Even as you are reading this, someone, somewhere, in this vast country of ours, is either injured or killed in a road crash. Yes, the well-known fact is that India has one of the worst road accident records worldwide. In 2017, 464,910 road accidents were reported, claiming 147,913 lives and causing injuries to 470,975 persons, which translates into 405 deaths and 1,290 injuries each day from 1,274 accidents. Of this, a staggering 157,723 accidents involved two-wheelers, also accounting for the majority of 44,092 lives lost and 148,907 injured. That's plenty of data to infer that there’s a serious need to introduce a strong set of legislations and safety upgrades for two-wheelers and their users.
While the government and the industry are both seized of the urgency of the situation and efforts are underway through dissemination of information on road safety, introducing stiffer penalties in the amended Motor Vehicles Act and new mandatory safety technology in two-wheelers, some companies and individuals are doing their bit to make two-wheelers safer than they are at present.
True-blue engineers are keen to change the world and that's something Vikas Poddar and Ashutosh Upadhyay, co-founders of Liger Mobility, a Mumbai-based start-up that envisions development of technologies that make two-wheelers safer and provide better user experience, wanted to do. Poddar, a graduate from IIT Madras and an MBA from ISB, and Upadhyay, who graduated from IIT Kharagpur and has experience in building technology products with multiple large engineering companies in India and Europe, have a mission: to make two-wheelers safer — and in turn also save precious lives. Their focus is on enabling unparalleled human-machine interaction by leveraging core sciences and IoT in the two-wheeler realm.
In their first-ever media interaction, the founders spoke to Autocar Professional. “Both of us hail from Indore, Madhya Pradesh. If you visit any of the smaller cities, you will see that two-wheelers are the most prevalent form of mobility and much of the business is conducted using two-wheelers. We were very clear that this is the segment wherein we want to create some value. There are some obvious problems with two-wheelers — they are not safe, they are not comfortable. That's the whole sort of idea behind Liger Mobility, to do something that can actually create value for the society,” says Poddar.
Affordable tech for safer mobility on two wheels
Liger Mobility has been working on changing the dynamics of two-wheelers in terms of safety and experience for their users, without taking a toll on the customer's wallet. The start-up's self-balancing technology, which will make two-wheelers safer and riders more confident, is likely to increase the cost of the vehicle by around 10-odd percent. According to Upadhyay, “The two-wheeler per se is the primary mobility solution across India, not only in small towns but also in major cities like Mumbai, Pune and other metros. What makes two-wheelers a preferable mode of travel is good manoueverability, low maintenance and low total cost of ownership. This is why a lot of people want to use them but there are some who are not comfortable with them either.”
Adding to that, Poddar says: “There is a specific age, which once you cross, typically not many people learn to ride a two-wheeler. Between 10 to 11 years, most learn how to ride a bicycle; some who do not learn that skill, later on view the idea of using a motorised two-wheeler as a farfetched one.”
Considering 120 riders die each day in India, Liger Mobility was founded in 2016 with the goal to make two-wheelers safer and usable for everyone. News about the company's endeavour came to light recently when an investor video of its self-balancing, autonomous scooter got leaked onto social media, creating quite a buzz and more so about the incremental cost of such a technology, estimated to be around 10 percent of the cost of a two-wheeler. “As regards the cost, it's not possible to give a exactly figure right now. But it will be in, let's say, four digits (Rupees) once we go into production,” says Poddar.
“Like Vikas mentioned, cost is completely going to be dependent on the scale at which we are manufacturing. From our side, what we are focusing on is to make it as simple as possible in terms of the parts that we are using in the technology. The whole idea is to simplify it as much as possible so that manufacturing can be more and more localised. Therefore, it's not easy for us to immediately to give a cost figure,” remarks Upadhyay.
Self-balancing and autonomous: just the start
Liger Mobility has developed a working prototype using a modified scooter, which is able to self-balance itself and also park itself, making it an easy to use experience for any user, even for someone who does not know how to ride a bicycle.
Responding to a query about the stage of development for the technology, the co-founders are quick to respond, “We are in the advanced stages of development. It’s difficult to quantify at what completion stage we are. What we can understand is that there is a product which is working, which is an advanced level. We are already in advanced prototype stage now, and the final product may be ready very soon.”
Upadhyay says, “The whole idea of giving a tentative timeline, again, comes from a lot of other factors — the funding, the kind of the collaborative kind of partnership — and committing a timeline is probably not right, at this stage. And it is a technology after all — it can always be evolving.”
For any idea to come to fruition depends upon the level of determination, perseverance and hard work of the ideator, and for any successful organisation it is the ability to stay ahead of its peers. For Liger Mobility, the idea of self-balancing technology and autonomous capabilities in the two-wheeler space, is just the start. The company at present has a core team of eight individuals including the two founders, engineers, fabricators and machinists. The plan is to expand the team, bringing in the right kind of talent that can add value to the vision of the company.
“The idea for Liger Mobility is basically not just one piece (self-balancing) that is going to come out immediately. It is to solve all these problems of how we can actually change the experience of a two-wheeler. Safety is a very big aspect, and a lot can actually be done by integrating different pieces into a two-wheeler. Self-balancing is a start, and what we have worked on is what eventually will come out in the near term. That's basically one piece of a very long-term roadmap, if you can call it that, that we that we would have. So either related to safety or the experience, eventually, even semi-autonomous is something that we are definitely looking at. Self-balancing, obviously is an enabler as far as semi-autonomous is concerned. Obviously, unless a vehicle is able to balance itself, how can it ride by itself?” queries Poddar.
Targeting shared mobility
According to Poddar, “Eventually for semi-autonomous or autonomous applications, the Liger two-wheeler will be relevant more for the shared mobility market. For shared mobility, there are very specific applications that we have in mind. It is not right to just look at the current piece of the puzzle but the entire story that's out there. Two-wheelers are not relevant just for India but for any developing country. Even developed markets are now opening up to two-wheelers. The guiding philosophy is whether you are able to create value in two-wheelers.”
Describing Liger Mobility’s vision, the founder say the thought can be summed up in one simple sentence — "Transforming the two-wheeler experience, and bringing intelligence to two-wheelers'.
When queried whether the company plans to partner with any OEM or develop a new two-wheeler itself, the Liger Mobility founders refuse comment. “It all depends on what is the two-wheeler model and the business model. Whether it's a partnership with one company or with multiple, or our own vehicles? That is something that we simply cannot discuss at this point. There's a lot of discussion, and it's simply not fair on our behalf to comment on that,” says Poddar.
Giving OEMs' enhanced activity in testing vehicles, a self-riding autonomous two-wheeler could be more suited for OEM testing purposes. Would it make sense for a riderless scooter or motorcycle heading to Starbucks without someone astride it to quaff the coffee?
As regards plans to introduce the solution first in India or explore the developed markets, Poddar says, “Logically, that makes sense (India first). But going forward, that strategy will again depend on multiple factors. Right now, that's a logical choice because India is the largest market for two-wheelers and obviously, it makes sense. But going forward, the sky's the limit, as far as this is concerned. In fact, we have received interest from over 88 countries.”
Powertrain-agnostic balancing technology
While a few self-balancing two-wheeler prototypes have been showcased by OEMs globally, including an R1200 GS by BMW Motorrad, commercial launch of such products has yet to see the light of day. One of the prime reasons for that is the high cost of such a technology that makes the end-product out of reach for the masses.
India sees over 21 million IC engined two-wheelers being sold every year. Could Liger Mobility’s self-balancing technology be adopted to these petrol-powered machines? Upadhyay says, “Our focus is not really very short-term. Petrol or electric, our technologies will be powertrain-agnostic. Wherever we can implement it, we will try to do so to enable larger number of users to benefit from it.”
As the solution is an integration of software and hardware, the technology consumes a bit of power, Liger Mobility says it is working on making it energy-efficient to address two-wheeler user concerns.
Could such a safety solution be offered as an aftermarket solution? Liger Mobility's founders say it is "hypothetically possible but the initial focus will be to bring it in a new product but nothing has been formalised yet."
ICE or electric, new or aftermarket, one thing is for sure — this start-up has a concept that has the potential to revolutionise the two-wheeler market and make Liger Mobility the next big thing from India. What is needed is a balancing act in terms of cost. n
Q&A Vikas Poddar & Ashutosh Upadhyay, co-founders of Liger Mobility
How did you come up with the Liger Mobility name and what does it signify?
Liger is a rare animal that is a hybrid of a lion and a tiger, and inherits qualities from both its parent species. Drawing parallels from Liger, the self-balancing two-wheeler inherits qualities from both two-wheelers that provide convenience and four-wheelers that offer safety/comfort. Brand Liger Mobility aims to provide a superior riding experience to the consumers.
How much has been invested in Liger Mobility and by whom?
Liger Mobility has been funded by seed money from its co-founders and two rounds of investment raised from SINE-IIT Bombay.
What is the level of localisation and what is the engineering / technology behind the self-balancing autonomous technology?
In the development phase we have been focussed on building our technology with components which can give us maximum localisation. The final level of localisation will be known when we finish our groundwork on supply chain and mass production. The technology is a combination of hardware and software, and involves usage of sophisticated AI to achieve the objective of vehicle stabilisation.
Liger Mobility's solution has received considerable attention, in terms of the potential disruption that it brings for the automotive industry. Does this put pressure on your team to live up to the expectations?
On the contrary, the overwhelming response has been very encouraging, and has demonstrated the demand for our product not just in India but globally. The feedback has strengthened our conviction in the value that our technology will create for the consumer. Furthermore, this is just the beginning. We have an elaborate long-term technology roadmap, with the vision of transforming the two-wheeler experience, and bringing more and more intelligence to vehicles.
Apart from safety related solutions, what are the other factors you would want to work on?
We’re also working on autonomous technologies for two-wheelers, which will be targeted mainly at global shared mobility platforms.
How do you view the current slowdown in the automotive industry? As a start-up, how do you perceive and assess this situation for companies like yours?
The current slowdown in the automotive industry is across the board, and may be attributed to the current state of the macro-economy going through a phase of low liquidity and low growth. The tide will eventually turn for the industry and demand will pick up once the economy turns.
That said, there have been some models which have bucked the slowdown and registered growth. Therefore, this may be the best time for the industry to introspect and identify business areas where they should innovate.
As far as a self-balancing two-wheeler goes, it will in fact lead to an increase in the overall market as people who earlier wouldn’t buy a two-wheeler because they were not confident of riding one, will also have the option of switching to a self-balancing two-wheeler.
According to some statistics, 6 percent of the US population and 12 percent of the UK population do not know how to ride a bicycle. While the percentage of such people in India may be lower, the population is several times higher. If one was to extrapolate and do the math, in India alone this would lead to a sizeable new market.
What are your views on the current generation of electric two-wheelers being sold in India (Ampere, Ather Energy, Hero Electric, Tork Motors, Revolt)?
The electric two-wheeler landscape in India is fast evolving, with a number of new players entering the fray. Increased competition is always good for the consumer and we should see increased innovation in areas of product features, new technologies, business models and distribution strategies.
(This interview was first featured in the November 1, 2019 issue of Autocar Professional)