Thinking alternatively came quite young to Chetan Maini, currently Chief of Technology & Strategy at Mahindra Reva. At the age when most boys play cricket, he made toy electric cars from scratch. His passion for electric cars took him to the University of Michigan and thereafter to Stanford University. He returned to India to found the REVAi Electric Car Company in 1994—today, Mahindra Reva. He is widely regarded as the pioneer of electric cars in India.
Your journey through the years has been inspirational. Give us an idea of the genesis of the Reva, milestones met, and challenges faced and overcome…
At the University of Michigan I had the opportunity to be part of the Solar Car team that stood first in a race across the US. Later on we raced across Australia in the World Solar Challenge. The idea of crossing a continent only on sun energy was very exciting and planted the seed of Reva in my mind.
A year later in 1991, I worked for a startup in California to build a modular electric vehicle platform that allowed us to test several technologies. I used to visit India once a year and started getting a feel for how things were changing—the economy was opening up, pollution was getting crazy. The idea of a low cost electric car for Indian cities became more relevant.
In 1994, we started working on the Reva project. The key task was to develop lightweight, efficient, and cost effective electric vehicles (EVs). We initially developed core technologies and filed several global patents. The concept of a ‘running chassis’ with thermoplastic panels allowed us to create lightweight vehicle structures and a simple and cost-effective assembly process.
In 1999, I moved back to India. The challenges changed—raising money, building a team, productionizing the Reva and validating technologies and products. We needed to hire and train a team to build EVs. I interviewed over 400 people and hired a young team with passion and challenged them—the results were extraordinary.
Convincing financial institutions to invest in Reva was the next big challenge. With persistence in communicating our vision, we finally got the Technology Development Board (TDB) of India and ICICI to provide debt financing.
Over the next two years, we built over 40 prototypes and tested them over a million kilometers. To overcome the problem of recharging, we build a circular test track where vehicles could be tested 24 hours a day with power supply from a central pole.
We went through ten iterations and finally built in protection mechanisms to handle the ‘Indian electrical grid.’ Another challenge was driving an electric car through flooded roads in the monsoons. We housed all the electronics inside the car and developed snorkels for the ventilation systems that allowed the car to go through three feet of water!
Certification posed a new challenge, as India did not have a regulatory framework for EVs. We worked with the Government of India and Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) for over a year to formulate the rules. Another challenge was the servicing of vehicles, for which we developed an advanced diagnostic system that ran off a palm pilot.
Our strategy was that Reva would focus on core technologies and just do the final assembly. This required us to get a supply chain in place. We had the Maini Group companies supply us with key parts. Convincing others was a challenge, as our volumes were low and people were not sure about the technology. We spent a lot of time communicating a vision that resonated with our partners—who till today have been very supportive.
Tell us the story of how you launched the first Reva, and how the company has developed since then.
After almost seven years of R&D, we finally launched the Reva in 2001. A couple of months before we launched, the Government doubled excise taxes for EVs and removed a subsidy of Rs 1.05 lakhs per car. This definitely was a big challenge, but it was an opportunity too. We looked at other lucrative markets to survive and this made us go global a lot faster!
In 2002 we worked with a group of entrepreneurs to take the car to the UK and made over 130 changes to address regulatory issues. Working day and night, in less than a year we launched the Reva in London. In our unique sales model, vehicles were sold online and almost 80 percent of the service was done on a mobile basis. Today London has over 1,000 Revas (called the G-Wiz).
As we increased our presence in Europe, it was important to demonstrate technology leadership, as well as get the best minds in India to work together. In 2005, along with DC Design and Encore Software, we developed the NXG with a 200 kilometer range and a tablet PC interface—the first of its kind and within four months flat! A great boost was receiving the Monte Carlo Sustainable Mobility Award when the car was showcased in Monaco.
In 2006 we went to the markets again to raise money and had VCs invest in the Reva. It was the first time we were raising equity for global funds. The following year, we launched the second generation vehicle called the Revai with AC drive technology and expanded distribution to over ten countries.
To develop the next generation of vehicles—the NXR and NXG—tremendous insights were gained from the on-board Energy Management System which had stored over three years of data, from over 120 million kilometers, in over 24 countries.
It’s been an exciting journey so far. We started at a time when the concept of EVs was very new and there was a lot of skepticism in the marketplace. Things are changing today…with Mahindra on board, the challenges (read: exciting opportunities!) ahead are different: creating a global green plant, getting the NXR out, electrifying Mahindra platforms, expanding the distribution network, and most important, educating customers and getting them to buy into the idea of an electric car!
You are widely considered the pioneer of electric vehicles in India. What future do you foresee for EVs in India and across the world?
EVs will play a very important role in mitigating the challenges of climate change and energy security in the transportation industry. Besides, due to rising fuel costs, congested city roads, and low average vehicle speeds, there is a growing need for vehicles like EVs—which use 50 percent less energy and cause zero pollution.
India imports close to 60 percent of its oil requirements and by 2020 this could be up to 80 percent. On the other hand, there are sufficient natural resources to produce electricity as well as a wealth of talent in India in the electrical and electronics engineering and auto component industries. This will facilitate EV production capabilities and breakthroughs.
As more companies enter the EV market, we will see competitive choices and pricing for the consumer, better charging infrastructure, and improved government policies. New markets are opening up with the State Governments introducing favorable policies for EVs. Subsidies from the Indian Government and the incentives received by the EV industry in this year’s Union Budget will also boost demand.
EVs are a transportation solution and need to be seen as an ecosystem, not just as a product. They are mobile energy carriers—a crucial partner to the energy ecosystem through the smart-grid. They are a new and emerging mobile communications platform—being naturally ‘sensor-heavy,’ EVs may lead the ‘Connected Car’ evolution.
The automotive industry is on the precipice of very disruptive change led by innovation in how we power our vehicles. These radical advances will profoundly alter the basis for competition in the automotive industry. In fact, seldom in history has any one industry or technology received concurrent backing from all major stakeholders globally.
What is your mantra for success?
When you have an idea that you absolutely believe in, I think it is critical that you surround yourself with people who share that dream. It is important, as an entrepreneur, to stay open to ‘calculated’ risk-taking and innovation and adopt a ‘never-lose-faith’ attitude. Never stop thinking of ideas and being passionate about your unique proposal. Be persistent in overcoming hurdles to ensure your ideas are successful. Do what you really enjoy and make work a hobby—that is what will help you go a long way.
Whenever I found myself facing a problem, I would sleep over it. In the morning, I would often see an opportunity in it. I found this worked well; it made me positive. In hindsight, what may have seemed like a setback was actually just the push that was needed—to try something new, to stretch one’s limits.
Update 25/10/2011: Chetan Maini wins Energy and Environment Award at the 2011 Innovation Awards! Source: http://www.thegreencarwebsite.co.uk/blog/index.php/2011/10/06/g-wiz-founder-wins-energy-and-environment-award/
Chetan is the Chief of Technology & Strategy at Mahindra Reva, India’s leading electric car company. A thought leader in electric vehicle development, Chetan kicked off the Reva project in 1994 and guided the launch of the first model in 2001. Under his leadership, the company has made important and continuous strides in technology and user experience. He attended the University of Michigan and Stanford University, USA. He lives in Bangalore, India.
The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group