5 Questions with Amitabh Saran – CEO, Altigreen

The rise of e-mobility in India has been accompanied by a new wave of startups making inroads into the automobile space that has historically had large barriers to entry. One of the pioneers in the Indian electric vehicles space is Altigreen Propulsion Labs that offers electric powertrain solutions tailor-made for the Indian driving conditions.

Altigreen entered the market with a drivetrain solution called Hypixi that can be retrofit on existing ICE vehicles, converting them to off-grid hybrids. While the solution received great feedback from the users, the company decided to change course and concentrate on developing fully electric drivetrains as the government stopped subsidising the retrofits. The start-up has a split R&D centre in USA and India and has over 20 granted patents, including 6 in the USA, and others in Europe, South Asia and Africa. Altigreen provides customised powertrain design and development for OEMs. First electric three-wheeler from their stable is expected to launch in early 2020 and offer a range of 120 km. According to Crunchbase, the company has raised a total of USD 2 million so far.

We speak to the CEO and Co-founder Amitabh Saran on Altigreen’s start-up journey and more.

QnA with Amitabh Saran
Amitabh Saran
Amitabh Saran

Q1. There is an ongoing debate whether emerging economies like India should adopt Plug-in Hybrid vehicles first or leap to fully electric vehicles, skipping the Hybrids altogether. What’s your take on this?

India is a great archetype for the rest of the emerging economies. One thing is absolutely clear to me – this is NOT a one-size-fits-all market. The needs and drive profiles are so vastly different across customer use cases, that one technology or vehicle format will not suffice. 

For traditional passenger vehicles and for intercity mobility, hybrids (P/HEV)1 will be a GREAT option. For intracity mobility, especially commercial vehicles of all formats, I do not see ANY reason why EV adoption will not touch 100% in the not so distant future.

You would see the change happen sooner if more companies were focusing on building the right kinds of products, suited for the specific needs of this geography (instead of banking on imports for short term business gain).

Q2. What specific factors have been considered to tailor Altigreen’s technology for the Indian driving conditions?

The specific design constraints to cater to commercial vehicles in India are –

1. Very low speeds

2. Light vehicles & short commutes

3. Difficult environmental conditions, (e.g. waterlogged streets, high ambient temperature, humidity, dust, potholes, poor roads),

4. Vagaries of vehicles sizes / heterogenous traffic sharing the road,

5. Poor maintenance levels and service schedules (mostly reactive servicing for a breakdown rather than preventive maintenance),

6. Questionable and unprofessional driving practices,

7. Competitive pricing and low cost.

Each of these unique design constraints posed severe challenges which we had to overcome through innovative technology. Our technology breakthrus have enabled us to make more powerful, rugged but cost-effective EV components. Except for some electronic items like microprocessors, everything is sourced, fabricated and manufactured in India (for India).

Q3. In terms of ease of doing business, how would you summarise your start-up experience? Any suggestions for ARAI or ICAT to streamline the approvals process to help promote entrepreneurship in the EV domain?

I was been bitten by the startup bug in 1999. Altigreen is my 3rd startup but the first in a non-IT/traditional vertical. It’s interesting that the word startup still conjures images of a software/services company. Very few startups focus on traditional engineering. Fortunately, this is changing and is a very welcome change. 

I am pleased to say that our certification agencies have picked up the reins of electrification fairly quickly. Being a front-runner in the EV race (since 2012-13), Altigreen has had long run-ins with certification agencies. We have literally grown together, in an environment of mutual learning and appreciation. While they must do justice to the standards and norms for all vehicles (EV and fossil-fuel) sharing the public road infrastructure, perhaps more innovative approaches will help. For instance:

– Newer duty cycles and drive profiles are emerging in EV usage – lead by e-commerce logistics and last-mile mobility needs. Can we define new testing standards to take care of India’s emerging needs? 

“In a spirit of complete transparency, there is a need for a lot more clarity on tests that will be undertaken, their description and objective. It cannot be left to the interpretation of the person conducting the test. Often tests & reports are opaque, which makes it doubly difficult for young entrepreneurs. In such cases, startups bank on online communities of fellow entrepreneurs who lend a helping hand. This is one very good by-product of the current certification climate.”

Easy availability of (and access to) development test infrastructure which startups should be able to book & use to conduct their trials (and thus make robust products). 1-2 person startup test teams compete for resources against dedicated certification/homologation teams of incumbent automobile manufacturers… and no marks for guessing who the winner most-often is. 

Q4. Given nearly 80% of India’s electricity is produced from coal, how much an EVs contribute towards a cleaner environment?

This was exactly the concern when we started Altigreen, and hence our focus on hybridization. Over the last 5 years, there has been a fundamental shift in the electricity generation ratios, with the Government’s larger emphasis on renewables – capacity building in wind, solar & nuclear. In fact, some of the world’s largest solar fields are now in India. Distributed roof-top solar (and off-grid backup power) is ideal for EV charging since it has the added benefit of zero power transmission losses. Coupled with this shift, is the realization that EVs run at 85-90% efficiency compared to combustion engines that operate on 20-25%. This 3-4 fold increase in efficiency is itself a huge boon in the energy conservation equation.

Q5. What targets has Altigreen set for itself as an enabler of clean transportation in India?

Carbon-free transportation, with a focus on enabling last-mile transportation (both passenger and cargo). This includes creating newer vehicle formats and/or revolutionary concepts that will change the way we look at mobility options… so keep watching. The fun has just begun.

Footnotes:

1. PHEV refers to EVs that can be charged by plugging in and also have an additional source of energy in a conventional internal combustion engine. HEV refers to off-grid hybrid vehicles that are charged by regenerative braking and ICE. EV 101

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