Opinion

The electric-bike market is hotting up

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on October 02, 2019 Published on October 02, 2019

Dreaming big India’s still at a very early stage of the EV game   -  Devrimb

Numerous players are hoping to conquer the road. But pricing and getting suppliers are among the challenges ahead

Is there room for 50 players in India’s still very nascent electric two-wheeler industry? The answer’s certainly no. But that isn’t stopping entrepreneurs from driving ahead with their dreams-on-wheels. Many are young engineers who’ve designed an engine and see the opportunity to turn it a roadworthy vehicle. Others are corporate players who’ve spied a market gap that could be filled by CKD kit imports from China assembled here.

Take a look at Micromax co-founder and CEO Rahul Sharma. He’s got a sharp eye for opportunity, even if his mobile phones have had a bit of an uneven ride. He took the stage a few weeks ago for a launch but instead of hyping a palm-sized phone, a smart two-wheeler glided silently onto the stage. Sharma's market USP is a novel scheme by which the bike can only be bought through a monthly payment plan. Because electric bikes are electronically connected to the maker, they can be immobilised if the owner misses three payments.

Then there’s Amit Raj Singh, co-founder, Goreen E-Mobility. He’s taken the fast-track China-route to Indian roads. Singh learnt about electric bikes during the dozen years he worked in China in consumer electronics and mobile phones. He’s now tied up with China’s fifth-largest two-wheeler company which makes Opai bikes. Singh says he’s sold 3,000 in the last year and he’s ready to produce another 3,000 vehicles this month. Singh, who’s got a factory in Noida, says demand is strong in the south and west and is planning a second plant next year.

For a more home-grown start-up, look at Bangaluru-based Orxa Energy, launched by a young engineering team which aim to carve a niche with their high-powered Mantis performance motorbike that offers a 200 km range-per-charge and a 140 km top speed. Orxa wants to be noticed in the marketplace so it’s taking a risk by coming out with a performance bike that won’t qualify for the government’s Fame-II subsidies.

Like Ducati abroad, Orxa makes it a policy that anybody joining the company must ride bikes. Says co-founder Ranjita Ravi: “It’s a recruitment criterion. We’re building a bike for riders and everyone has to know what riders look for.” Ravi says the bike will be out early next year and other models are in the works.

Numerous other players are hoping to conquer the road with new motorcycles. In Bangaluru, there’s Ultraviolette which has funding from TVS Motor. Also making performance bikes are companies like Emflux, which is coming out with a bike that will go from 0-100 kmph in three seconds and will cost around ₹6 lakh. In Pune, there’s Tork, which is close to launch. It’s also grappling with issues like setting up experience centres where customers can get a feel for the bike and tying up production-level supplies. Says Tork’s Kapil Shelke, a veteran of the electric-bike circuit: “Making a prototype is 1 per cent of the work. You have to go through a lot before giving the first-ever motorcycle to the customer.”

There are scores of others hoping to make their mark. In Chennai, AR Karthigeyan, and his father, Armugam Rajendrababu, started toiling away to bring out an electric two-wheeler long before the industry became crowded with a parking lot full of different models. He’s released photos of the B3, a sleek scooter he says will be road-ready by mid-2020. In Coimbatore, meanwhile, there’s RP Guhan, co-founder, Gugu Energy, who’s making two vehicles, one of which he calls a multi-utility vehicle — the backseat can be removed for delivery companies.

Just the first hurdle

The cruel truth, though, is creating an e-two-wheeler is only the first hurdle. Once you’ve got the vehicle, there are challenges like getting suppliers and convincing customers it’s worth paying more upfront because electricity to run the bike will be cheaper than petrol. “In the electric space, inventing is the easier part. I can make an electric engine. But I must have a feel for the market,” says Deepesh Rathore, Emerging Markets Automotive Advisors’ co-founder and director.

Ravi admits Orxa has had difficulties finding suppliers interested in small orders. “The challenge of a hardware start-up is minimum-order quantities. We’re at the prototype stage, building five machines at a time. It’s tough to interest vendors geared to working in thousands.”

And getting customers could be even tougher than finding suppliers because electric two-wheelers are far pricier than IC-engine vehicles. A Honda Activa retails for around ₹65,000 while the highly rated scooter from Ather Energy costs over a lakh. Says Rathore: “Indians are very price-conscious and don’t want to spend a lakh now against ₹65,000.” And there’s another complication. “Honda’s a product that any roadside mechanic can service. Ather currently has no service network outside Bangaluru and Chennai,” Rathore says.

Adds Ravi: “Upfront cost is a big deal. There has to be consumer understanding that you’re buying a vehicle plus 10 years of petrol.” So, when you’re trying to sell a product unfamiliar to the customer and also costlier, novel methods are needed. When Ather launched in Chennai, it took along 50 Bangaluru users ready to testify it was indeed a good bike. But even a company like Ather, whose vehicle has got sparkling reviews, is coming up against speed-bumps it hadn’t anticipated.

Ather launched in home-town Bangaluru initially and moved in July to its second destination, Chennai. Ather’s taken a highly centralised approach, manufacturing many parts of of its bikes in-house. Ather runs its own experience centres and monitors its vehicles on the road to see when they need service updates. The result is it’s suddenly finding it tough to boost production. Simultaneously, it’s also introduced a new eco-mode for people with “range anxiety” and that’s taken considerable effort. Says an Ather spokesperson: “We’re a very vertically integrated company and the entire company’s had to scale up.”

All the two-wheeler industry’s established giants have been doing extensive R&D but haven’t brought products onto the market. That’s partly because they don’t want to undercut their own current sales but also because they haven’t got products that tick all the boxes. They’re expected to enter the market only when it shows signs of exploding. And when they do, they’ll bring a wealth of advantages. For a start, they’ll have huge financial muscle and also years of customer-behaviour data which will help them to overtake the smaller players.

India’s still at a very early stage of the EV game. Even China, which has millions of EVs on the road, found sales dropping when it removed subsidies a few months ago. So India’s ambitious start-ups have a long way to travel.

 

Published on October 02, 2019
  1. Comments will be moderated by The Hindu Business Line editorial team.
  2. Comments that are abusive, personal, incendiary or irrelevant cannot be published.
  3. Please write complete sentences. Do not type comments in all capital letters, or in all lower case letters, or using abbreviated text. (example: u cannot substitute for you, d is not 'the', n is not 'and').
  4. We may remove hyperlinks within comments.
  5. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name, to avoid rejection.