50 Rupees, 2 Minutes Battery Change: Bengaluru’s New Rides

The pivot of the battery swap was a centerpiece of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s budget speech last month.

For time-pressed delivery drivers in Bangalore, refueling the batteries of electric rickshaws increasingly used to transport everything from people to groceries around India’s burgeoning tech hub, can now only take a few minutes. Sagyarani, a 38-year-old shuttle driver for MetroRide, pulls up to one of startup Sun Mobility’s 14 orange-and-black automated cabs, taps the passkey to open an empty compartment, inserts a dead battery, and releases a fully powered pack. That means more hours on the road transporting commuters to subway stations, MetroRide’s core business. Another benefit: Replacing a single fully discharged battery costs only 50 rupees (67 cents), or about half the price of a liter (¼ gallon) of gasoline.

Battery replacement, a relatively new technology pioneered in China, has been a transformation for Sagyarani, who goes by only one name. He has to recharge three lithium-ion batteries that provide a combined range of 80 kilometers (50 miles) in his auto rickshaw twice every five hours road in five minutes,” Sagyarani said. “I don’t have to worry about the remaining charge,” he said, even though the 13 kilogram (29 pound) batteries are heavy to lift. Recharging the rickshaw at a charging station would keep it off the road for up to three hours, more than half of its shift. Along with its obvious benefits for drivers like Sagyarani, battery switching is now being seen in India as a way to electrify the world’s largest fleet of two- and three-wheelers, a crucial step if the country is to reduce emissions in some of the dirtiest cities on the planet and achieve the goal of becoming carbon-free by 2070. But the pace of evolution in battery technology gyno and automakers’ reluctance to adopt standardized designs means that it could not be a catalyst for passenger cars, with India lagging behind countries like China and the United States to adopt electric vehicles more generally.

The pivot of the battery swap was a centerpiece of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s budget speech last month. The government is developing policies to encourage the sector, he said, as the lack of space in India’s crowded urban areas makes it more difficult to implement traditional charging infrastructure. Key to the move, the government plans to standardize battery hardware design and force carmakers to follow the new rules, Economic Affairs Secretary Ajay Seth said. So far, the battery business hasn’t picked up steam outside of China, partly because it needs mass consumer electric vehicles to make it profitable, and partly because that electric car owners in the US and Europe tend to have better access to home charging. Many drivers in China, the world’s largest EV market, live in apartment buildings, etc., and don’t necessarily have personal charging outlets. This has seen the battery business flourish with companies such as Nio Inc. and Geely Automobile Group planning to build more than 26,000 stations by 2025, according to BloombergNEF. The situation is similar in India, especially with regard to the nascent market for two- and three-wheel electric vehicles. The nation of about 1.3 billion people have just 1,640 functioning public electric vehicle chargers, more than half of which are concentrated in nine major cities.

In an incident that caught national media attention, an e-bike owner in Bengaluru had to drag his scooter to his fifth-floor apartment and switch it on in his kitchen when he was not authorized to install a charging station. The interchange in India will primarily be used by the country’s 1.5 million electric rickshaws, which account for 83% of total electric vehicle sales. Because replaceable batteries provide shorter range, they’re better suited to lower-speed vehicles than sedans and SUVs, which need high-powered batteries to provide greater distance, said Rajeev Singh, partner and automotive leader at Deloitte in India. Automakers can also reject adopting a standardized battery design, which is an important part of how an EV is built and brand differentiation, Singh said. Some battery developers also oppose the standardization of power supplies at all times as technology is changing rapidly and India may switch to more efficient and environmentally friendly sodium batteries instead of the lithium-ion ones preferred by rickshaw manufacturers.

But even before the government weighed on the stock market, entrepreneurs were plunging into it. Sun Mobility was founded in 2017 by Chetan Maini, who invented India’s first electric car, the Reva, to overcome the three main barriers to EV adoption, namely high upfront costs, fuel anxiety battery life and long charging times. Sun Mobility has since attracted investment from oil trader Vitol Group and Bosch Ltd., which bought a 26% stake in the startup. It plans to expand its network of exchange stations to 600 from 70 in India by the end of this year. Another startup, RACEnergy, founded in 2018, sells retrofit kits to convert gas-powered rickshaws into clean vehicles with removable batteries that can be replaced at one of its six stations in two cities. While most startups primarily focus on electric three-wheelers used by their fleet operators, Bounce Infinity has launched a personal-use escooter and plans to invest over $100 million to expand its replacement network of batteries for the Indian market,” said Maini of Sun Mobility. It is a low cost fruit to boost electrification.

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