New-age mobility and start-ups are proving to be a potent combination. The Hyderabad-based eTrio is helping transform internal combustion-engined vehicles, ranging from passenger cars to small CVs, by retrofitting them with an electric powertrain.
The world is witnessing a huge paradigm shift towards sustainable living, given its finite resources, pollution levels and rising levels of global warming. And, it all came to a fore at the UN Climate Summit last month in when 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg went onstage and talked to the world’s leaders: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering; people are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is the money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?"
The recent past has seen farsighted companies, right-thinking governments and dedicated individuals take it upon themselves to do their bit towards sustainable living. In the automotive industry, a shift is happening towards greener, lesser polluting vehicles, with OEMs and component suppliers embracing new and cutting-edge technologies to reduce carbon footprint in their manufacturing, using recycled materials and cut tailpipe emissions.
Sathya Yalamanchili, a young entrepreneur from Hyderabad, says he was struck by the idea of electric mobility while studying engineering nearly five years ago. It was at the time that the engineer in him, fascinated by electric mobility, realised the huge potential for retrofitting and converting conventional internal combustion engined vehicles to electric. "After finishing college, I realised that India is prepared for electric cars. In order to validate my idea, we built the first prototype and retrofitted a Maruti 800. After testing it rigorously, we were convinced that the performance was much better compared to the original. All the while offering the same propositions of a new electric vehicle (EV)."
Certified by ARAI
For any new idea/solution/product to succeed calls for huge efforts and the ability to convince the potential customer of the benefits. For Yalamanchili, it meant competing against well established OEMs who were developing and introducing EVs, and armed with the necessary manufacturing infrastructure, R&D base and the certifications in place. It was in November 2018 that eTrio first made headlines, when it became the first company in India to successfully obtain ARAI certification for its retrofitted car kits in the Maruti Alto and Wagon R hatchbacks. This got the company attention from both the industry as well as potential customers.
The work though on this project had begun nearly two years before that. "It was in early 2016 that we built our first prototype, followed by the conversion of the Maruti Alto. It was ground-breaking and we got an overwhelming response from our well-wishers that pushed us to seek certifications and take the vision forward. After continuous research, testing and exploration of other models such as the Maruti Wagon R and Swift Dzire, we sought the certification for the Maruti Alto in mid-2018," recollects Yalamanchili.
While Yalamanchili is tight-lipped about the specific cost of conversion, he says the cost of converting a existing ICE-vehicle to EV will be comparatively cheaper than buying a brand-new EV, all the while without compromising on range or performance. "The cost of conversions will depend on the order size or fleet size. We are currently focusing on logistics and employee transportation services (ETS) fleets. We are open to offer customised solutions for the desired range and other specifications."
According to eTrio's founder, "The biggest advantage of retrofitting is that it can revive existing fleets and make them electric at the same time. It’s the biggest upgrade a fleet owner can get and reduce their operational costs overnight. The procedure of converting starts from stripping the combustion powertrain from the vehicle. This is followed by mounting the necessary fixtures to accommodate the brand-new EV powertrain, and then fixing all the EV components including the battery and controller motor, among other parts."
According to him, to convert a existing vehicle to an EV, it takes eTrio "approximately three days" with the best engineering practices. The cost depends on the order size. "Retrofitting is not as easy as it sounds. The key challenge is ensure the best quality and engineering practices. Which is why the skill and equipment required for the conversion is high," points out Yalamanchili.
Over 100 ICE-to-EV conversions till now
For a start-up which rolled out its first EV (retrofitted) a year ago, the feat to convert over 100 ICE vehicles to electric speaks volumes about the potential that it foresees in the Indian auto market. What's driving the confidence for the start-up is the positive feedback it has received from its customers.
"Till date, we have converted over 100 vehicles comprising LCVs and cars, most of them with our B2B ETS (Express Transport Services) and logistic partners in the pilot phase. The owners claim that the conversion has made the driveability of the same car much easier for the drivers. They say that the ride is effortless.
And the owners are quite satisfied with the lower operational and maintenance costs," says Yalamanchili. Responding to a query on how eTrio plans to compete against new EVs introduced by OEMs, Yalamanchili says, "It's simple. Their (OEMs) focus is to introduce brand-new vehicles, while our focus is on converting the existing ones. Our approach to electrification is completely different compared to others."
The company foresees a huge opportunity in the B2B segment. "We understand India is a price- sensitive market. The B2B segments such as logistics and ETS understand the operational economics of the conversion. We strongly believe that once we have our presence in the major cities through our franchise partners, people will engage with the retrofitted EV vehicles and understand the propositions," says Yalamanchili.
Retrofitting capacity: 10,000 vehicles a year
At present the company has received a lot of interest and queries to explore the EV retrofitting business potential from a number of stakeholders. The company plans to expand its services to other cities, and is targeting to appoint franchise partners across-India in the major metro cities. The founder says eTrio has invested around "$2 million (Rs 14.2 crore)" in the company. At present, the company has a team of over 50 engineers and technology specialists. eTrio's facility is spread across 50,000 square feet, and has a capacity to retrofit 10,000 vehicles a year."
While the company began its journey by converting passenger cars, it has now set its eyes upon light commercial vehicles (LCVs). Recently, it has successfully managed to retrofit a Tata Ace small CV and Maruti Swift Dzire and also get them certified for operation. Yalamanchili says "We have commenced operations in the LCV segment with a few leading logistics companies in India. Our retrofitted Tata Ace LCV can carry up to 1.2-tonne load and has a range of 120km per charge."
Responding to a query on how the company shortlisted Tata Ace and Maruti Swift Dzire, for their new project, Yalamanchili says, "We recently got certifications for the EV conversion kits for Tata Ace and Maruti Swift Dzire, which are amongst the bestselling vehicles in the logistics and ETS space respectively. We have partnered with leading Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers for LiFePo4 cells. As far as workshops are concerned, we have identified franchise partners across the major metro cities to cater to the servicing and spares need for the retrofitted EVs."
When asked about eTrio's plans to retrofit two- and three-wheelers, Yalamanchili says, "Depending on the order size we are open to deliver the EV conversion solutions of any category of vehicles. We see that the economics for brand-new EVs in terms of two- and three-wheelers to be more viable than converting kits. We are now working on brand new e-trikes and e-bikes, which will be launched very soon."
Scrappage policy as a business enabler
The government of India is set to introduce the much-awaited vehicle scrappage policy soon, a move closely watched by industry stakeholders. For eTrio, this could translate to more business.
Sharing his views on the upcoming BS VI emission norms and the scrappage policy, Yalamanchili says, "We view BS VI as a small step towards a cleaner future, but it is not the jump that is required. Very few manufacturers have sought the necessary certifications for BS VI. And upgradation to BS VI will also ensure that many vehicles become obsolete. Vehicle scrappage will remain the only option for these end-of-life vehicles. But when it comes to vehicles which are in better conditions, retrofitting remains as the most novel alternative."
For e-mobility to take root in India, EV affordability is of paramount importance. The prices of existing electric four-wheelers remains on the higher side, even with a subsidy packed in. While the cost differential compared to a factory EV could prove to be growth driver for eTrio, buyers of the EV kit will be looking for top-notch safety in the form of kit fitment, quality of the product and also assurance of service to ensure peace of mind. From the looks of it, these EV kits will be ideal for last-mile delivery operators who make plenty of inter-city trips and can avail of convenient range-topping EV charging stations.
(This article was first featured in the November 1, 2019 issue of Autocar Professional)