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Ather Energy’s Ravneet S Phokela on EV scooter fiascos, and why batteries need to be customised for India

We spoke to Ather Energy chief business officer (CBO) Ravneet S Phokela to find out what the company does differently. Here is an edited version of the interview.

Ather CBO Ravneet S Phokela on EV fire fiasco and Ather scootersRavneet S. Phokela is Chief Business Officer at Ather Energy. (Image credit: Ather Energy)

After the government ordered a probe into the recent spate of electric scooters catching fire, an initial probe concluded that faulty battery cells and modules are the leading cause of such incidents. However, one company has remained conspicuous by its absence among the list of Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) whose vehicles have caught fire and that’s Ather Energy.

Ather Energy, which was founded in 2013, announced its first scooter only in 2016 and began deliveries three years later. To date, it claims to have sold over 50,000 vehicles. So what makes Ather different compared to the competition?

Ather scooters in an assembly line at the company’s facility in Hosur. (Image credit: Ather Energy)

Indianexpress.com spoke to Ather Energy chief business officer (CBO) Ravneet S Phokela to find out what the company does differently. Below is an edited version of the interview.

Q. Does Ather make any special considerations during the design and manufacturing process to avoid vehicle fires?

Phokela: Safety is always our number one priority. We design and manufacture our own batteries. We have been in the business since 2013, but we tested the battery for over five years with all kinds of scenarios before we began selling. This was to ensure that the batteries are suitable for all situations that Indian roads can throw at them. The fact that we haven’t had an incident is because we have been putting in work for the last six to seven years.

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After we rolled out the scooter initially, we rolled out two different generations and we are on our third generation now. We have had an extensive amount of data about how the vehicles and the batteries have performed and we have used that to make it better with each generation. This includes data about different driving conditions, time of the year, etc.

Batteries made to specifications for foreign countries will not necessarily be suited for the Indian market, especially with the many different kinds of road conditions that we have. We had to make sure that our batteries can take all those shocks and bumps and still continue functioning properly.

Q: Do you think these incidents have affected customer confidence in EVs, especially since they are happening at such an early stage of adoption in India?

Phokela: At this point, as far as our data tells us, it hasn’t really hurt customer confidence in the EV industry as a whole. People are not judging all EVs equally. Today, at this point in time, they are able to make a distinction between whether it is a problem with all EVs or if it is a problem with certain brands. Our understanding is that people are attributing this to certain brands, instead of saying all EVs catch fire. But if it continues, that could change.

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Q. Why did all these incidents happen in such a short time span? Does it have anything to do with harsh Indian summer temperatures?

Phokela: Obviously, we can only hypothesise but there could be many reasons for why the vehicles caught fire. We don’t know about the root causes so we can only talk about likelihood from what we understand about engineering and physics.

But the time span is probably only a coincidence. Ambient temperatures do not cause fires. The temperature outside does not make a difference. You would need an ambient temperature of a hundred degrees plus for it to become a problem that affects the batteries and the cells. The temperature may derate the performance of the battery but it won’t cause the fires for sure. So, it’s probably only a quality problem.

It could be due to faults in the batteries, their construction and arrangement and the battery management systems. Some malfunctioning there could have caused a short-circuiting that led to these fires. It is definitely not because of the temperature outside.

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Ather scooters parked at the company’s facility in Hosur. (Image credit: Ather Energy)

Q. Do you think there needs to be more stringent oversight from the regulators?

Phokela: It is still early for the EV industry. There is a very strong case for the industry and the government to work together to jointly develop these quality standards. All of us EV companies have had learnings and the government can draw upon these learnings to create better standards. But safety is not a checkbox exercise where you meet a standard and forget about it. Companies need to be actively thinking about it and improving all the time.

Compliance requirements are very basic requirements and the benchmarks that we have internally are much higher. It is not something we take lightly. So irrespective of what the requirements are, I just feel that we need to test for every extreme use case even if they are edge cases. We need to make sure that we should not leave anything to chance. OEMs certainly have to be a few notches higher than the safety standards themselves.

Q. Do you think the domestic design manufacturing of batteries would be a good step towards making sure these fires don’t happen?

Phokela: Any OEM that has a long-term view on EVs will end up making their own batteries because it is a fundamental part of what makes a vehicle. But it is not a question of whether it is produced in India or elsewhere. It is just making sure that you are designing and making for Indian conditions.

For example, we don’t have cell manufacturing capabilities in India but that is not a problem. We can import cells and construct the battery to compensate for the fact that cells might have been made for countries outside India. It is just making sure that you are designing and accounting for Indian conditions. That is what is important.

First published on: 10-05-2022 at 05:59:47 pm
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