Ather Energy CEO on What's Needed to Make India a Fully Electric Vehicle Nation by 2030

Ather Energy CEO on What's Needed to Make India a Fully Electric Vehicle Nation by 2030
  • Ather Energy is making an electric powered smart scooter
  • It's on track to release in 2018, the CEO and co-founder says
  • Electricity distribution to power EVs is going to be a major hurdle

Two wheelers have a shot at being [100 percent electric by 2030], says Tarun Mehta, CEO and co-founder of [Ather Energy], a Bengaluru-based company that's in the process of releasing its own electric "smart" scooter.

In 2016, then Power Minister Piyush Goyal said the aim is to make India a 100 percent electric vehicle nation by 2030. A year down the line, options remain scarce for customers, though Tarun Mehta, CEO and co-founder of Ather Energy - a Bengaluru-based company that's in the process of releasing its own electric "smart" scooter - says two-wheelers have a realistic chance of achieving that target. Of course, he's got a bit of bias when it comes to a question like this, but he's also one of the few people in the country who is in a position to answer whether this is going to be possible.

Mehta says he's not familiar enough with four-wheelers, but he does believe it's possible for scooters and bikes. "The real challenge is going to be the investments made on the ICE [internal combustion engine] side, which the bigger OEMs have been doing for a long time, and there's the brand consideration also, like a brand like Royal Enfield, if they go fully electric, how will it affect their brand," says Mehta. That said, he believes it's possible in terms of investments and deployment, and adds that with over a decade to go, if the government can make it lucrative enough, the change will be possible.

Ather was supposed to release its scooter - which it started testing in 2015 - last year, but it has missed this deadline by a large margin. Earlier this year, Gadgets 360 had caught up with Mehta and he had told us that it's now on course to go on sale in 2018, and he says that this is still on track as of now.

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"In February, after the Series B funding] we did a lot of hiring, and got some very senior guys, bringing the team size up to around 260 people, including around 50-60 engineers," said Mehta. "We're doing our final testing now, and the civil work on our plant is over, so by early next year we'll be going into pilot production at the plant. That's of course not the same as shipping, and it'll take a few months after that before we're ready to go to the consumers, but we're still on course for 2018."

Getting wired up
Apart from getting the scooter up and running, the one thing that Mehta is worried about is standards for charing EVs. Presently, there isn't any real system in place for setting up charging points. Some, such as Mahindra, have come up with a solar power ecosystem that customers can buy into. According to Mehta, in other cases, the customer is left to figure out how to get the charging points set up in their parking spaces.

"We need some enabling laws to make charging standard for electric vehicles before 2030," said Mehta. "Right now there is no infrastructure, and it causes a number of problems. As the demand grows, private players are going to have to step in, but right now, for example, the resale of electricity is not allowed. So there are workarounds, such as you call it a service, or bill for the time, but these are just temporary fixes."

"The company that's providing the recharging can't get the electric connection in its own name either," he added. "Suppose you go to a cafe and say I want to set up a recharge station in your parking lot. You can't get a connection, only the person who owns the property can, so you have to use the cafe's electricity now. This will lead to all kinds of problems when private players will be looking to come up with hybrid models for charging."

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Most of all though, Mehta is worried about offices and housing complexes. "Our societies, our offices and malls, they're not set up with charging in mind," said Mehta. "We need to mandate charging points. Otherwise charging at home will become a real challenge."

Electricity isn't a problem
Apart from distribution, the other issue that comes to mind when one thinks of electric cars is electricity generation. Mehta pointed out that India has surplus power, and added that a switch to electric vehicles could help balance the nation's electricity requirements, while reducing dependence on oil.

"EV power consumption is also very low," he added. "There have been studies done to show that even if we go fully electric, it will increase demand by only around 20 percent, which isn't that much. The real challenge is getting the electricity to people's homes, car parks, offices, and public places."

For now, ahead of any official moves, Ather Energy has set up its own "charging infrastructure team", Mehta explained. "We have a charging pod - you can also use a 5-amp plug in emergencies, like you're at a friend's house and you're out of charge for example, but it's not a very good solution and it's not safe for the consumer. So we have the pod, which is a complete solution, and our team and their partners come to your house and work with your society to set it up for your vehicle, with all the tools required so everything will be taken care of without you having to do anything."

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Batteries a limiting factor
One area which could pose a challenge is battery availability. Building in India, batteries will prove to be a limiting factor for the EV industry in the country. As Mehta explains, building a battery pack is very doable, but manufacturing the cells inside the batteries is going to be very expensive.

"As EVs go mainstream, you'll need materials which will not be readily available at fist, although EV demand should create battery demand, which would lead to these components becoming available down the road, as the need also builds up," said Mehta. "But to get this to work, we will really need to up our ante on recycling for batteries. We will need up to 98-99 percent recycling on these materials. Lithium will still be a problem, but the good news is that it is only a very small percentage of your battery - and most of the other elements are available in India."

That said, Mehta doesn't believe that the recycling needs a boost from the government yet, saying that it's too early, but added that EV companies themselves will take the lead on recycling when replacing batteries for vehicles.

The availability of batteries is also why Mehta scoffed at ideas such as powering your home from your vehicle. "Car batteries are designed for 1000 cycles. If you're feeding the grid, you're wasting those cycles, saving a little money on electricity, but a lot more on replacing the batteries," said Mehta. "Companies that are talking about this are just trying to fit in more features to look good on paper, but it's pointless."

"It doesn't make sense in India because we don't have peak hours or time-based metering, but even if you did, it also doesn't take into account conversion losses, so your savings would be even less than you think," he added. "If you want to go off the grid, you should use a battery that's designed for storage, like the Powerwall, instead of using an EV to do this."


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