Tarun Mehta, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Ather Energy

In a free-wheeling interaction with Anil Mascarenhas of India Infoline, Tarun Mehta speaks about predictive analysis, technological disruptions and how really powerful the electric scooter S340 is likely to be.

Mar 17, 2016 06:03 IST IIFL Anil Mascarenhas |

“We first moved from Lead Ion battery pack to Lithium Ion battery pack. For Ather S340’s IP67-rated battery pack, we invested a lot of time in thermal design, electronics and building production systems. The outcome is a battery pack life 10 times more than what the market offers: with a life cycle of 50,000 kms and a life span of 5-6 years.” 
 
Tarun Mehta, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Ather Energy, is a graduate from IIT-Madras with a dual degree in Engineering Design. At IIT-M, Tarun has been associated with over a dozen prototypes and has six co-patents (pending) to his name. He moved out of his job at Ashok Leyland in 2012 and took to his electric vehicle passion by working on battery packs initially. Tarun drives the strategic thinking at Ather Energy and represents the company at the Technical Advisory Group for Electric Mobility to the Government of India.
 
In a free-wheeling interaction with Anil Mascarenhas of India Infoline, Tarun Mehta speaks about predictive analysis, technological disruptions and how really powerful the electric scooter S340 is likely to be.
 
What’s the genesis of your product?
In most of our interactions with consumers of electric vehicles, it was clear they loved the concept and believed this was the future of bike travel. At the same time, existing products didn’t address all their requirements. So our thesis was to create a zero compromise cent percent product, replicating all the benefits of petrol power. Swapnil and I, both from IIT Madras, began work on the battery packs in early 2013 and soon Ather Energy was born. We received great support from our institute’s Engineering Design department. We now wish to be part of the government’s ambitious National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP) 2020 to put 7mn electric and hybrid vehicles on Indian roads by 2020.


 Are battery life and charging conditions among the key challenges in electric vehicles?
Yes, you are right. There are definite engineering solutions to address these issues but it demands a longer development cycle. Given that nobody else seemed keen, we took it upon ourselves to take the lead from the front. We first moved from Lead Ion battery pack to Lithium Ion battery pack. With the right chemistry in lithium battery pack, you get 5 to 10 times more battery life. Besides size and weight drop down drastically.  We also built our own battery management system to ensure tight control on the battery pack. For Ather S340’s IP67-rated battery pack, we invested a lot of time in thermal design, electronics and building production systems. The outcome is a battery pack life 10 times more than what the market offers: with a life cycle of 50,000 kms and a life span of 5-6 years.
 
The second problem was the lack of charging points in our cities. Here again, the lithium battery pack allows to charge faster. Thanks to built-in cooling, it can sustain fast charging situations. Secondly, we have built our own charger ten times more powerful than the chargers available in the market. Currently, we are looking at around 50 minutes to one hour for an 80% charge at an intrinsic rate of charging time. Reducing the charging time to just about an hour is a big leap, and that solves a lot of usage problems. If we have to wait for six to eight hours for driving up to 50 kilometers, it would not be very conducive for daily commuters, because even if you stop at a cafe, for half an hour, that will probably give you just 3-4 kilometers, not good enough. However bringing down the majority charging time to a mere hour means a stop of half an hour, you thus end up acquiring 20-30 kilometers of battery time.
 
A short charging time enables us to build a charging structure. We are right now working with cafes, malls and a couple of corporate business parks to roll out a number of public charging points.
 
Is predictive analysis more of a wow endeavor?
Predictive maintenance is definitely about real value, only that it’s not exciting from day one. The possibilities of the connected S340 are now endless – what with connected touch screen dashboard integrated with vehicle firmware, synced with our cloud database and layered with predictive analytics. 
 
Predictive maintenance is something that we will build up over a period of time. One or two year later, as vehicles would get older, and a lot of data is collected, the vehicle will have a rich history to help derive useful patterns. I expect to collect relevant statistics from a very long term perspective. 
 
Over a period of time, this will help reduce the need for annual maintenance contracts and periodic vehicle check-ups as enough data would be at the vehicle owner’s disposal. On the other hand, the data analysis will help vehicle makers will get great insights to build better vehicles. If you knew for example your motors will never be used at a specific band, you can design far more efficient lighter vehicles.
 
You did some initial study on whether electric vehicles are really green…
Electric vehicles can be completely green offering zero percent pollution. It wholly depends on the source of electricity. The electricity generated from a renewable source, solar or wind, have zero emissions in usage. However, in Indian conditions, almost 70-75% electric generation is from pollution-causing thermal sources - coal and gas. Naturally they contribute to pollution but 30-40% less than what petrol vehicles do.
 
Beside low pollution, what else makes electric vehicles better than their petrol counterparts as one normally links petrol with better pick up and more sturdiness?
We see our product as the ‘best to handle’ scooter in the country. It has got the lowest center of gravity, has uniform weight distribution and has a hybrid aluminum chasis. It’s 20 per cent lighter than other scooters and offers 50 per cent more back storage space. It’s got great acceleration, way better than a lot of 110cc petrol vehicles out there. With great power, it can carry 2 to 3 people easily.
 
Why have the existing players not really made it big in the electric scooter market?
Today the market is still at a very nascent stage. Maybe it will make sense for existing incumbents to make an entry after the market has matured a little bit. It’s actually a function of what size the market is today. I would expect some traction from existing players in the next three to five years.       
     
What are the technological disruptions you expect in the automobile industry?
We see most of the disruption in the next 20 years – most in terms of vehicle intelligence. Vehicles will basically keep cutting down the need for human interference. They will start making lot of diffusion themselves, whether it is something as simple as auto driving or as complex as driverless cars. In the case of scooters, lot of software will step into the product like onboard navigations, automated riding profile or changing drivetrain performance based on usage. I think data and connectivity will rule the auto world in the time to come.
 
You are planning a lot of sales online. How is your logistics?
We are setting up our first plant in Bangalore. We will produce 50 units per day at an investment of Rs. 25 crore. For logistics, we are building experience centers in every city of launch. These are places where people can come for a test drive, feel the vehicles, grasp the technologies and speak to our customer care personnel.
 
However, the only way to buy this vehicle is to preorder it online via our website. Post the preorder, we will keep the buyers continuously updated on pre-shipping formalities. The vehicle would be shipped directly to their homes.  
 
Would mobile apps then be a logical extension to the website?
Yes, obviously, we are building an app which can track the vehicle. You can also mine the usage and look at a lot of data.
 
What is your ownership pattern and team size?
I cannot talk about specific numbers. The founders are majority stake holders in the company and we have got great investors like Tiger Global, and Sachin and Binny Bansal of Flipkart. We are almost a 100 people now. With the exception of the motor built, the entire design is in house.  We have different groups like hardware engineering, software engineering, product team, data team, battery team and of course technology team. We have a fairly diverse set of people from pretty much every engineering stream out there.      

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