 per cent of their capacity, they are not usable on automobiles any more. So we say it is end-of-life for automobiles, but now you have this battery that has 80 per cent of its capacity. It can be used for solar and grid storage for another 5-7 years. So that is called second life. After 5-7 years of automotive application, it will go 5-7 years on its second life. After that, it will go through a recycling process. Some very good recycling processes are being made. There are recyclers in India that are recycling global lithium-ion batteries. It will be a good business for everyone because you're recovering cobalt and lithium carbonate and everything else and so you go through the recycling process and put the materials back in to batteries. But it would be a much longer time because batteries have a longer life. A current e-rickshaw battery is done after just 6-9 months, it recycles. That is a lot of recycling. We're talking about recycling once in 8-10 years, so it is a much longer period.

TG: What was the biggest challenge you faced with this project you have undertaken?
: I wouldn't really put anything that comes to my mind as a big one. The reason I say this is because I look at what I'm doing today and look at what I was doing in 1999 when I was under 30 and trying to build an electric car company when I couldn't find people who knew electric cars, suppliers who would do it. I think the ecosystem today is so much better. People understand it. We've done this, we've done vehicles, batteries, other parts of it, it is for us today to ensure that we are good at execution. We started this company a year ago and we've got three solutions already running around this area. Going forward I think it is more than challenges, just opportunities. How do we get more people on the platform? Because they get more benefit and you get more benefit. Win-win. You want to do that quickly. The more you get on, the larger you become. That requires a lot of OEMs and partners to look at it as a co-creation, not everyone is looking at it as this is mine and that it's yours.

TG: Who are you focussing your sales on – OEMs or end customers?
: I think you need to be in all spaces because it is a combination. In e-rickshaws we can also retrofit, so we can look at dealers. We believe it will be far cheaper for them to put this solution in instead of coming in for a replacement battery every 6-8 months. We can get an e-rickshaw driver a 30 per cent increase in revenue, and once we show that it works, word of mouth will get out. It will also give them the flexibility. We have a solution that works well, and we have teams out in the field understanding consumers. We will probably have to put value propositions that communicate that. When you have a value proposition, it is more about experiencing it. If you don't have a value proposition, then you're trying to market it. I think we have to do a good job in this area. 

But in some cases I think OEMs will be very good because they would look at the product selling, they offer that. They could have an only swap or a swap and regular, so they offer customers various options. Their dealerships could be putting up stations, there could be franchisee models, there could be revenue for them because with electric mobility coming, the dealer is going to have less service. How do you get them to have revenue? But if tomorrow you give them these things, then you could have joint revenue. So you are changing and economy right through. 

TG: Do you see fast charging tech improving to a point where swapping comes under threat?
: Not really, let's look at 2- and 3-wheelers. Let's look at Delhi. In summer, your battery temperature is around 45 degrees. You then try to drive it, it goes up by 5-7 degrees. You then try to charge it, it ends up at 55 degrees. A battery at 55 degrees is probably a third of the life of a battery at room temperature. So you kill your life. And you don’t have a viable business model because all your battery costs go up 3x more because it has one-third the life, then this model is out of the door. It won't make business sense. So the way we thermally manage our batteries is a big issue which is required. But if you're someone who is going to a mall, and finds a parking spot with a plug, you'd be okay with it. I think swapping and fast charging will coexist for some time. In fact, we fast charge our batteries. When did people say swapping versus fast charging? We are fast charging them, and then swapping them. But we are fast charging our batteries too.

As told to Aatish Mishra

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