With the auto industry the world over engaged in addressing the megatrends of electric mobility, autonomous driving and connected cars and also taking on the challenge of massive transformation, it is imperative for all the stakeholders to collaboratively move towards a new tomorrow. While there are many solutions emerging aimed at solving the multitude of mobility challenges, vehicle electrification stands out as the most suitable one for greener transportation.
Level of industry interest in Sun Mobility's offerings can be gauged from this pic. Dr Pawan Goenka, MD, Mahindra & Mahindra, and Mahesh Babu, MD, Mahindra Electric, at the Auto Expo 2018.
With this huge business opportunity staring it in the face, Sun Mobility, a venture seeded by the pioneer of electric vehicle technology in India, Chetan Maini, who founded the erstwhile Reva Electric Car Company in 1999, is now eyeing development of a host of solutions associated with electric technology, which would help energise OEMs’ progress into vehicle electrification.
E-bus aligning with Sun Mobility Quick Interchange Station.
Set up in April 2017, Sun Mobility is a start-up co-founded by Maini and a 50:50 JV between Sun New Energy Systems and Virya Mobility, a company owned by the Maini brothers and engaged in the area of offering charging infrastructure and service solutions for the EV space.
Battery swapping technology
With an aim to develop open-source architectures and collaborate with various OEMs in the industry, Sun Mobility, in July 2017, partnered with CV major Ashok Leyland, putting forth a vision of developing sustainable technology solutions for e-mobility.
On April 17, the company showcased what it claims to be the world’s first interoperable battery swapping station for two- and three-wheelers in Bangalore.
Intelligent end effector of robot aligning with smart battery.
The collaboration is making brisk progress and has already showcased its first breakthrough solution – an integrated battery swap mechanism for CVs – at the 2018 Auto Expo which concluded in February, within just seven months of partnering for the project. The Circuit-S e-bus displayed at the show has a one-of-its-kind battery swapping system that can swap the modular 'Smart Battery’ packs from Sun Mobility, and get them in and out of a city transport bus within barely two minutes!
The project also breeds the idea of eliminating the battery from the entire cost of an electric bus, thus bringing an EV on par with its diesel counterpart in terms of the total cost per kilometre of the distance travelled, while also making the STUs asset-light in their books. The smart batteries involved are lightweight and are connected over the Cloud, enabling the option of pay-as-you-go to the Circuit-S model, based on the amount of charge consumed at the end of a trip.
The batteries are modular, which encourages the use of smaller batteries in vehicles. Thus, being lighter, they also enable OEMs to better manage the challenge of battery temperature control, even when the ambient temperature in the country hovers in the higher range of around 45deg Celsius. The modular batteries also help the company perform swaps on 9-metre, 10-metre and 12-metre buses from the same interchanging station.
A battery swap in progress (discharged battery removal).
NITI Aayog, the nodal thought-initiating body in India, has also been advocating battery swapping as one of the solutions for taking range anxiety head-on, but the system is not entirely favourable under all circumstances.According to Maini, “I think all options should co-exist and they will co-exist, depending upon the various driving patterns. For instance, consider a school bus that plies for 30km in the morning and then is parked for the next six-eight hours before the school gets over. Clearly, there is no need for a battery swap in this case, as there is ample time for the battery to charge while the bus is not on duty.”
“We cannot just say that it is completely out there, but shared mobility, be it in the form of three-wheelers, four-wheelers or buses, finds them travelling for considerable distances during the day and these are the vehicles which need to be operational most of the time, instead of being parked and charging,” he adds.
Robot ready to insert the Sun Mobility Smart Battery in e-bus.
“In case of other applications, for instance, a cab driver, who gets a call for an airport pickup but is low on battery charge. Such people would want to swap and pay as they go, and would not want to buy a new additional asset that is such expensive and would cost 30 to 50 percent more, also not knowing its life and warranty process. But the option to swap makes complete business sense to the cab driver as the vehicle could be the same, without the maintenance hassles of a new battery, but at a cheaper cost,” says Maini.
India's road to e-mobility
While some developed countries are already heavily plugged on to electromobility, India has is pursuing an ambitious vehicle electrification strategy. However, given the country’s state of affairs where over 70 percent of the energy requirements are met from coal-using power plants, vehicle electrification is not the sole alternative answer to the rapidly deteriorating air quality concerns in the country's major cities.
Battery charging rack to charge multiple battery slots.
“I think the government should be technology agnostic and all solutions will co-exist in the future. There are different solutions that have a better advantage for different parts of the market. However, there will be some areas, where there can be an overlap and multiple solutions would be deemed appropriate,” says Maini.
However, with the e-mobility trumpet blowing with full gusto, Maini believes that things are already happening for real around the world and the stride is only going to accelerate in the coming future, on the back of policy pushes from governments.
Robot identifies, inserts the battery in the assigned slot for charging.
“The governments are only going to accelerate it, and the more they accelerate, the more one can participate on a global playing field. On the other hand, the slower you go, the industry could hurt itself badly. The nice thing about the automotive industry is that it is welcoming and embracing. Look at all the new players who have transformed the industry within just 3-7 years, determining that one doesn’t need a legacy of a hundred years,” remarks Maini.
“India, in that sense, is a great opportunity, where start-ups can come in and there is a large playground. If the government pushes an EV policy and instead of the industry thinking why it is doing so, I think five years from now, the industry will thank the government for taking the step and announcing that India, like the world, should also walk the e-mobility path. If the government didn’t, then companies from other countries would run over us,” he points out.
Robot rotating to position battery for insertion into the e-bus.
Sun Mobility aims to tap into the alluring opportunity lying ahead with a tectonic shift underway in the mobile sphere. “The automotive industry in India today contributes 7 percent to our GDP. If we were to continue at the same rate, over a 13-year period until 2030, we are looking at a US$ 350 billion opportunity. Half of that is going to be transformed, as regular moving parts get replaced with electric components as the bill of material (BOM) in an EV is 50 percent different from a conventional vehicle. So, we are looking at a US$ 150 billion transformation. Now, if we look at the energy space, we import around US$ 120 billion worth of crude oil, which tomorrow, when replaced with solar and renewable energy, portrays a several hundred billion dollar opportunities lying there as well,” says Maini.
The charged Smart Battery in the standardised dock in the e-bus.
Localised battery pack assembly
Expanding its range of solution sets, Sun Mobility also plans to foray into battery pack assembly. The company is currently setting up a facility in Bangalore and slated to open in the next three to six months. It will manufacture battery packs, assemble cells and also take care of the associated power electronics. While battery cell manufacturing is not a viable business at this point in time due to the low volumes, Sun Mobility is not completely shying away from considering such an option, albeit through strategic partnerships and joint investments but will only seriously analyse this prospect over the next 18 months.
The capital influx into the venture has not been not publicly revealed as yet, but work is on schedule and the future will see Sun Mobility producing batteries, BMS and charging solutions as well. “When we started the company, our idea was that by Q1 of CY2018, we will start showcasing our technologies. We are on target and the Auto Expo is a first of many to come. By the middle of this year, we intend to start a pilot and eventually look at low-scale volumes in certain markets by the end of 2018. We are on track to do that, not just for electric buses, but for other platforms as well,” concludes Maini.