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How do you fix India's electric dreams, anyway?
Adoption of EVs is constrained by the lack of an after-sales service network
Good morning! A big hello to readers who signed up this week. Welcome to The Intersection, The Signal's weekend edition. This weekend we talk about roadblocks for electric vehicles in India. Also in today’s edition: we have curated the best weekend reads for you.
On a long and lonesome highway….
The sun had finally set in Davangere, Karnataka, ending a very exhausting day for Priyans Murarka. What was supposed to be a day’s drive from Bengaluru to Mumbai spun out into a long grapple with electronic circuitry and corporate bureaucracy.
Murarka had stopped in the afternoon to charge his MG ZS EV* at a Tata Power electric charging station in Davangere, about 280 km from Bengaluru. But a tripped software lock wouldn’t let the car charge up. Electric cars have two batteries—the main one that drives the vehicle and an auxiliary that helps other operations such as opening doors and windows, and powering onboard computers that control the vehicle. The software lock is like a circuit breaker to protect the main battery in the event of voltage or power fluctuations.
As the chief technology officer at ActiveBuildings, a startup that makes digital solutions to monitor the indoor air quality of homes, businesses, factories, and even communities, Murarka knows a thing or two about computers and electronics. He connected with a local electric vehicle (EV) community to troubleshoot. He stayed on the phone with MG Motor India’s support team for nearly seven hours, but the lock stayed firmly on. Finally, MG towed the car away to its nearest service station, which was in Bengaluru.
What annoyed Murarka—a careful driver, EV enthusiast, and meticulous chronicler of his experiences with EVs—the most was the walled garden. MG technicians could fix the software issues only at an MG garage using proprietary software on company laptops. The Hector EV has a five-year warranty, but it’s unclear what happens once it expires. And what about the average EV user who doesn’t possess any technical knowledge?
EV adoption is still nascent in India, but the numbers are picking up. The Indian government counts over 1.3 million electric vehicles on the road as of July 2022. The road transport and heavy industries ministries are pushing for greater EV adoption. Union road transport minister Nitin Gadkari expects more than 30 million EVs on the road in the next two years.
The government’s Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid &) Electric Vehicles in India (FAME India) Scheme has been instrumental in creating demand by subsidising manufacturing costs. It also explores several initiatives to expand charging networks and encourage battery swapping. Yet, it is silent on building a viable EV repair ecosystem.
MG Motor India declined to answer The Intersection's questions for this story. The Intersection contacted nine EV manufacturers, including Mahindra Electric, Tata Motors, Bajaj Auto, TVS Group, Ather Energy, Sun Mobility and other startups for comment, but none have responded. This story will be updated if and when they do.
At the moment, it is a chicken and egg situation. There are not enough vehicles on the road for independent service stations to sustain, but adoption will be slow because of the lack of a service network. Murarka says a majority of EV customers in India don’t have access to after-sales service or repair expertise. Right to repair acquires a certain urgency in the backdrop of the series of EV fires in the summer of 2022. Eight people were killed in Secunderabad on September 13 when a fire broke out in a building that housed an e-scooter showroom.
While some companies offer breakdown assistance to customers, a majority of EV owners struggle to access repair services. It’s worse for two-wheeler owners who rely mostly on help from EV enthusiasts and jugaad fixes. PlugInIndia, an advocacy and support group for EVs in India, runs a popular YouTube channel and deals with community members’ issues on its Discord channel. Raphae Halim, a reviewer at PlugInIndia, explains that it shut down a popular tracker on EV issues and breakdowns on YouTube because it could not cope with demand.
“We would try our best to help using our personal connections in companies to sort things out, but that’s not a viable option,” says Halim. “It’s a bigger systemic problem. Manufacturers and dealerships are not listening to customers.”
We Didn’t Start The Fire
Monsoon in Goa is a delight and throws up many Instagram-worthy moments. The rains also bring with them frequent power outages. So much so that the state’s electricity situation has reached meme-level notoriety.
A somewhat funny reminder that it's real people who are behind these accounts.
Apr 26, 2022
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Rains are also tricky for gadgets as moisture accumulates in delicately soldered circuits. Customers walking in with smoking gadgets is routine for Goan computer and mobile repair shops. Romulo Noronha, who runs the computer repairs shop India Digital in Mapusa, Goa, however, has been getting a new type of customer. Noronha, who specialises in chip-level fixes, says he has been getting requests to fix EV chargers. He told The Intersection that he has fixed about half a dozen chargers in the past eight-nine months, and is already envisioning a profitable foray into EV repairs.
“The issues are just basic electronics for me,” he says. A common complaint is blown fuses or burnt circuit boards due to power fluctuations. The circuit boards were similar to those in some laptop chargers and could be used in EV batteries too.
Electric vehicles have fewer mechanical moving parts compared to ICE vehicles, but they do require serious electrical, electronics, mechanical, and software engineering chops to repair. So, it is difficult for ICE mechanics to branch into EVs.
“The main parts of an EV that often need repair are the electric motor, electronic controller, battery, and charger,” explains Vikas Kamble, who runs Sharanya Motors, an exclusive e-bike garage in Pune. “There are also wiring issues, brake cables, display problems, suspension, and handling systems on the hardware side of things,” he adds. Kamble, who has been tinkering with electric scooters since 2010, says that he sees about 15-20 customers a day.
Durgesh Garud, the co-founder and CEO of Strictly Electric and CheckMyEv, a Mumbai-based garage for electric scooters and modifying bicycles to electric, says companies are uninterested in standardisation. They prefer to develop proprietary technology to ensure customers are tethered to them.
Kamble showed The Intersection a bunch of chargers from different e-scooters. Each had different wattage requirements, circuit boards, pin connectors and other components. Kamble has been sourcing parts from electronics dealers in Delhi and China, and has to give precise instructions to his vendors on design specifications.
With frequent usage, electric motors pick up a lot of gunk and grime, which interferes with a detector crucial to EVs called a Hall Effect sensor. It measures current and electrical flux by detecting changes in magnetic fields. “Each company uses its own Hall sensor designed for the specifications of the electric motor,” says Sidney Gideon, who runs Electric Wheels, a multi-brand electric scooter dealership and repair shop in Mapusa. “We have to source them directly from the manufacturer.”
Battery Is Here To Stay
Repairing electric motors isn’t a big deal, as the know-how to mend them is fairly common. Batteries, however, are a whole different ball game. Their chemistry is complex and can be volatile in certain conditions such as Indian summers.
Most electric vehicles run on lithium-based batteries, but the low-speed e-rickshaws ubiquitous in the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) operate on lead-acid cells. The e-rickshaw is a poorly-designed product of India’s jugaad culture. They have limited range, speed and safety.
The commonly used lithium-based batteries have different chemistries, yielding between 650 and 2,000 charge/discharge cycles. They also promote varying thermal runoffs (one of the main causes of fires) and have different costs and performance. Individual cells in a battery pack may degrade more than others, so it becomes important for users to periodically rebalance cells at an authorised service centre or a competent mechanic.
While it is important for users to have basic knowledge of the batteries in their vehicles, more detailed data is necessary for regulators. The current vehicle registration process is geared towards ICE vehicles. Registration certificates (RC) for EVs merely mention fuel used as ‘battery’. Ironically, the RCs for EVs have fields for cubic capacity and horsepower, specifications that only make sense for ICE vehicles.
To build an interoperable battery swapping ecosystem, it is important for regulators to gather granular information, including the chemistries of batteries and degradation states.
It’s helpful to think of electric vehicles as digital devices. Just as we have CPUs in computers, EV operations are controlled by chipsets. Electronic controllers in EVs can be replaced. But that depends on the manufacturer, as replacing electronic controllers is like replacing the engine of an ICE vehicle. Just as the Regional Transport Offices (RTOs) note the engine number of an ICE vehicle, registering bodies should be collecting data about the electronic control units in EVs, says PlugInIndia’s Halim.
“Ideally, the government should be getting details of traction controller units in production. All of them have a serial number, and that should be getting captured along with the firmware version during registration,” adds Halim. Firmware refers to a piece of software that is embedded into hardware that provides low-level control. With periodic updates, EVs resemble smartphones and laptops, with yearly updates to the operating systems and firmware.
There is consensus among the EV community, garages, and repair shops that keeping track of firmware and battery management software (BMS) would be key to the evolution of India’s EV industry. Repair shop owners say that BMS doesn’t exist in most e-scooters. A NITI Aayog status report on EVs in India stressed the need to have a BMS to prevent EV fires as part of proposed standard operating procedures. Most products in the e-scooter market are in the low-speed category (vehicles with a top speed of 25 kph and do not require any registration or licence), and manufacturers don’t particularly invest or have an incentive to develop a BMS for these vehicles.
There is also significant regulatory grey space when it comes to retrofitting ICE vehicles with electric kits. Sharanya Motors’ Kamble said that he did modify some Honda Activa scooters with an electric conversion kit, but he is unsure if it is allowed. CheckMyEv’s Garud says that his garage started by fitting bicycles with electric kits and that since this modification was of a low-speed vehicle, there wasn’t a need to register the upgrades with the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI), the industrial research association of the Indian automotive industry. Nonetheless, there are companies such as Hyderabad-based eTrio and Pune-based Northway Motorsport that retrofit ICE cars with electric kits and claim to have certifications from ARAI. But it is unclear if ARAI has mandated these companies to install a BMS.
For PlugInIndia’s Halim, getting software right on EVs is non-negotiable, as glitches could mean life or death for the driver. To him, incidents like Ola’s e-scooters shifting to reverse mode at full speed are inexcusable, and the tech and software industry’s lax practices with the “ship now, fix later” culture cannot work in the EV industry. Halim, who has a post-graduate diploma from the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing and also consults with technology companies on software development, believes that BMS cannot be built in silos by manufacturers, adding that they need to be made open source to iron out bugs in code. The Indian government’s public policy think tank NITI Aayog and the Department of Science and Technology are reportedly developing an open source BMS, and electric scooter manufacturer Okinawa is testing the software.
Not everyone favours stiff technical standards and specifications. Sanjeev Ahluwalia, a former bureaucrat and now senior advisor at policy think-tank Observer Research Foundation says tough specs could end up favouring entrenched companies and stifling innovation. Instead, the government should use existing policy tools more judiciously.
For instance, the FAME subsidy could be tweaked to incentivise companies that help create a repair ecosystem, open service shops, train technicians, and create a robust supply chain for parts, Ahluwalia says.
Halim believes there should be a lot more tinkerers to push the next phase of automotive technology. Manufacturers should not penalise customers for trying to fix the software and hardware in their vehicles like US tractor maker John Deere and Tesla do. His next project is to install an active cell balancer on his Mahindra e2O to extend the life of batteries, and hopes that this feature will become a default in all EVs. He’s got an ally in NITI Aayog, and its report on SOPs recommends active cell balancers on EVs.
Meanwhile, Murarka is still waiting for answers. “Right now, I want to know why the software lock was triggered, and I haven’t gotten a proper response from the company,” he says. “It’s important to me because I don’t want to let my family use this vehicle and be stranded. Their explanation will give me information on what to avoid next time and take precautions.”
(The story earlier misidentified the car model as MG Hector. The error is regretted.)
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