In 2013, long before the world was discussing clean energy and sustainable practices, two IIT Madras graduates — Swapnil Jain and Tarun Mehta — had an idea to develop India’s first-ever electrical scooter. This was at a time when auto manufacturers were still focusing on fossil-fuel-driven vehicles and ‘eco-friendly’ mobility solutions were more a trendy alternative catering to a niche market.
The duo founded Ather Energy in 2013 and launched their first fully-electric scooter, the Ather S340, in Bengaluru in 2016. Since then, the company has released several new models into the market and is planning to expand to eight more cities by the end of the year. To support the smooth running of their vehicles, Ather has set up a network of charging stations across every city they have launched in.
“The setup of the charging infrastructure precedes the launch of the vehicle in a city by a couple of months. This means there are stations where you can charge your vehicle in about an hour, and not worry about them powering down. The target is that at no point should you be more than four kilometres away from a charging station,” says Swapnil in conversation with YourStory.
“Fast charging, accessibility, and ease of use are the three important pillars on which the data grid has been designed. It takes care of security, payments, and safety – all of which are built into one data grid. It takes care of charging the vehicle, the billing, informing the user whether the charging location is available or being occupied by another vehicle. It's very intelligent and has been created in the form of a data grid,” he adds.
Building a complex and connected system
Speaking about the infrastructure that allows Ather Energy to work seamlessly in a business that operates both online and offline, Swapnil says that they are actually playing on three infrastructures – the manufacture of the vehicle, the installation of the charging stations with supply lines, and the data world.
“Giving the customer a great riding experience, while taking care of various aspects in the backend, has been a challenge. We are bringing together various people who have never worked together to deliver a product. And data has been key in making that happen,” he says.
Data was key right from the beginning for the team at Ather. Both Swapnil and Tarun knew that the next waves in the industry would be ‘electric’ and ‘connected’. This meant that they were heavily reliant on data and connectivity to provide a better experience for the customers in the form of direct features, servicing, remote diagnostics, and a charging infrastructure solution.
“Connectivity and data were key to the interactions between the mobile application and the vehicle, which interacts with the grid, which interacts back with the application. All this was very complex and quite a challenge for us,” says Swapnil.
A Cloud-first approach
The founding team at Ather Energy says that Google Cloud was their choice from day one to ensure that everything ran seamlessly. “We never thought about doing infrastructure on-premise,” says Swapnil.
“The Cloud is at the backend, making all of this happen. In today's world, it does not make sense to actually set up your own infrastructure. We are already dabbling with so many different aspects of technology, and handling infrastructure just makes things more complicated. This gives us a lot more flexibility. You can quickly set up a server, or you can shut it down. We don't have to worry about buying any lead time, and things happen on the fly. We can focus on actually building the vehicle and the applications around it,” he adds.
Swapnil says that the decision to adopt the Cloud from Day 1 cut down their development time by at least two years, and the investment needed for the talent to build infrastructure. “We would have needed 25 engineers to build the infrastructure. This way, we were able to focus on creating value while cutting on costs, both of which are crucial for a startup.”
The team went through two rounds of iteration. “The first round of iterations was completely on our own. At that point, our team was too small to engage with the community. But in the second round, we engaged the Google team who started taking a lot of interest in what we were doing; they started extending a lot of technical support, and looking at how they could actually take the journey with us,” says Swapnil.
The Google team started looking at the company’s architecture and whether it was using the right solutions.
“And all of this was even before we signed up with them. That gave me the confidence that the team is committed, and that they would be our teachers through this transformation journey. We did a complete transformation of our architecture, which helped reduce costs of being connected by at least 60 percent.”
Leveraging data for development
With heavy reliance on data to ensure that everything runs smoothly, managing the vast torrents of information generated every day is crucial. The team uses the data generated for improving customer experience and for diagnostics and servicing. For the former, it collects data such as riding patterns, geographical terrain, how the vehicle is being maintained, etc. to provide feedback. In terms of diagnostics, it looks for anomalies.
“We have about 40-45 sensors on the vehicle itself, gathering data such as battery temperature, voltage, accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS, etc. We look at all this data and check for anomalies. This helps us offer a better customer experience from a features and reliability perspective,” he says.
Swapnil says that the right technology partner is central to having things run efficiently. “If digital technologies are not your primary area of expertise, you need a partner who is committed to making the journey with you and supporting you in the long-term. If you have good technical architecture, costs can be controlled. If your system design is bad, you end up incurring a lot more costs. So, enhanced technical support is quite crucial and critical.”
Speaking about how the solutions were customised to Ather Energy’s unique requirements, he says that the process with a partner has to be iterative.
“Fitting solutions to your own unique requirements needs constant communication. I think our own experience, as well as Google’s deep understanding, was the result of constant communication between the two teams. This is not a plug-and-play solution, which could have just worked for our unique requirements. It requires a lot more technical guidance and the amount of interaction that we have had with their team has been phenomenal. They have always ensured that all of the problems are addressed, whether it is technical, commercial, or building a solution that is better suited for us.”
Impact and the road ahead
Working with the right technical partner has had a significant impact on Ather Energy’s growth.
While running costs are down by 60 percent, data queries take a mere five minutes to resolve (previously took a full day) and most importantly time-to-market came down by a staggering two years.
Going forward, Ather Energy plans to leverage the Cloud for scalability as they expand operations across the country; increase reliability; and data security, which has become crucial in the current scenario, with teams working remotely.
“It's quite complex to do data security in a mechanical and electronic environment because the infrastructure does not really support it. So, we are exploring virtual desktops and how we can create a more secure network.”
The outbreak has also resulted in a mind-shift in how the company works. As a manufacturing company, remote work was not a viable option. “I think we have been able to break out of that sort of thought process. Because of COVID-19, we have been able to accelerate a lot of remote working. All our design work is continuing remotely and most of our people are still working from home. They're able to collaborate a lot more effectively than we thought possible. We have definitely fast-forwarded our digital transformation journey,” he says.
Speaking about the road ahead, he says, “We want to be more than just an electric vehicle company. We are actually a new-age mobility company that is changing the way you're owning a vehicle and how you're interacting with the manufacturer. We will offer more and more services to customers, which are based on data that goes beyond speed and acceleration, and I see Cloud playing a big role in that journey.”
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