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Chetan Maini: The Mobility Transformer The co-founder and chairman of SUN Mobility is on Entrepreneur India's Digital Cover for April

By S Shanthi

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Chetan Maini has been a firm believer in the potential of electric vehicles (EVs) long before everyone else envisioned it. He started working on India's first electric car, Reva, even before Tesla came into being. And, today, when the entire world is going gaga over EVs, he sits unassumingly in his office in one of the canopied lanes of Bengaluru, working towards building a greener future.

He shares with us his thoughts on the EV transition, his vision for India, the story behind India's first electric car, Reva, SUN Mobility, MaaS and more.

On being ahead of time

"I think when I started, it was a very different time. It was driven by a lot around climate change and the energy side of it in the early 90s. A lot of it happened while trying to get experience from racing solar cars. And they got me involved personally, for I really felt that it was going to be the future," he said.

The awareness of energy security and climate change is today high among the masses, startups, corporates and others. However, Maini always knew that these two were going to become the biggest challenges of our generation. That triggered him to innovate. "We were early because things were not mature. But I think over the last few years, we have had everything come together. We have had technological advancements in new innovations, cost structures and government policies. Oil prices are higher today and the cost of renewable energies has come down. All of this coming together at the macro level is today making electrics highly viable. So yes, we were ahead, but I think there is a right time. And the time is now today," he said.

On EV transition

The race to 100 per cent EV transition continues in full swing across the globe. While the Indian government has set a target to achieve 30 percent electrification of the country's vehicle fleet by 2030, as of now China, Europe, and the U.S. account for about 95 per cent of the global electric vehicle sales.

Talking about how far India is from a 100 per cent transition, Maini said, "The first sector that's probably likely to go electric is going to be the three-wheelers (3Ws). We already have e-rickshaws and e-autos in a lot of cities which makes business sense today. So, in the next two to three years, there is an option to go 100 per cent electric there. The next one would be the two-wheelers (2Ws) and we have already seen a huge growth last year. There is an opportunity in the next five to seven years that we could be 100 per cent electric on the 2W side. Cars may take longer than that. Buses also could go 80 per cent electric by 2030," he said.

He strongly believes that with a stronger policy framework, both fast charging and swapping can solve the problem. And, also for India, it is important to offer affordable solutions. That is why SUN Mobility believes in having sustainability at its core and strives to create affordable solutions for the masses to go electric.

"We realized that by separating batteries from electric vehicles, we could get EVs to be cost-effective, and we could address range anxiety. We could finally get cost solutions where refueling was faster and cheaper than gasoline," he said.

On SUN Mobility's edge

To enable this, the company looked at five key pillars. The first was technology, long-life batteries that were connected. That we could integrate into and have a great infrastructure that allows it to get the cost per swap much lower and competitive for a customer.

The second was about partnering with leading OEMs. Today, SUN Mobility has over 10 OEMs on its platform and has integrated over 30 platforms, across 2Ws, 3Ws and small 4Ws, but probably the only solution globally that has one battery that can go into all form factors of vehicles, for example, India, over 80 per cent of all form factors of vehicles.

"This interoperable solution is the first in the world that allows us to integrate with every platform or vehicle. The third thing was about how we put our infrastructure together. Today, we have over 350 stations. We have the largest oil company like Indian Oil Company as a partner. We have Tata Power, we have franchisee models. We have companies like Amazon where we put our infrastructure. So the infrastructure network enables us to be very easily accessible to our end customers," he said.

The fourth is about direct partnerships with about 25 fleet providers where it offers mobility as a service solution (MaaS). "And, the last and the most important one is about the team that we have today. We have created a world-class team that can enable us to not only look at the technology side but to scale this business domestically as well as globally," he said.

On fire accidents

The company has more than 15,000 EVs running on its battery services, but not even one fire incident. Maini says the core of it is the selection of the cells that they use. "It is also about a very strong validation process. Then, it is also about the software and hardware that we look at the battery management system. We've been working on lithium ions for 17 years, so we have very advanced algorithms," he said.

Further, when the battery goes to the stations, we actually cool the battery down and we do over 100 checks before the battery is dispensed every single time ensuring it's safe. Lastly, the company has over 140 parameters every second going to the cloud. For instance, it has battery safety within the battery management system, the station safety, and then at the cloud, it projects any problem in the future and it can then look at taking action.

He also believes that these incidents have come as a wake-up call to the industry, which will ensure that going forward, we have a very robust process and solutions in place.

On challenges around power

In the past, some industry experts have expressed that the biggest issue with swapping businesses is the disrupted and uneven power supply. However, Maini feels that the infrastructure of the country is growing, even though there are still some pockets that have challenges around power. SUN Mobility has, however, addressed this issue in multiple ways. The first is, given if the power goes down, a station can run for an hour, so it may have 14 charge batteries. So, if a scooter comes every three to five minutes, it can still for an hour give you a battery every few minutes to ensure that the vehicle can continue to be used.

But, if it finds that the power failures are going on for a slightly longer duration, it offers over 50 emergency service vehicles. Each of these vehicles is equipped with around 30 batteries, and they can be deployed within 15 minutes to any swap station. So, now a consumer could go in there and follow the same process to get it from a station. So, with the combination of these two things, SUN Mobility has been able to successfully address most of the issues around the power challenges.

The biggest challenge, however, in front of the company today is scalability.

I think the tech is ready. We have got great partnerships. We understand how to scale it. The challenge was earlier the supply chain. But, we have also overcome that. It's probably now just flawless execution.

On Mobility-as-a-Service

SUN Mobility has also built Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) on top of its battery-swapping technology. The reason for so doing so was to address some pending challenges in the ecosystem such as the high cost of the vehicles, the drivers having to change routes constantly and going more kilometers on and off. "And, when they crossed around 50 vehicles, they were having a hard time managing the infrastructure at night. So very often in the morning if they had these 50 vehicles charging, 10 or 15 may not have been charged. So, MaaS says let's combine everything. Let's take the vehicle, the energy, the maintenance and the insurance all plugged in together and give a consumer a full solution so that they can start and focus on their business. It's a cost-effective solution and the range is unlimited," he said.

The company's customers also drive for partners like Amazon and if delivery partners have an extra shift, they just swap the batteries and move forward. So, for SUN Mobility, MaaS, which offers a combination of the things mentioned above, has been very meaningful for all of its partners to go electric. SUN Mobility partnered with Amazon India in April last year to bring 10,000 EVs to its delivery fleet by 2025. In May, it also partnered with Greaves Electric Mobility to address a range of electric vehicles across two-wheelers, three-wheelers, e-rickshaws and e-loaders, across brands like Ampere, Ele, MLR Auto.

On his vision for SUN Mobility and India

SUN Mobility aims to have over 16,000 stations across by FY 25 or FY 26. That would mean approximately 3 million swaps a day and over a million vehicles on its platform and a global presence. "We have already started our operations in multiple countries. And it's a solution that's designed in India for the world," he said.

Talking about his vision for the country in terms of building a responsible tomorrow, he said, "I think we have an opportunity today as a country to go all-electric by 2030. It's sometimes scary, scary from a point of view that the industry starts to say, what about my status quo? Well, if we don't take the opportunity, someone else will because the world is moving that way. So I think it's important for us as entrepreneurs to really start to think what we can do differently in the space."

Before we wrapped up the interview, we had to ask Maini about Reva and he proudly recalled,

"For me, the most memorable moment was when we shipped our first cars to the UK. We were the first Indian company to export cars to a mature market. And on the first day, we had 24 of them in a container. The pictures were on every newspaper's front page. The fact that you could have something made in India for the world, at a point when EVs were really early, was a proud moment for all of us in India, and for us as a company. If we could just put our heads together, we can do great things from India."

S Shanthi

Former Senior Assistant Editor

Shanthi specializes in writing sector-specific trends, interviews and startup profiles. She has worked as a feature writer for over a decade in several print and digital media companies. 


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