Tiger Global Management and Flipkart co-founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal-backed Ather Energy Pvt Ltd has just unveiled its debut electric scooter. The S340 model promises a top speed of 72 kmph and can run for 60 km on a fully charged IP67-rated Lithium ion battery, and can be purchased only through the company website. Ather plans to roll out the scooter by the end of the year and pre-ordering will begin in Bangalore, Pune and Chennai shortly. In an interview with Techcircle.in, Tarun Mehta, CEO of Ather, speaks about the idea behind the S340, and why he expects the S340 to succeed where other electric scooter brands haven't been able to make much headway. Edited excerpts:
Why did you go for an electric scooter and not an electric bike or a van?
I think it is important to build a product that we understand. The founding team here are more of scooter users than bike riders. Scooters are also one of the fastest growing segments in the automobile space in India, with 20-30 per cent growth per annum. In the major urban areas, where our target customer base is, more scooters are bought. It made a lot of sense to start with a scooter.
What is the pain product that you hope to address with the product?
We are trying to ensure a product that offers better experience than a petrol vehicle, in terms of better acceleration, carrying capacity, comfort, belt quality and looks. When we compare ourselves with other electric vehicles in the market, we are looking at a much better battery life, hassle-free experience, and a much shorter charging time.
Likewise, the cost of ownership will be significantly lower than a petrol vehicle and the refilling charges also amount to one fifth of what it is for petrol vehicles.
The charging time is the biggest challenge in the adoption of electric vehicles. How do you plan to solve that?
Electric vehicle refilling is a bit different .On the S340, for instance, everything will be on board and you just pull out a cord and plug it either into a regular socket (the one where you use your mobile phone) or a 15 ampere socket (where you plug in your refrigerator). In the former, it takes about 3 hours and in the latter an hour. This technology is evolving very fast, it has come down from 6-8 hours to one hour, and in the next five years it will be as quick as – if not quicker-- as going to a fuel station and filling petrol.
Our public charging infrastructure will be present in malls, apartments, coffee shops, restaurants, etc. We are trying to make charging a ubiquitous feature and part of the daily routine rather than having to fit into a wait-based ecosystem. For instance, when one visits a coffee shop, it is normal to spend at least 15-20 minutes there. You might put your scooter to charge while you sip that coffee. Here waiting seems and appears very natural.
Where do you think Ather will succeed where others have failed?
I think it has to be in the product first. That is also the fundamental problem with our market today. We do not have great products and I am not talking just about electric vehicles. We have a very weak product culture in India and this problem has to be cracked at the first instance. Every other problem can be solved with money but not the problem of product, which is more of a cultural issue.
How do you intend to address this problem of culture you talk about?
It starts with the kind of people you hire. Our focus has always been to get on board people who love to build products and give life to a bunch of passive components. If that falls in place, all one needs to do is not to give in to temptations of timelines or monetary pressures, thus ensuring no compromise on the product.
We understand that the S340 is likely to be in the Rs 60,000-70,000 bracket. Isn't that a little too expensive?
The average price in the 110-125 CC petrol scooter segment is Rs 60,000-65,000 and in a few instances, up to Rs 1,10,000. What we are building offers far more value than those products and has a totally different level of intelligence. In light of that, whatever price we put out would be aggressive. Having said that, we have still not decided on the pricing which is why we have not disclosed it yet.
You had initially planned the commercial launch by early to mid 2016. What caused the delay?
You must understand that we are not putting together a product here. We are building all the technology from the scratch and it is important to get the fundamentals and groundwork right. The delay is only to ensure a better product, better design and especially more testing. I could have easily done the product unveiling about eight months ago where the product was still at a certain version.
How are you using the $13 million you have raised till now?
We have spent Rs 25 crore so far, primarily for R&D, development and testing. We will spend another Rs 25 crore for setting up the production unit. The rest is earmarked for business expansion.
When do you expect to reach the break even mark?
Our initial production capacity has been set at 10,000 units. I am hoping to achieve break even at a unit level when our production capacity reaches 50,000 units by 2018. Talking about operational break even is too early.