Chetan Maini, the man who pioneered India’s first electric car Reva, is now going places with his passion of getting more and more people moving on electric transport

Chetan Maini introducing a model of the Reva electric car at the Frankfurt Motor Show. (Photo by Reva Norge)

Chetan Maini introducing a model of the Reva electric car at the Frankfurt Motor Show. (Photo by Reva Norge)

Technology and environment, and the positive impact that one can have on the other, is what excites Chetan Maini. The man who raced a solar car in his student days got hooked early to using renewables for mobility.

The romance continues after Maini pioneered the electric car Reva in India and then sold it to the Mahindra group. After the sale, he helped the group as an adviser, then branched out to “create electric mobility solutions”, as he puts it.

In an extensive and exclusive recent interview to indiaclimatedialogue.net, Maini spoke of what he is working on, what his plans are and most important, what makes him tick.

Play the audio to listen to the entire interview:

Maini started by making it very clear that in India, he would not work on any renewables-based transport solution if it turned out to be more expensive than the alternative. “If something’s green and therefore costs 10% more, nobody’s going to buy it. It has to be cost effective. So, these have been my broad drivers of how I’ve always thought of technology, affordable technology that can have a meaningful impact in this area, that connects renewables, mobility and technologies.”

Electric mobility solutions

So, after selling Reva, what is he doing now? Lots, all in the cleantech space. Of them, the first activity that came to Maini’s mind was Lithium, a company he has started. “The idea there was to create electric mobility solutions. And so far, just in Bangalore over the last year, they have deployed electric cars for corporate transportation. They have done over five million kilometres. Now we’re going to do it in other cities. The idea is that just in Bangalore 50,000 cars are used to pick up and drop people. So, what we’re doing is to make that electric. And we create a solution where it’ll be cost neutral to a company. So, by putting technologies related to tracking management, and adding charging stations, we’re putting 250 kilometres a day from each electric car. With more mileage, the cost savings increase. So, while the capital costs are high, with usage the savings increase. We’ve done it very successfully for top companies and we want to expand that.”

India’s capital New Delhi and abutting cities Gurgaon and Noida are the next stops. With their concentration of call centres, all these cities have thousands of taxis ferrying employees back and forth throughout the day.

Maini was very clear that any new vehicle coming on the road should be electric, and the general anxiety about lack of charging stations can go away soon. What about the 30-40 million petrol and diesel vehicles on India’s roads already? Shifting them to electric is another passion with the entrepreneur. “Another company I have invested in is called Altigreen Technologies. They are also based in Bangalore and what we have is a hybrid kit that can convert any car be it diesel or petrol into a hybrid vehicle and this can be done in a few hours.”

The conversion costs INR 50,000-80,000 (USD 735-1,175). It saves 25% fuel and 25% emissions. Altigreen has finished trials and should be launched soon.

He helps other entrepreneurs too – “from electric two-wheeler companies to anyone who is in this space to see how I can cut short their time frame (to market). Mostly that’s at a pro bono level but helping in (the) ecosystem.”

The policymaker

Maini has been also helping the government frame various policies for green mobility. He was in the group that framed India’s transport policy for 2020, and is now in the group considering the possibility of the country going fully electric in its transport by 2030.

That is a mammoth task, but Maini is optimistic. If India meets its target of producing over 100 gigawatts from solar energy by 2020 or even 2022, that will be almost four times the energy required for the number of vehicles that will be sold in the country in 2022, he pointed out. “And if by 2030, if we grow normally we would have around 400 million vehicles – just two wheelers, three wheelers, four wheelers. And if a lot of it is shared and connected which we will have by then, maybe we will have 350 million vehicles. And again, to power these 350 million vehicles, we would need around 250-280 gigawatts of solar energy; which again if you think about is 0.5% of Rajasthan. And it means that can power the entire country’s automotive industry in 2030. That would be 160 billion dollars in oil that we would use in that year if we translate that.”

That promises a bright future. Are there are any current policy obstacles in that path? “I think there are fiscal and non-fiscal areas,” responded Maini. “At (the) fiscal level there needs to be a commonality in policies across the country. Every state has a different structure because of taxation, be it road tax or VAT or things like this…”

In the non-fiscal space, Maini spoke about the need to increase the demand for electric vehicles. He was confident that the government and the automobile industry were working on this, “and that’s to me a real big thing. If there is a high demand in (the) country, then prices will come down and adoption will happen and that needs to be coupled with the infrastructure where the investments need to be made.”

Maini would like this to be coupled with the government’s Make in India initiative. “Once everything is made in India, quality levels will become better, cost structures will come down, replacement parts will be available and the industry will grow very well.”

This, Maini expects, will allow many new players into the automobile manufacturing space. Half the cost of a car will be different once it goes electric, “which means it will create new suppliers, new supply chains and new processes.” He is already seeing it in the two-wheeler industry, where start-ups are getting funded with relative ease.

New directions

Maini seriously believes that the future of mobility is electric, and it need not be a personal vehicle for everyone. “When you go electric, you drop cost; when you go connected, you drop cost; when you go shared, you drop cost like in Ola. You go autonomous, you drop more cost, you go with renewable energy, you drop further cost. So, from point A to point B will cost you less than a third ten years from today when you travel and will be much cleaner and better.”

And how far is India from driverless cars? Maini takes that very seriously, and started a competition for Indian inventors in this space a couple of years ago. He is hoping that by the end of 2017 a lot of the competitors will be successful. “Autonomous driving is a big AI (artificial intelligence) software game so therefore we have a large play in that in the country. So, we might first end up being providers for the global market and the reason I am saying is that because Indian cities are going to be the most challenging to navigate (for driverless cars). But second thing is that we can try to develop technologies which will be very unique and India-centric which maybe the rest of the world is not working. I think in Indian cities it is possible if some of the smart cities thought of it upfront and included that in the masterplan. You could have small deployments by 2025, and reasonable deployment by 2030.”

As for the pioneer himself, where is he going next? Maini said it was “too early to talk but I have been working on a new venture for past six months… maybe in a couple of months when I am ready. It is going to try to connect a lot of these areas, my insights over past few years to see how this transformation can happen, what is the business model that has to work out correctly.”

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