Leader Talks: Mahindra Reva’s Chetan Maini on the future of mobility

Founder and CEO of electric car pioneer Mahindra Reva talks about how innovation in India can provide a huge surge to the Sustainable Mobility movement.

At an age where most boys were playing street cricket, Chetan Maini was building his own little electric cars from scratch. It is no wonder, therefore, that the passionate automobile creator has grown to be a pioneer of electric vehicles in India. Chetan Maini, CEO, Mahindra Reva, leads one of the world’s greenest automobile creation facilities out of Bangalore—the Reva facility that is responsible for the Mahindra e2o, India’s first electric vehicle.

The Alternative met Mr. Maini, regarded as one of the trailblazers in the field of sustainable mobility across the world, on the eve of his participation in the Formula-E circuit. Here are a few edited excerpts from his thoughts on design, innovation, sustainable mobility, and living the green life!

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Yours has been an inspirational journey in the field of mobility. Could you tell us a little about what brought you into the green energy space?

Chetan Maini: As a student at the University of Michigan, I had the opportunity to be part of a team that raced a solar powered car across the United States. We also took the car on to drive across Australia. The idea of using a vehicle powered by green energy to cross an entire continent first led me to start thinking about bringing an electric car to India.

In 1994, with the goal of trying to create sustainable mobility solutions, the Maini Group began working on the Reva – India’s first and only electric car.

In the late 90s, it must have been a challenge to build an electric vehicle in India. How was the support like at that time?

CM: You are right. The acceptance and awareness of electric vehicles in India was low. To bring people into the space, put a team together, and build people’s capabilities was a huge part of our initial endeavour as the field of electric mobility was new. Today, green technology and green products are looked at positively upon, but 15 years ago, India was not very open to alternate technology and getting financial support for products like ours was a big challenge.

At the marketing end too, there were numerous difficulties. The Reva was to be launched in an environment of government subsidies and lowered taxes on EVs, but a month before it was launched, taxes on electric cars went up while taxes on petrol cars dropped. It was not easy to find facilities to test our cars, build our own equipment, and have them certified since it was first time this was being done in the country. So, besides strengthening our own internal processes, we also focused on creating an eco-system that enabled and sustained sustainable technology.

Today, EVs from Reva are ‘born green’ besides running their lifetimes on electricity. Could you tell us a bit about the engineering behind?

CM: We think that for mobility systems of the future to be sustainable, they must incorporate the 5 Cs: Clean, Convenient, Clever, Cost-effective, and Connected – if we are making a green product, everything we do has to be green; that was our philosophy.

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If we were to increase sales in global markets, the perception of India as a country that pays no heed to green manufacturing processes had to be turned around. We did that by making ours the greenest facility in the world and not just in India.

35% of the energy requirement of our manufacturing facility is met by solar panels in the building. Every car is first charged using solar power. The energy that we use to test our vehicles goes back into the grid. Our vehicles are made using pre-impregnated coloured polymer body panels, thereby eliminating any painting process which is usually the most polluting part of automotive manufacture. In order to ensure continuous air circulation and fresh air supply throughout the day, our design team incorporated natural ventilation into building design. This was a huge investment but it lowered our energy consumption and made us self-reliant.

Our focus was thus on a design process that was [not just] cost effective, but one in which most of our investment is on the car and not on-going expenses on anything else. Today, we have the lowest carbon footprint in the manufacturing sector in India.

In the process, our effort is to show that being green does not mean that you must be more expensive.

Electric Vehicles are still very nascent in India. What kind of people are looking to own an EV here?

CM: While women account for just 15% of the drivers of conventional cars, about 40-50% of EV drivers are women. Most of our customers fall in the 30-45 age group and are young working professionals. While it is true that most of our consumers are very aware of environmental issues and wish to make a change in the way they impact it, concern for the environment is not always the key factor driving EV purchase. Most people choose to buy our vehicles because they are more convenient to use, easier to handle, and far more economical to run than a conventional vehicle. The fact that it is also green is an added benefit.

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The Mahindra Reva is a big example of the ‘Make In India’ movement we have been seeing. From your experience, how does building for an Indian consumer work differently?

CM: Affordability is definitely a concern in the Indian market. We have made one of the most affordable cars compared to EVs across the world, not because it is manufactured in India but because affordability is part of the design, the connected-car technology we use, and the efficient energy management systems used in building the car.

Technology drives affordability in India, for example, better software electronics in the car improves its efficiency whereby energy used for processes like braking is routed back into the car. By doing that, I reduce the amount of battery I need which in turn reduces cost. The car is manufactured at a tenth of the cost at which it is done globally without compromising on technology or sustainability.

Sustainable Mobility is as much about the ecosystem as the car itself. How can a city like Bangalore activate this and make it more rewarding for consumers to buy electric cars?

CM: For individual customers, the availability of charging infrastructure is very essential. We work with customers and their work places to  make sure they have adequate charging charging points available. We’re also working with malls, parking lots, and airports to create better infrastructure. In Bangalore, we have installed 125 plug points that can be accessed using phone applications or car navigation systems.

We also have created the “Run on Sun” solution using our Sun to Car Technology, where all you have to do is install a 3×3 metre solar panel on your rooftop. This gives you free energy for life for your car, (15,000 kilometres a year) and the amount you pay for that is equivalent to the amount you pay for fuel in 18 months. Here, not only do you have a green product, but by also creating your own green energy, its entire life cycle will be zero fuel, making it sustainable at the local and global level.

Something that we will be looking at in the future is using your car to power your home using the Car-To-Home Technology. So, we are building eco-system technology that allows consumers to adopt new and green technology better and a set of infrastructure to support such activities as they grow.

As for gathering community support, we’re also looking to companies to encourage their employees to switch to more energy efficient means of transport. SAP Labs, for instance, has about 45 of its employees driving our cars every day with infrastructure in place that has made it easy to do that. We have signed up with companies like CarzOnRent and Zoom Cars where people can book a car for an hour or two, drive it themselves, and experience new forms of mobility.

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What to you is the ‘future of mobility’? Where do you see this movement going in India?

CM: As a country, we already import 80-85% of our oil. By 2020, this will go up to 90-95%. We are going to face serious climate change and energy security crises unless we handle both of these challenges. The future of mobility in India cannot be incremental because unlike Europe or the US, where markets are growing at the rate of 1% or 2% or even declining, India is growing at 15% year-on-year. For this growth to sustain, the future of mobility has to have the 5Cs. It has to be a combination of a car-sharing system of electric cars, a metro, and a first mile-last mile commuting electric bus. It has to be cleaner, more convenient, and better connected. In addition to being cost-effective, this solution has to reduce the travel time and improve people’s quality of life.

One person driving a large car is unsustainable. And our cities do not have the right infrastructure to support large, fast cars.

At an administrative or policy level, what are some changes that can incentivise the use of EVs in India?

CM: Look at Bangalore Metro as an example; its usage is not too high because the first and last mile connectivity is not very robust. Introducing short-distance electric buses will improve metro connectivity greatly and lead to enhanced usage of this fantastic method of public transport.

An electric car-share programme is something that Paris, London, and many Chinese cities have adopted very successfully. Most cars are used for just a couple of hours a day and spend most of the day just parked around. On the one hand we have inefficiency and on the other we have clogged streets. One car in a car-share programme reduces about 8 cars on the road.

Companies, by taking employees to and from work, will also help keep many cars off the road. Globally, it is being mandated that such vehicles use green energy. This lowers costs even further. The best way to implement this is for the government to start such initiatives and then encouraging private companies to start adopting these practices.

Simultaneously, the government needs to take the lead on improving charging infrastructure. At a national level, the National Mission on Electric Mobility is looking at putting 5-6 billion electric vehicles on the road by 2020. It is also considering end-customer subsidies and investment in R&D and infrastructure. This should be augmented by city-level policies such as road tax refunds, VAT, and subsidies to EV customers.

You are going to be at the very first FormulaE grand prix in the next 3 days. Can you tell us how it feels?

CM: Racing has always helped push technology and innovation to their limits. By participating in this event, we have been able to improve our motors, wireless charging systems, and battery capacity. What I like most about the series is that cars are racing right in the centre of cities like London and Berlin, making these events places of great social connectedness.

I see that green by itself has never sold in any form and there are only a small number of people who truly believe in and adopt sustainable living. But, if green is made to feel cool, people will adopt it much better and I think what EVs today need is something that makes people go “Wow!”

The more the younger generation adopts EVs, the more society and the environment will change going forward. When people see that the car happens to be green but that it also goes to 240 kmph in less than 3.5 seconds, they might be more open to adopting new technology. When they see that racing can be fun without polluting at all, when you can feel cool and do it in a way that makes you feel good, then then there is a shift in people’s perceptions.

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Your message for people looking to be  a part of the movement to use sustainable alternatives?

CM: Today, people are increasingly making decisions about eating organic food, home composting, shifting away from plastic bags – small sustainable lifestyle choices. But a very large portion of their carbon footprint and contribution to pollution is through the transport they use. I think that needs a much closer re-evaluation. Cycling to and from work is good. But people need to look much more closely at the transport they use and how cost effective electrics and solar alternatives can be a part of the solution.

So, when children of the future draw a vehicle in their books, they do not need to draw a trail of smoke behind it because why should they when they will not be polluting? It is for us to adopt more sustainable lifestyles and lead our children by example. I am sure the Green Bazaar will be great for people who are looking to discover more sustainable and greener alternatives to conventional food, transport and clothing in ways that are both cost effective and easy to adopt choices.


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