VIJAYALAYAN R is Automotive Industry Application Engineering Manager at MathWorks India
According to the World Economic Forum, air pollution alone kills 1.25 million people in India annually. While the recent COVID-19 related lockdown has shown a significant improvement in air quality, these gains need to be maintained by expanding the country’s investment in longer-term, green mobility solutions. One way to combat this is to address the two-wheel scooter market in India, which is booming based on the flexibility, speed, and independence offered by these vehicles. In Bengaluru alone, some estimates place the number of scooters at roughly 5 million, which accounts for almost 70 % of the city’s vehicles.
While more fuel efficient than cars, the growing number of scooters in use in India means they contribute heavily to greenhouse gases. One way to combat this in a lasting way would be to offer consumers intelligent and sustainable scooter models that allow them to pick the vehicle of their choice while contributing to climate conservation. It was projected that by the year 2030 the sale of electric scooters is expected to increase to over 2 million, however the FAME II scheme, declared in April of 2019 significantly dampened this growth, reducing electric two-wheeler sales by 94 % in the first six months of FY20. Needless to say, the need for more sustainable options of transport far outweighed any such dampeners.
But any company that decided to take on the smart scooter design challenge needed to come up with innovative, fast, cost effective and sustainable ways of development and production. If the objective was to encourage owners of petrol-powered scooters to switch to the Ather 450, a replacement would have to be comparable in terms of power and acceleration and have accessible and quick recharge options.
In 2013, Swapnil Jain and Tarun Mehta, alumni of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, set out to solve that problem. Founding Bengaluru-based Ather Energy in 2013 as a solution to India’s sustainable vehicle problem, their company has since met and exceeded this as it grew from barely a bike frame to launching the company’s first scooter in just three years.
Ather Energy focused on designing a connected and intelligent vehicle that went beyond just a mode of commute to one that serves as a platform for mobility. The team faced the typical start-up challenge: they had a lot of promising ideas but limited budget, time and people to build prototypes and test each one. But, added to this, was another layer of complexity – finding the right engineering team to work on a first-of-its kind product, which meant there were no blueprints or examples to follow. Aside from designing the scooter, Ather Energy’s engineers were faced with the mammoth task of both developing and implementing control algorithms for charging batteries, temperature management and a number of other challenges, all while trying to produce a viable product quickly with a small team.
To address these challenges and meet their ambitious goals, Ather Energy adopted MathWork’s MATLAB and Simulink tools for Model-Based Design. The Model-Based Design approach helped in speed testing, and to identify and validate the best ideas through simulation and virtual prototyping. By employing an agile and iterative process for development, they were able to rapidly refine algorithms and debug them, sometimes even re-writing and testing code for up to five times in one day. The design was re-developed and re-designed until such point that they were able to identify a battery and motor configuration that was able to meet the required range requirements and target accelerations while still keeping in mind the temperature, size and cost parameters.
As a result, they were able to deliver a more full-featured scooter in a significantly shorter timeframe, instead of taking two months to build and test physical prototypes. Simulation models enabled them to complete the same task in two weeks. This includes testing the control algorithms, being able to model and simulate the scooter and charging system. What would have taken one month to test took two weeks.
Moreover, testing simulations allowed the team to understand how the scooter might function in certain operating conditions and test a number of different design ideas. This included testing the way in which the scooter would function and perform on an incline, in reduced battery circumstances, with a pillion rider and under extreme temperature conditions.
With a lithium-ion battery, lightweight aluminium body, and an intelligent digital display, the Ather S340 was a revolution in the smart scooter market. Each scooter has forty-odd sensors that capture different types of data. The battery has its own intelligence as does the charger and the motor, which means the vehicle has decision-making capability. These decisions include what to do about diagnostic data that the scooters continuously stream back to Ather’s servers. For example, if a vehicle is unable to charge, the scooter can perform its own analysis on data from this event and also receive wireless intervention from Ather engineers, if necessary. This predictive maintenance technique helps Ather to improve the scooter’s intelligence and even update vehicles remotely with new and improved features, without the need to replace the bike itself.
With these features, Ather is hoping to make the transition from petrol-powered scooters to their 340 and 450 models as easy as possible for users. But to fully realize that vision, there’s still one more piece of the puzzle to solve, said Jain: charging.
The company launched Ather 340 and Ather 450 in 2018 and, based on continued success, secured its fourth round of funding for $ 51 million in 2019. The unique value of Ather scooters is the intelligence, which is part of each scooter’s system. Ather’s 450 scooter comes equipped with a touchscreen GPS, remote diagnostics based on data patterns of other users, and an intelligent battery that can autonomously change modes in different environments to ensure its highest efficiency and power.
Performance of its scooters remains central to Ather’s journey. However, Ather’s goal has expanded beyond this to creating a grid of charging infrastructure in Bangalore and Chennai. Here, roadways are littered with petrol and gas stations. But electric vehicles face a significantly scarcer infrastructure, giving rise to range anxiety in users, which Ather has tried to curb with its charging grid. Ather scooter users can navigate to 38 charging locations across Bengaluru and 14 in Chennai using their scooter’s dashboard and charge their vehicle at up to 1 km/minute. While designed with its scooters in mind, Ather’s charging points can also be used for other types of electric vehicles as well. Based on the success of the charging grid, plans are underway to expand charging-station availability into neighbouring cities.
Going forward, as the company continues to grow its technology, Ather hopes to continue to grow its influence and impact on users as well.