Sun Mobility eyeing bigger play in sustainable transportation solution

Chetan Maini's Reva, the country's first electric car might have failed to capture the imagination of the city commuters due to high cost of acquisition and lack of charging infrastructure, but it did spark an idea to bring the discourse on zero-emission mobility solutions to the centre-stage in a country that is one of the world's most polluted.

Almost two decades after he gave India its first electric car, Maini is at it again. Maini and Uday Khemka’s (an investment banker) ten-months-old startup Sun Mobility, a 50:50 joint venture between Virya Mobility 5.0 and SUN New Energy Systems. The startup is aiming not only to address the very same issues that made Reva a non-starter but is looking to play a wider role—that of an enabler in the newly emerging eco-system for electric vehicles.  

It is reinventing the way batteries are distributed and energy is stored. It plans to buy solar power from plants, store it in batteries, and distribute it through a battery network, which would be similar to petrol pumps. 

“Once I stepped down from my role in Reva, I had time to reflect why it hadn’t happened the way it should have. I really spent several months. Unless we disrupt it in every possible way, it’s not going to work,” Maini told Business Standard in an interview.  
As a first step, the Bengaluru-based company inked an exclusive joint venture with Ashok Leyland in July 2017. As part of the agreement, Sun Mobility will be deploying a “unique open-architecture ecosystem” built around their proprietary smart batteries and a network of quick interchange battery stations. At the Auto Expo 2018, which concluded last month, Ashok Leyland and Sun Mobility, unveiled the Circuit S, India’s first electric bus equipped with swappable batteries. 

The fully-charged batteries can power the bus for 50-60 kilometres and take less than 4 minutes for swapping. Vinod K Dasari, managing director at Ashok Leyland said various state transport undertakings have shown interest in buying these buses and deploying the charging infrastructure. “If you can do it in a 600 kg battery in 2.5 minutes, then everything else is much easier,” said Maini.

Maini said he is going back in time. “Am going back to 1999 when I moved back to India and started Reva. The difference is, Reva being a car had a higher degree of complexity and Maini had to build it up all ground up — the capabilities, the skill set required and most importantly, seed an idea which was non-existent." 

He is wading into an unchartered territory yet again albeit with a difference. A lot has changed over the last two decades—led by the changing regulations and government’s commitment to clean energy, electric vehicles as an idea have gained traction in India and this time around, Maini has chosen a broader canvas—mass transportation to play with which will lend the venture the much-needed scale. The new business idea hinged on three core key issues of high acquisition costs of EVs, range anxiety and recharging time.

This is how it will operate and address the handicaps: At the swapping-cum-charging station, which Sun Mobility plans to set up, a fully charged lithium ion battery replaces a discharged one in a few minutes. The driver of the electric vehicle pays for the energy that can be measured as the batteries are IoT (internet of things) enabled. The station will be connected to a power grid. Sun Mobility plans to undertake the cost of owning, assembling and maintaining lithium-ion batteries.

The swappable and detachable batteries mean that the cost of making an EV for automakers can be neutral when compared with a vehicle powered by internal combustion engine. It will also be easy on the buyers’ wallet as they will be paying only for the energy and not the battery pack which accounts for a fourth of the cost in an EV. 

Sun Mobility is looking for a larger infra play and over the next few months, it will collaborate with several other auto firms, taxi aggregators, mobility providers. “Our long-term thing is open architecture. For buses we do have a short-term exclusivity with Ashok Leyland,” said Maini. Sun Mobility is coming up with a battery making unit that will have a capacity to make battery packs. The unit will be operational over the next three months and will be equipped to meet the demand for the next 18 months. It also plans to collaborate with energy companies for setting up dedicated solar plants, once volumes pick up. “This year is about partnerships, technology demonstration and initial movement of some sales. Next year is going to about growth,” said Maini. Sun Mobility’s ambitions are not confined to India but “getting it rooted in India is of foremost importance,” said Khmeka.

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