Lack of Policy Has Caused Doubt Among All EV Stakeholders

Lack of Policy Has Caused Doubt Among All EV Stakeholders

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14-17 Interview Chetan Maini ATR Dec14 1

Electric Vehicles (EV) and electric powertrains have been at the crux of discussions among governments and automakers alike. In India too, electric mobility has been a major topic of discussion, but hasn't taken off yet as expected. However, Mahindra Reva has been at the top of the EV game, also being the first in the country to introduce a full EV, the Reva electric car. We spoke to Chetan Maini, Founder & CEO, Mahindra Reva about the EV sector in India, the current business status, as well as future plans of the company.

Chetan Maini holds a Bachelor's Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan, and a Master's in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University. He has over 20 years of experience in the development of solar, hybrid and electric vehicles in the US and India, and had earlier worked for Amerigon Inc and General Motors in the US. Maini was named one of the top 50 most influential people in India by Business Week and was names Young Global Leader by The World Economic Forum. He also serves as a member of India's National Board on Electric Mobility and chairs the Personal Transportation Council, World Economic Forum. He holds and has filed over 30 global patents in electric vehicle technologies.

ATR _ How has the year been for Mahindra Reva?

CHETAN MAINI _ This has been an interesting year in terms of markets, technologies, programmes, as well as internal developments. The year began with us showcasing a number of developments and technologies at the Auto Expo, including our Formula E car, next-generation platforms like the Halo, and two new Mahindra platforms that are currently under testing. We're also seeing a shift from people identifying Mahindra Reva as 'the company that makes the e2o,' towards it being a company with multiple platforms, showcasing technologies of the future.

The company has entered a few export markets with the e2o, and is looking at entering mainstream Western European markets in 2015. We have also added more infrastructure, new versions of the product, upgrades and more, which is an overall progress for us in the right direction.

Have the targets been met?

We've successfully achieved our target of entering Bangladesh and Bermuda. Another target was to launch a new variant of the e2o by July 2014, and that has also been done. Besides that, the company had set a number of programmes at the beginning of the year, which are all on track, although none of them will be launched this calendar year. On the whole, we've seen positive results this year, and will be close to achieving our sales targets.

The e2o hasn't performed  to expectations. What do you think went wrong?

The basis on which we launched the e2o was with the expectation of a subsidy being in place, which didn't happen. We launched the car in March, expecting the new budget in April would include a subsidy for EVs. Globally, EV growth has been largely driven by policy, which is what we expected as well to push domestic sales of the e2o. Secondly, the awareness levels of EVs and EV technologies among people in the country are very low, and so is their understanding of how to fit an EV into their everyday life. We have addressed issues brought up by customers, worked on them, and have provided solutions to these concerns.

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Besides government policies and customer awareness, what are the other factors required for EVs to take-off in a large way in India?

Infrastructure is a major factor that can help spur growth of EVs in the future. However, it is not required immediately, since about 95 % of EV customers charge their vehicles at home or work, but will definitely have an important role ahead. Concern of customers not having enough charging stations is often a deterrent to the purchase of EVs. For this, there is a need to provide visibility to the infrastructure that is already available in the country.

Another booster would include the participation of more players in the electrification of vehicles, as seen in countries like Norway and China. Currently, Mahindra Reva has monopoly of the EV segment in India, but once there are more manufacturers, competition will increase, having a positive impact in terms of shared technological developments. There is a chance of collaborative development of technologies and knowledge around EVs, which could further build the ecosystem.

Your expectations from the National Mission on Electric Mobility (NMEM)?

The country has been lacking a long-term policy, which has caused doubts among OEMs, Tier I, and infrastructure & energy companies to invest, as all these companies are long-term policy-driven. There needs to be an alignment among all stakeholders, with the future potential of e-mobility being shown to them. There are three components in furthering the NMEM – increasing demand for EVs by offering concessions to consumers, growth of infrastructure, and improving R&D with regards to EV technologies.

In the future, we will see more private-public partnerships taking place, which will use the expertise of both parties to develop technologies. These partnerships could see potential connections of private car owners to the public grid, wherein power can be sold back to the grid at peak hours, when EVs are not in use. The PPP model could also lead to energy policies that are linked into transportation systems, where a majority of vehicles are powered by renewable electric power.

What are  the new developments being taken up with regards to India?

We broadly work on powertrain technologies such as motors, inverters, and transmissions, next-generation battery sources, new battery architectures, and new connected vehicle technologies, including telematics. We also develop lightweight materials and composites, highly-engineered battery management systems and complete software for the vehicles. The main focus of the development work is in making technology affordable, while increasing performance, at no increase in cost. We are also working on newer battery chemistries that will enable faster charging, exploring the future of lithium-ion batteries and developing new battery management systems.

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Power electronics, electric motors and batteries demand maximum attention in EVs. What is the kind of work you are undertaking in these areas?

In our motors, we are scaling up power, increasing efficiency, reducing weight and are working on reducing cost in all future products. We are also looking at innovations with regards to high performance of products, as in the case of Formula E. In terms of batteries, we are working on improving thermal management, better battery management systems, lighter designs with better cycle life, and lowering charging times. This would also involve the development of more sophisticated management systems.

What should the Indian industry focus on with regards to electromobility?

There are four main areas that the Indian industry needs to look into with regards to electromobility. First, there is a need for the government to formulate policies for battery companies in the country. Similar to the US, these policies need to offer a single-approval clearance for such companies. I expect companies to begin manufacturing cells in the country in the next two years or so. The second area of focus is in the requirement of high level of research from the IITs and other institutions. There is also a necessity to set up centres of excellence to promote future electrification in India.

Third, there is a large requirement for the country to set up laboratory space for the development of electromobility. These laboratories should take up the duty of testing and analysis of new products. Finally, there is a need for the potential commonality of cells or battery modules, enabling easier adoption of standards. An industry standard approach would have minimum requirements that all players will have to conform to, enabling development of common or similar products, and result in better competition.

What are the takeaways from the recently concluded Formula E with regards to future technologies?

The technology found in a Formula E car is not very different from that of the e2o itself. Although the Formula E car has been modified and tuned more towards performance, it has technologies very similar to regular EVs. Therefore, there is parallel learning that takes place between the Formula E racing division and Mahindra Reva, on a regular basis.

With regards to the Formula E race in particular, the cars of all competitors have been very similar, and now we are looking at developing this car further. The focus is on using simulation across various areas to carry out further developments on the cars. In the future, there is also a potential for the introduction of a constructors' trophy, which will lead to the introduction of newer technologies. There could also be a situation where technologies are exchanged between manufacturers, to raise the level of the sport. This interchange of technologies can easily take place, also due to the fact that EV racing and EV technology as a whole, is very nascent.

How critical is the academia's role in the growth of EVs in India?

For me, institutions play a very important role in the growth of EVs and electric technologies. More development work can be done in these areas only when there are enough knowledgeable people to do them. Studying EV technologies needs to be made 'cool'. Students need to be given projects that build on such technologies, resulting in some interesting findings and innovations.

As a company, we will also be announcing projects around EV technologies in the near future to bring in fresh development and new perspectives for the industry.

There is a requirement for centres of excellence around the country, where such complex research work can be carried out efficiently. We need more and more experts in the field of electrification to take the level of innovation and development further.

What opportunities do you see in terms of technology acquisition from the global market?

From a global perspective, the EV space is an exciting one, as there are technologies to be employed from a large number of sources. Various players developing different technologies result in higher possibility for collaborations, mergers and acquisitions. Tier I companies are also beginning to invest in this industry.

Companies like Tesla opening up their patented technologies for everyone is a thorough process that is evolving. Sharing of intellectual property (IP) rights would lead to a culture shift of how we think of IP, and would be beneficial to late entrants into this industry. These players could learn quickly about the various technologies and advancements in the EV sector, thereby helping develop solutions for future requirements of the industry. It could also help in setting standards that need to be followed by the industry, as everyone would be on the same level of technology.

Text & Photos: Naveen Arul