Hemalatha and Baladhandayuthapani
I have known Hema and Bala, founders of the pioneering electric two wheeler company Ampere Vehicles, for a while now.
While Bala had helped us out by being an expert speaker at some of our renewable energy conferences, Hema had participated in some of our more focussed business networking events, specifically some in her home city of Coimbatore.
Hema is the CEO of Ampere while Bala takes care research and technology. An interesting combination I must say, to have the lady run the business while the man does the background research – it usually is the other way round.
Beyond knowing them, I have been a customer of their Ampere E-bike as well. I bought their electric bicycle in 2013 and occasionally use it to travel from my home to office – a distance of about 10 Kms. While riding a bicycle (even an electric one) on Indian city roads can hardly be a pleasant experience, I can tell you one thing about riding an electric bicycle – you become a mini-celebrity. Because the bicycle looks different and also runs different, folks from all sorts of vehicles pop their heads out while waiting at a signal to check out what the e-bike is all about, and many have a number of questions too. So, there is the tip: You want to become a local hero or heroine, one way could be to buy an electric bicycle.
While Ampere Vehicles might not be as high profile as a few others in the EV market backed by large industrial groups, Hema & Bala have been quietly working at it for a while now. I am aware of a few other EV startups that folded in the last few years, but these two have stuck to the task, believed in themselves, and survived. Hats off to them.
So, when I heard that Ampere had received the latest round of funding from Ratan Tata, I was indeed very glad.
This was as good a time as any to do a quick profiling of what Ampere has been doing in the interesting but challenging domain of electric vehicles, specifically electric bikes and electric scooters.
So I got on to Skype and had a detailed telephonic interview with Hema, to get the latest updates and perspectives on Ampere in specific, and electric two wheelers in general.
Just to give you the overall picture, Ampere makes electric two wheelers, three wheelers and custom e-vehicles such as trolleys. However, it is their two wheelers that they are really popular for. Within two wheelers, they make both electric bicycles and electric scooters.
Highlights from my interview.
On Drivers for Electric Vehicle Growth
Electric two wheelers are not exactly having a great time in India. While conventional motorbikes sell around a crore (100 lacs) units per year, electric scooters sell less than 1 lac – that is, less than 1%.
Thus, it is critical to identify drivers for the growth of electric vehicles in order to spur the sector forward.
What are the drivers, according to Hema, that will significantly increase sales electric bicycles and scooters in India?
- Financial incentives – while there are subsidies available for electric vehicles, Hema feels the current financial incentive, while encouraging, is not good enough. There are others who think so too.
- Infrastructure support such as separate bike lanes – I can attest to this. My experience in riding any kind of bicycle on Chennai roads can be summarised thus “Miracle to be alive at the end of the ride”. Having lived in London for a while and biked on on bicycle-only roads, I can tell you that bicycling can actually be a pleasure if you have a separate bike line.
- Awareness – this is indeed low. Even though many have heard about electric bicycles or electric scooters, the knowledge is shallow and myths abound.
On the challenges dimension, she feels that the main challenges standing in the way of electric bicycle and electric scooter growth in India are the following:
- Lack of awareness – already mentioned. One of the myths about electric scooters and bicycles is about its speed. Most people think these vehicles will be too slow for them. The fact however is, E-scooters can reach up to 50 Km/hour, enough for most city transport, e-bicycles can reach up to 25 Km/hr, enough for most local rides.
- Concerns on availability of spare parts etc – this is perhaps to a certain extent true, when compared to availability of spare parts of conventional vehicles, for whom there are hundreds of garages and service centers all over a city, while these are quite limited for electric two wheelers.
The Crude Challenge
While on challenges, I also had a question on the challenge of the lower crude oil prices and the effect these are having on electric vehicles. I had cut my teeth in my early days in the biofuels sector, and it still bleeds! Any drop in crude prices had murderous effect on the biofuels investments. So, I had expected a fairly strained response from Hema to this question on crude oil effect on electric two wheeler sales.
Surprisingly, she answered that the lower price of crude oil is not affecting e-bike sales much. I reckon this could be for two reasons:
- One, the petrol or diesel prices in India have not come down proportionately
- Two, the segments that are currently purchasing electric bikes and scooters in India are more of the early adopters who are buying more out of an aspiration than for cost savings.
On Manufacturing & Indigenization
One impressive aspect about the Ampere story is their serious efforts to rely as much as possible on indigenous manufacturing and components. (a link to their manufacturing facility details)
The China factor looms large when it comes to imports of electric vehicle sector too.
In this context, Ampere has been making some proactive steps too, by significantly reducing the amount of imports – they currently import less than 40% of their requirements. All the rest are either produced by themselves or are sourced from domestic manufacturers.
Key components such as the motor, charge controller and batteries are from within India. While they do import some plastic components from China, Ampere is making serious efforts to explore how to rely more on Indian sourcing for these too.
On E-bicycles Vs E-scooters
Ampere E-scooter & E-bicycle. Source: Ampere Vehicles
As mentioned earlier, Ampere does both electric bicycles and electric scooters. I had bought their electric bicycle, as I felt it had a cool factor to it, but I knew that e-scooters provided higher utility when it came to 10 Km rides.
So I was curious to know: Which of the two is preferred in the market, and which of the two brings in higher sales for Ampere?
As I had expected, there was no one choice as the answer. Rather, different demographies preferred different products. According to Hema:
- The Tier 1 & Tier 2 cities preferred electric scooters, while
- Tier 3 and smaller towns, and further down, rural regions, preferred electric bicycles
Attractive Target Segments
The electric two wheeler demand in India is still very low. It is thus critical for vendors to figure out the most optimal segments and spend their marketing dollars on these attractive segments.
Which are the attractive end-user segments for electric two wheelers in India?
This is what Hema had to say:
- There’s a segment that buys owing to eco-friendly aspirations. A good percentage of this segment goes for the electric scooter.
- In addition, some of the emerging and new segments include
- School-going Children
- Rural folks
- Both the above mainly prefer electric bicycles
On Policies & Regulations
Like it or not, the electric vehicles segment, similar to many other sectors within cleantech and renewable energy, still requires those extra incentives from the government to grow.
In this context, I wanted to know what regulations and other incentives she would like to have from government. The following are in her wish-list:
While the government has come up with some financial incentives now, she feels the government can also include tax incentives. These incentives could be made more attractive for premium vehicle makes as this will make the key target segment (those with both aspirations and affordability) become more interested in purchasing electric two-wheelers.
Financing their Business
To begin with, the Ampere founders had put in their own money.
A few years later, they received funding from external investors. Funding from Ratan Tata is the latest financing they have received. (a page that provides more details of their investors)
What does Ampere plan to do with the latest fund infusion? Ampere plans to use the funding for the following:
- To develop and expand their sales network
- To expand and ramp up their manufacturing facility
On Being One of the Few Women in the Indian Cleantech & Electric Vehicles Sectors
These days, it can be considered rude if I venture to ask a lady how it felt to a woman CEO, with so many of them doing much better than their not-so-fair-sex CEO counterparts. But most of cleantech is still pretty much a man’s world, and in the electric vehicles sector, you will have to really search hard to find women working in any position, leave alone as CEOs. So, I had to blurt out this question to Hema: How has it been for her to be a lady CEO in a Man’s Biz?
Looks like I was not the first to ask her this question, for pat came the answer:
- She does not feel in anyway odd to be running an EV company. According to her, women or men, they have to follow the basics and watch the finances and ops carefully to be a successful CEO. Essentially, “It is the basics, stupid”.
- All right, so what would be her suggestion to women who wish to win in the cleantech space?
- She feels women should realise that they can multi-task better than men, so they should use it to their advantage when leading companies especially in cleantech where there are so many uncertainties.
- At the same time, she feels women (at least in India) should have it in the back of their minds that they have a dual job, one at office and one at home
Is India Close to The Tipping Point for Electric Two Wheelers?
In India, the electric two wheeler (or for that matter four wheeler) market has just been whimpering along, with no great sales volume to write home about.
It appears that China’s e-bike and e-scooter markets were somewhat similar until 2010, but things changed dramatically starting then. China currently sells tens of millions of electric two wheelers every year (about 30 million electric bicycles and 10 million electric scooters every year), spurred by favourable government regulations and incentives.
In China, the tipping point for electric vehicles happened around says Hema. In India, she feels the tipping point is fairly close by.
Let’s hope the tipping point is indeed near, for India to have less polluting vehicles, and for the success of entrepreneurs such as Hema & Bala.
Some useful links on electric two wheelers
Tiger Global Invests in Electric Mobility in India
Electric Vehicles in India – Policies, Opportunities and Current Scenario (PDF)
The Role of Electric Two-Wheelers in Sustainable Urban Transport in China (PDF)
Electric Two-Wheelers in China: Promise, Progress and Potential
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