Ola, Mahindra, Bounce: meet the companies lighting up the road for electric vehicles to go the distance

Electric vehicle companies – manufacturers and fleets -- can achieve scale only with the right infrastructure. The jury is still out on whether this will take the form of charging stations or swappable batteries.

Vishal Krishna

Sindhu Kashyaap

Ola, Mahindra, Bounce: meet the companies lighting up the road for electric vehicles to go the distance

Monday March 18, 2019,

7 min Read

In the last article in our India’s EV Story series, we talked about how bike-sharing/rental platforms were moving to using electric vehicles to help them become profitable. Today, we talk about what they need to become widely available and compete effectively with their petrol/diesel-powered counterparts.

electric vehicles, SUN Mobility, Ola, Mahindra

Electric vehicles are all the rage, at least in a part of the public transport space. Bike-sharing platforms like Yulu, Mobycy, Rapido, ONN Bikes, Bounce, Vogo, and Ola’s new EV venture, Ola Electric, are all looking to go electric in order to survive and thrive in the $300 million ride-sharing/rental market in India.

They’re not the only ones. Bus aggregator ZipGo and car rental startup Zoomcar are also looking at electric. Mahindra & Mahindra, owners of the all-electric e2O car, too has entered the ride-sharing business with its electric car hailing service Glyd and a fleet of 10 e-Verito cabs in Mumbai. And then there are the electric three-wheeler operators such as SmartE, which address last-mile connectivity. Mahindra has recently released 10,000 electric three-wheelers, while SmartE plans to release 10 times as many by 2022. Even Ashok Leyland announced its foray into electric buses a year ago, and is now ready to launch 50 e-buses.

But while the supply of electric vehicles is growing, the supply of electric vehicle infrastructure has not been able to keep pace. What’s more, the jury is still out on which type of infrastructure will work best.

Also read: Shreyas Shibulal’s Micelio all set to fund EV startups with a corpus of Rs 140 Cr

Charging options for an electric fleet

Worldwide, electric vehicles have two common charging options: charging stations and swappable batteries. A fixed charging system is made up of a permanent docking system that can be set up in malls, homes, and offices. The vehicle can also be fast-charged depending on the technology available. Luxury sportscar maker Porsche, for example, is experimenting with a 450 KW charger. German luxury carmaker BMW has similar technology - both can charge a car for 100 km in under five minutes. Tesla has charging stations with fast chargers, but continues to work on swappable batteries.

Batteries today are increasingly lithium-ion, rather than lead acid, which fell out of favour because it drains faster after eight months of use.

Orxa, GoGreenBov and Ultraviolette use swappable batteries. Strom’s car platforms are ready for both fixed and swappable ones. Bikes from Tork and Ather’ need fixed charging docks. Street bike companies like Ultraviolette and Orxa, both based in Bengaluru, are ready with their swappable battery ecosystems.

electric vehicles, SUN Mobility, Ola, Mahindra

Ola CEO Bhavish Aggarwal with a fleet of Ola Electric vehicles

What the current infrastructure is like

Today, 80 percent of electric vehicles are charged at homes and offices; however, this form of charging is slow because it typically takes eight hours for a full charge. Further, these basic charging amenities do not always exist at offices, hotels, and malls.

For players in the public transport space, however, the infrastructure needs to be easy to set up, low-maintenance, cost-efficient, and quick to use. It needs to be both widespread and convenient. A highly placed source at Ola Electric told YourStory,

“The problem needs to be addressed simultaneously. You need EVs on the road and to ensure they continue to be on the roads, you need the infrastructure. It is one of the core tenets of establishing Ola Electric Mobility. As a company, Ola Electric will not only ensure that vehicles are on the road but also that there are different modes of infrastructure available.”

For ebike-sharing companies, it is the classic chicken-and-egg problem. To build scale, more EVs need to be on the road, and, for more EVs to work, there need to be enough charging stations or swappable batteries.

Anil G, Co-founder of bike-sharing platform Bounce, says the problem now is that there aren’t as many charging stations as petrol pumps. As soon as players that have scale work on it, consumer behaviour will shift.

Also read: Ola confirms Rs 400 Cr funding for EV unit Ola Electric led by Tiger Global, Matrix Partners

A network of charging stations…

“Highway charging today has DC (direct current) fast charging, which is capital-intensive. So the market for EV charging infra is expensive. For residential and personal use, it makes sense to use solar plus net metering plus EV charging,” says Maxson Lewis, Founder of Magenta Power.

Magenta's AC (alternating current) community charger costs Rs 19,750 plus installation costs (i.e., wiring, which is variable) and takes the cost to approximately Rs 25,000. It is also developing an AC charger specifically for India for under Rs 7,000. The company also has a DC fast charger for cars, which costs around Rs 5 lakh.

Currently, Magenta is working to set up charging stations for electric vehicles, which would help buildings monetise the electricity they produce through solar energy. Explains Maxon,

“Over the next decade, as the presence of solar electricity increases, every house can become a charging station, which means anyone can provide power to owners of electric vehicles. This can be managed through the Magenta app, which will match demand and supply of charging stations and vehicles that need charging.”

Magenta aims to set up over 450 charging stations by next year. Currently, it has 32 in Karnataka. Magenta has also set up a solar power-based charging station for electric vehicles on the Mumbai-Pune highway. “We have installed India’s first EV billing meter. We will soon also install charging installations in Pune, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad,” he adds.

The startup also has a fast-charge solution that can charge an electric vehicle of 15 KV capacity in half hour, which can give a car a range of around 140 km.

…or a swap story?

On the other side are companies like SUN Mobility, co-founded by Chetan Maini, the man credited with building India’s first electric car, the Reva (now part of the Mahindra group). The company is working on setting up swappable battery infrastructure across the country for electric bikes and electric auto-rickshaws.

SUN Mobility believes that a swappable battery is best for these vehicles because riders won’t have to worry about range anxiety and stopping to charge their batteries. All that these vehicles owners have to do is go in to a SUN Mobility station and get their batteries swapped.

“By creating a swappable battery ecosystem, we bring down the cost of the vehicle,” Maini says. SUN Mobility recently partnered with SmartETM, India’s largest electric vehicle fleet operator, to deploy its universal energy infrastructure to support SmartE’s growing EV operations.

Goldie Srivastava, Co-Founder and CEO, SmartE, told YourStory in an earlier interview that the new system would help the company rapidly scale their vision “without having to worry about the energy infrastructure”.

As a pioneer in the electric mobility service space, SmartE plans to roll-out 100,000 vehicles by 2022. At 100,000 vehicles, SmartE says it will help reduce close to a million tonnes of carbon emissions, the equivalent of planting 17 million trees per year.

electric vehicles, SUN Mobility, Ola, Mahindra

Goldie Srivastava, Co-founder and CEO of SmartE

As Chetan explains,

“Conventional electric three-wheelers that run on lead-acid batteries usually require eight hours of overnight charging and four hours of opportunity charge during the day. The assets remain idle half of the time during the day and could only cover 60-80 km, which cause a loss of potential revenue. Our solution, through swapping, enables them to realise the full potential of last-mile transport and clock more than 150 km per day.”

Ashok Leyland too plans to keep its electric fleet going with swappable batteries. The company has 32 fast charging options and is working on its first pilot in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. It also looking at launching in Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh.

Industry sources say that a fixed EV charging station for a bus costs Rs 15 lakh to set up. But, Ashok Leyland plans to have stations where batteries can be swapped out in seconds rather than stopping the buses to charge for eight hours. The company has reportedly earmarked Rs 500 crore for this.

For EVs to have real impact, they have to work well in the public transport space. India’s EV story, therefore, is still being written, but what we have so far makes for fascinating reading.

Also read: The future is electric: how bike-sharing and rental startups are trying to crack unit economics