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Building battery packs in-house is essential for battery safety, says Ather CEO Tarun Mehta

The co-founder and CEO of Ather Energy weighs in on EV battery safety, importance of extensive testing and road map for electric mobility in India

April 18, 2022 / 07:06 PM IST
Tarun Mehta (Image: twitter/ tarunsmehta)

Tarun Mehta (Image: twitter/ tarunsmehta)


By his own admission, Tarun Mehta and electric two-wheeler maker Ather Energy have had a fantastic financial year 2022 despite roadblocks such as supply chain issues and a resurgent pandemic. Having grabbed a greater portion of the market share, opened 35 experience centres and struck an annual run rate of $200 million, CEO and cofounder Mehta is ideally placed to throw light on the issue of battery safety. In an exclusive interview with Moneycontrol, he talks about what brands must do to ensure rider safety, why battery packs must be built in-house and how to create a revolutionary customer experience.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

It’s been a good year for Ather with 354 percent year on year growth. Would you say it has surpassed your expectations?

Yes. I think the last quarter was a tough one with the semiconductor crisis where we lost a fair bit of sales. We’ve grown a lot. Very proud of how teams have been able to scale up. Scale up supply chain, distribution, etc. We’re just getting started. In the month of March, we saw more orders than we saw in all of 2018 and 2019 put together. We only have about 35 cities right now. We’ll have over 120-140 experience centres by the end of FY23. We’re going to grow a lot, and we’re going to have a lot more presence across the country. This year, we should grow several times. The market is fantastic and customer expectations are quite high.

What’s the delivery to order ratio? Because you’ve mentioned that you intend to overhaul the supply chain extensively.

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For both Swapnil (Jain, tech chief and co-founder) and I, most of our focus in the last few months has been on manufacturing and supply chain. It’s obvious to us that with this kind of scaling-up happening, that’s the number one thing that needs to be worked on. The order to supply ratio is frankly embarrassing right now. In the month of March it was 30 percent. Not our finest moment. We’re making a lot of changes under the hood. We are making considerable changes but overall I’d say there will be a supply constraint for the next two years.

Do you think retrofitting internal combustion engine (ICE) scooters with electric vehicle (EV) powertrains is likely to become more popular over time?

The issue with retrofitting ICE scooters is that it’s a fairly exhaustive process. It’s not as simple as replacing an ICE powertrain with an electric one. It’s about replacing several components including maybe the tyres as well. So at the end you receive a product that’s essentially a prototype and you haven’t really saved much money on it. The other thing is that the retrofitting outfit team would have to be familiar not just with a brand of ICE scooter but each subsequently updated version of that model across its lifecycle. The first-ever Activa or any other flagship ICE scooter differs greatly from the current-gen one. So theoretically, it’s possible, but practically it doesn’t really make sense.

Coming to the issue of battery safety, which is a burning one, so to speak, what would your advice be to young startups on how to make testing procedure more India-specific?

I think respect for engineering and testing should be there. We all want to launch faster and scale up faster but hardware takes some time. What’s missing right now for a lot of us is that there aren’t enough internal testing standards that you can cycle through to ensure that you’ve got a really high quality battery pack and electronics and other EV components. It’s a tough journey because the standards don’t exist and we have to come up with them ourselves. I’m not talking about regulatory standards. That’s a small layer because they are minimum requirements.

I’m talking about internal testing standards. For example, at Ather, we go through 120 tests at the battery pack level and 800 tests at a vehicle level. And most of these tests happen several times before every single product launch. I don’t think we’re unique, I think most global EV brands go through something similar.

I think in India these tests are still a little rare. We learnt it the hard way, in our early years. Design, and the first few good vehicles is probably 30 percent of the journey. The other 70 percent is just a lot of very boring and very essential testing, testing, testing. Before we launched the first vehicle I think we’d built 200 battery packs and we’d cycled them for about four years.

We would have fixed over 1,000 issues before we got around to just putting the first vehicles out. Since then we’ve kept improving. You want to build something from scratch in India, you want to develop your own standards. You can’t even compare it with what Korea or Japan are doing because the road and thermal conditions there are very different. Vibration, heat, humidity levels are different.

To me, what Ather’s built in the last few years, the real IP (intellectual property) is in product development and understanding. This is critical and every brand should be focusing on building this.

Is there any truth to the notion that a lot of directly imported battery packs are inherently designed to withstand temperatures up to 130 degree celsius? So ambient temperatures of Indian summer should not be affecting them and they’re not the primary cause.

In my opinion, battery chemistry plays no role in the cause of a fire. Fires don’t happen because the chemistry has a problem. If the chemistry is not good, maybe what will happen is that your systems will shut down faster. But the problem is more complicated than that.

If temperatures are higher, you will have more cut-offs. If the manufacturing quality isn’t very good then some of those cut-offs may not be understood very well by the system and those are the situations which can lead to a failure and lead to a fire.

In my opinion it’s the quality that’s responsible for all fires. Chemistry, good or bad, will lead to good or bad performance. But it has a very limited role in battery fire. So you want to put in a lot of effort on the pack design on the battery management system and the assembly and build quality of all of this.

There’s also the notion that the packaging of the battery pack should be designed to be more conducive to safety and that safety or well-spaced battery cells can come at the cost of performance. Is that a myth as well? Is there a trade-off?

I don’t think safer battery packs come at the cost of performance. I think a safer design comes at the cost of a longer design process. I think there will be some actual cost because you will have greater levels of safety designed into the system. More fuses, more vents, more tracking mechanisms in your BMS. But the cost is manageable. And your performance has no correlation to safety.

Do customers only have the precedent set by a brand to base their purchasing decisions on? Or is there some essential knowledge that they can be empowered with to make better informed purchasing decisions?

I think it’s a good idea (for the customer) to try and understand how much effort has gone into pack design, how open the brand is about talking about what they’ve built. I think the key question is whether packs are built in-house or not. Often not having control over your own battery packs is a matter of concern. It’s not a show stopper. You can have a great supplier, but building packs ourselves provides greater control. And even if a supplier is providing the packs, is that happening in India or not? Because if your entire pack is coming out of a different country, you will have a serious challenge. They will often not be built for the Indian climate.

Ather is closing in on a decade now. What would you say is the way forward for the segment at large?

I think out of eight years of building this company, the last one year has been as exciting as all the previous years of putting this together. We are on the cusp of change. The last few months have been terrific. We’ve gone from 3-4 percent market penetration in the scooter segment to 12 percent in a span of 6 months. I think what’s ahead of us is almost 25-30 percent market penetration in the next 12-18 months.

These are times of enormous change. If every third or fourth customer in the country is going to be buying electric, then people’s expectations will change. As will our supply chains and our talent. The scale will become mainstream.

Until last year, electric felt like a top 10 city or 15 city situation where only early adopters were going to be buying. Now you’ve got even rural customers very excited about the idea of electric. I’m very bullish as an EV entrepreneur. I think the pace of change is going to be the key story here.

I think India’s going to leapfrog every EV transformation globally. I think we will go from near zero penetration to 30-40 percent market penetration in a few years. Small countries like Norway have been able to do that. No large country has that kind of transformation. We are in the middle of the biggest change in the history of the Indian automobile industry.

When it comes to these battery incidents, do you think they can cause a fairly significant hiccup in the EV sector? Or does it separate the wheat from the chaff?

I don’t think these incidents dampen the mood. I think it makes customers more aware of the quality. And customers kind of already knew that not every vehicle is built the same. I think they’re now going to be more vocal in asking those questions.

But the fact is that electric is more attractive for them on a cost and experience basis. The acceleration, the sound, the lower running costs are all better. That’s not changing. And it’s not just us. It’s a lot of good brands now that are building good quality products. I don’t think customers are going to freak out and say, let’s just sit tight. The interest in EVs is only going to accelerate but there will be more considered purchases in the future.

From a public safety viewpoint, do you think some sort of government certification for safety standards is necessary?

ARAI certification (Automotive Research Association of India) bodies already have a battery testing protocol. What I would suggest is, given that this is an exciting time of growth and lots of things are changing, maybe this is an opportunity for the government to co-opt some of us OEMs (original equipment makers) who have been building battery packs for the last 6-7 years.

We have a lot of data, hundreds of millions of kilometres. I think there’s an opportunity for the government to co-opt most of us, and make the certification process more robust. I’m not saying it’s not robust but it could be more specific to Indian roads and environmental conditions.

At the same time, I don’t think it’s the government’s job to ensure good manufacturing quality. The government is not the quality department of an automotive company. That’s the OEM’s job.

You’ve shared your thoughts on battery swapping, that it causes wear and tear and performance takes a hit. Given the recent announcement during the budget, do you still hold on to your stance regarding battery swapping?

For us as a company, swapping has played a limited role so Ather is not into swappable battery packs today. For some commercial segments, swapping plays a very critical role in the two-wheeler market. Swapping is the only way to drive 150 km each day without increasing downtime. It helps up-front cost as well, but for a consumer market, in almost all cities in India, I think charging is a more cost-efficient and simpler way to drive electrification.

Can swappable batteries mitigate the safety issue since charging is done outside the scooter?

I don’t think it has any bearing. I think as a battery manufacturer if your battery is prone to catching fire while being charged, you have far bigger problems. Because even phones don’t do that today.

As the market matures, what would the focus be for Ather – performance or range?

I think as a brand we’ve tried to take a different stand. It’s not performance, it’s not range. I think the bigger true north for us is experience. I think in the scooter space, there's not enough focus on the overall product experience. I think we have too many products in the EV space being assembled together.

I think a ground-up product like Apple is a fantastic opportunity. To be able to do that in Indian conditions, meeting Indian cost targets is terrific. That’s the missing space in the market, that’s where the margins and values lie. The last scooter which was, for me, an amazing product was the Honda Activa. And that was 20 years ago. The Activa changed people’s experiences around automatic transmission.

There’s an opportunity to do something similar with electric. That’s what Ather wants to solve. I think the convenience, comfort, ride quality – there’s a lot that Ather can do. Using solid state batteries, using connectivity and integrating it all together. Ather as a company strongly believes in vertical integration. Not just because it gives better cost structures but also because we believe that tightly integrating components gives us a better customer and a better product experience.

Top priority for financial year 2023…

We’ve got to grow several times. More experience centres, a new plant that goes live in August. Working with all our suppliers to scale up the supply several times and doubling down on the reputation we’ve built for making a product that’s high on quality. Buying an Ather should be a no-brainer.

 

 



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Parth Charan is a Mumbai-based writer who’s written extensively on cars for over seven years.
first published: Apr 15, 2022 10:31 am
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